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How to Work Out Songs by Ear, Part 1 - Basix

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This post is part of a series called How to Work Out Songs by Ear.
How to Work Out Songs by Ear, Part 2 - Basix

A budding guitarist – or even a relatively, uhm, budded one – could very easily and quite understandably get the idea that the ability to learn music by ear is some rare ability, bestowed only on those with uncommon talent, deep theoretical knowledge, years of experience, or some combination of the three.

After all, if you've visited a guitarists' forum or perused the performing arts section of Yahoo! Answers lately, you’ll have seen innumerable posts pleading for transcriptions for some song or other. So it must be difficult, right? Wrong!

The truth is pretty much everyone, no matter what their theoretical knowledge or level of experience, can work out music by ear. Some people haven’t naturally found their way into it, and others are just… well, lazy.

If you're in Group A, stick around! This article aims to clear up the mythology and get you started on the road to playing almost anything you hear. We're going to focus on things from a guitarist's perspective, but the basic principles are the same for all, so don't be put off if, say, the accordion is your instrument of choice.


1. Why It’s Worth the Effort

Playing guitar is a lot of fun, can make the nerdiest of nerds into icons of cool, and will do a great deal to enhance your romantic possibilities. If you don't believe me, it might interest you to know that the cool looking guy in the picture above is actually a nerd*. Like all good things, though, it comes at a price: your time and effort. If the extent of the time and effort you're prepared to put in to learning an instrument is posting a request for Sweet Child O'Mine tabs around a few web forums, then you may as well quit now.

If your musical tastes range outside of the mainstream, you're almost certainly going to have to work a lot of songs out for yourself if you want to play them. But even if everything you ever want to play has already been transcribed, how do you know they’re right? Moreover, nine tabs out of ten I look at are badly done; they often have huge sections missing and rather unhelpful directions to "listen to the record for this bit" and even statements to the effect that the author couldn't be bothered to finish it. If you care enough about a song that you want to play it, isn't it worth spending the time to get it as close to perfect as you can?

So learning to play songs by ear is a great way to develop your repertoire. More importantly, though, the skills you learn in the process will make you into a much better musician, increasing your knowledge of how your heroes approach their playing and teaching you skills which you can apply to your own compositions and use when jamming with other musicians.


2. Listen

I should prefix this by saying there's nothing difficult about this at all: you don't need an unusual natural aptitude for it, nor do you need to know any music theory. In fact, following this tutorial requires absolutely no music theory knowledge whatsoever and, better yet, as your listening skills develop, you might even learn some!

The first step is simple: choose a song you want to learn.

Now, for this, I'm going to have to rely on you to use your best judgement in picking something that's not too difficult for someone at whatever level of ability you're at. Of course, that's a hard thing for me to judge so, to keep things simple, just follow along with the example I'm going to use in the course of this guide, All Right Now by Free. The reason I choose that, incidentally, is that it’s a fairly simple, fun song but with enough subtle complexity to make it a worthwhile exercise.

Whether you've chosen your own song or you're going with my choice, the key thing you need to work on between now and the next instalment of this guide is, at least in principle, very simple: listen to the song, repeatedly and in detail. Listen with speakers, listen with headphones, listen with different headphones… As you’re doing this, try to ignore the vocals and focus on the instrumentation. Try to anticipate where the melody is going, internalize the rhythm, remember the arrangement, pick out little details and nuances. In short, absorb as much detail as you can.

Don't try to think of it in terms of chords and scales just yet, just get “inside” the song. Though this might seem like an unbelievably easy homework assignment, this stage is really, really important. If you know the song inside out and back-to-front, it’s going to be that much easier to start to analyze it. When you start to try scales and chords, you’ll find that you know almost instinctively whether you’re getting it right or not.


3. Listening Redux: High-Tech Helpers

We’re all geeks here at Audiotuts+, writers and readers alike, and I know that fiddling with some technology – preferably something with a multi-band EQ on it – could help to keep you focussed on your homework. Fortunately, there’s a growing selection of software tools to make life a bit easier when we’re figuring out music by ear.

But – and I can’t overstate the importance of this – do it the old fashioned way first. Believe me, there’s immeasurable value in just listening to the song over and again and letting it seep into you. Don’t try to shortcut the process with newfangled gadgetry, because you’ll cheat yourself out of valuable learning and, anyway, it won’t work properly.

However, when you do know the song like the back of your hand, try a few of these tech assisted techniques to help you peel back the layers and expose the inner workings.

  • Bung an MP3 of your song into your DAW and put a multi-band EQ on it. Try stripping out sections of the sonic spectrum – bass, mids, treble – to help you isolate the different instruments.
  • Try slowing the song down with any software that will allow you to adjust the tempo without altering the pitch. Your DAW may do it, or try a free audio manipulator like Audacity (Win, Mac, Linux).

There are even a few products out there designed to handle all of these tasks and more, for example Seventh String’s Transcribe (Mac, Windows, Linux) and SuperMegaUltraGroovy’s Capo (Mac only), recent versions of which will even attempt – and I stress attempt – to transcribe the song for you (resist!).


Recap

So, find a song you want to work on, and/or grab a copy of Free’s All Right Now, and immerse yourself in it. Then try some of the techie treatments outlined above to practice isolating the instrumentation. In Part 2, we’ll grab our guitars and start working through what we’ve heard!

* Well, maybe.

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