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How to Work Out Songs by Ear, Part 2 - 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 1 - Basix
How to Work Out Songs by Ear, Part 3 – Basix

This is the second in a series of articles that aim to get you started on the road to playing your favourite music by ear.

Back in Part 1, we looked at why learning music by ear is a worthwhile exercise, and I sent you away with some active listening techniques and an example song to get you started. Hopefully you've had long enough since then to digest the song, so in this part we'll take a look at how to deconstruct a piece of music and begin to discover what's going on!

1. Background Checks

Your next task is to go on a fact finding mission to dig up any information that might be useful in enhancing your understanding of the music. If you’re already a big fan of Soundgarden, for example, you probably already know that they used a lot of unusual tunings and odd time signatures, and that there are two guitar players in the band. If you want to work out how a song is played, this kind of information is critical.

Here are some basic steps to get the lowdown on what you’re trying to reproduce:

  • Look up the band or artist and try to find any information on playing styles, preferred tunings, musical equipment, etc. Wikipedia is often a good starting point, followed by any articles and interviews on fan sites and forums.
  • Try to find live recordings of the song. YouTube is a good bet, especially since you can often see as well as hear what’s going on. Again, fan sites and forums are another good source.

Armed with this sort of information, you should be on your way to determining some basic information about what you’re hearing:

  1. Is it played in standard tuning?
  2. How many instrumental parts are there, and what are they?
  3. Are any special effects, like pitch shifters, delays or loop pedals being used to manipulate the sound of the instrument(s)?

In our example song, you may already have noticed that there are actually 2 guitars on the original recording, but it’s performed on just one guitar live. This is common since we tend to “fatten up” guitar sounds in the studio by using multiple tracks, often performed slightly differently to add texture and interest. Other than that, there don’t seem to be any surprises.

To help us along, here's a great live version of All Right Now:

2. Name That Tuning

One of the first things I like to do when working out a new song is to check if the guitar is using an "odd" (i.e. non-standard) tuning. If you're unfamiliar with non-standard tunings, it’ll help you to look up some of the more common ones and spend some time playing around with them. Being familiar with their sounds will help you to identify them, and it's also a great way to boost your own creativity.

With a little experience and research, you'll be able to spot a non-standard tuning and, sometimes, be able to tell which tuning it is, just by listening. Don't worry if you're not quite there yet, though. Practice!

Tip: If the guitar on the recording sounds only very slightly sharp or flat from the expected tuning, it could be that the recording you are listening to has been sped up or slowed down. This sometimes happens with the audio on videos, YouTube, tape recordings, recordings taken from vinyl records, etc., or even as part of the original recording or mastering process. If this sounds like what you're hearing, try working from a different source. Failing that, just sharpen or flatten your guitar to match the recording, or use pitch controlled playback through Audacity, Transcribe or Capo.

Once you're happy you know what tuning you're dealing with, and you know whether there are any whacky effects in use, you can get on with the business of figuring out exactly what notes and chords are in the song.

3. Name That Chord

Grab your guitar, listen to the song and, as you listen, try to match the notes you're hearing with notes on the guitar. If the song is using chords, as our example is, just play the "root note" (usually the lowest pitched note) in the chord rather than the full chord itself. If you struggle, try listening to what the bass is doing, as this will often be emphasising the root.

In our example song, you should find that it opens with an A and moves to D before coming back to A again. Nice and easy!

If you’re new to music, it might be worth familiarising yourself with some of the basic chord “flavors”: minor, major, fifth and seventh. In the simplest terms, major chords tend to sound bright and happy, while minor chords are darker and melancholic. Fifths aren’t major or minor, tend to sound quite thick and powerful, and are very common in rock and metal. Sevenths (which can be major and minor), tend to sound like they’re leading somewhere, like a musical question mark waiting for an answer.

So we know we’re opening with an A, and it sounds a lot like a fifth, so let’s go with A5. Looking at live videos, we can see that the guitarist is playing in the 1st (or “open”) position, so the chord will look like this:

Sounds exactly right!

We can see from the video he doesn’t move his hand much to reach that D chord, so we could infer that he’s using this nearby D5 shape:

But listening to the D chord on the record while playing a D5 on my guitar, I can hear that they’re not the same. It sounds like the root of the chord is still A. In fact, it sounds like it’s an A5 and a D5 combined. It’s neither A nor D, but seems to have a bit of both.

You may be familiar with “slash chords”, or compound chords, whereby we have a different root note to that which we’d normally expect. Whether or not you understand the theory, the important thing is that you recognise the sound and the principle: we can take, say, a D chord, and play a low G note under it to give it a flavour of both D and G at the same time.

Knowing that the guitarist isn’t moving to a new position to play this chord means that we can limit our experimentation to the first few frets of the guitar. Even if we didn’t have the assistance of video, though, we can tell that the timbre of that A note doesn’t change, and that the timbre of the chord suggests the 1st position.

So, with a little trial and error, I’ve arrived at this chord which, sure enough, is an A/D chord:

Finding that helps us a little further. When we get to the descending part in the 3rd bar – “…watching every move that she makes…” – we hear a similar, but again slightly different chord.

Again, good old fashioned trial and error is the weapon of choice here. I can hear a G note ringing out in that chord and, as luck would have it, by removing the first finger, we get our A/D chord with an open G note right in the middle:

Sounds perfect! I’m no theoretician, so I’ll trust my score software when it tells me that it’s a Dadd11/A.

So, all together, we end up with something like this:

4. Whoa There, I’m Lost

Depending on your level of experience, this might sound like a lot of complex reasoning, but it’s really not hard. Again, it comes down to critical listening. This is why it’s important to really listen and develop an almost instinctive grasp of the song. To help you develop this skill further, here are some pointers:

  • Try to reproduce any music you hear – even if you don’t like it – with your instrument. Use TV and radio jingles, or the melody from that annoying pop song that’s always on the radio. Practice does help.
  • Spend time listening critically to your own instrument. With the guitar, for example, really pay attention to the sonic qualities – the timbre – of chords and notes, and learn how the sound relates to the physical position of the note. For example, note how an E played at the 12th fret of the 6th string sounds different to the same pitch played at the 7th fret of the 5th string.

These skills and the knowledge they’ll develop, along with having internalized the nuances of your target song through critical, active listening, are the foundation of learning music by ear.

5. More Homework

This is probably a good point in proceedings for you to break off and spend some quality time refining your listening skills. Try the tips in Step 5 over the next couple of weeks, and keep working on the song you’re learning. In the next part, we’ll make some revisions, looks at the chorus and, yes, the solo.

Download "All Right Now.pdf".

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