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Playing By Ear –  The Process of Learning a Song and Persistent Practice

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Welcome! Today, we're diving back into the critical skill of 'playing by ear.' While you may have heard this term before, its true potential and impact on your musical development are often underestimated.

In our previous blog post, I began to unpack this important skill. I clarified some common misunderstandings and highlighted how mastering 'playing by ear' can significantly enhance your musical journey. It's not just about figuring out a song without guitar tabs or pausing a YouTube tutorial. It's about truly connecting with the music, understanding its language, and expressing it through your guitar.

One of the key points I emphasized is that 'playing by ear' isn't an exclusive skill for a chosen few. It's a skill that you can develop no matter where you are in your musical journey. Whether you're a beginner just starting out or an experienced player looking to expand your skills, 'playing by ear' is within your reach. All it takes is dedication, consistent practice, and the belief that you can do it. Remember, every great musician started somewhere, and with each practice session, you're one step closer to mastering this skill.

Today, I'm focusing on the practical side of things - the process of learning a song by ear and the importance of persistent practice. So, let's dive in and continue our journey of musical growth and discovery together.

The Practical Benefits of Playing by Ear

Picture this: You've just received a call from a friend. Their band's guitarist can't make it to their upcoming gig, and they've asked you to step in. The catch? You've got 30 songs to learn, and the first rehearsal is in just one week.

In the past, this might have seemed like an insurmountable task. But over the last six months, you've been working hard. You've dedicated yourself to internalizing music theory, mastering the fretboard, and honing your ability to identify music by ear. You've put in the hours, and now, you're starting to see the fruits of your labour.

As you sit down to prepare for the gig, you're not filled with dread or anxiety. Instead, you're excited. You're confident. You've got this.

You start to work through the setlist. Instead of scouring the internet for tabs or pausing and playing YouTube tutorials, you simply listen. You recognize the chord progressions, the melodies, the rhythms. You can see them on your fretboard even before you pick up your guitar.

Learning the songs is not just faster - it's more enjoyable. You're not just copying what someone else has played; you're understanding it. You're feeling it. And because you understand the music, you remember it. You can play the songs back in your head, note for note, even when your guitar is out of reach.

As the week progresses, you're not just practicing the songs - you're living them. They become a part of you. And when you finally walk into that rehearsal, guitar in hand, you're not just ready. You're excited. You're confident. You're prepared.

This is the power of 'playing by ear'. This is the result of understanding music theory, of mastering the fretboard, of being able to identify what you hear. This is what you've been working towards.

And the best part? This isn't some unreachable dream. This is a future you can work towards. This is a future you can achieve. With that in mind, this week's post is dedicated to giving you practical tactics to learn a song effectively. We're going to break down the process, step by step, to help you approach learning new songs with confidence and efficiency.

Musical Context is The Main Thing

When it comes to learning a new song, it's tempting to dive right in and start playing the licks, lines, and rhythm parts. The secret to learning effectively and efficiently is discipline. Start by understanding the song's musical context. This approach makes finding specific guitar parts much easier. Here are the elements of the musical context we need to consider:


The tempo of a song is its speed, usually measured in beats per minute (BPM). Understanding the tempo is crucial as it sets the pace for the entire song.


The feel of a song is more than just its rhythmic pattern or groove. It's how the musicians are playing around the tempo. It's the emotion the rhythm evokes. Is it a straight beat, a shuffle, or does it swing? Does it feel sloppy or behind the beat? Is it aggressive or sad? Identifying the feel helps you understand how you want the song to feel.


The key of a song determines the tonal center and the scale that the song's notes are derived from. Knowing the key helps you understand the harmonic structure of the song and guides your choice of chords and notes when playing or improvising. It's important to remember that the key center is not a right or wrong, but a guide and a way to organize the music. There are great sounds that are "outside" the key.

Time Signature

The time signature of a song tells you how many beats are in each measure and which note gets the beat. It's like the rhythmic blueprint of the song. Understanding the time signature is essential as it defines the relationship of the notes.

Song Form

The form of a song is essentially its structural blueprint. It's the roadmap that outlines the sequence of different sections in a song - the verses, choruses, bridges, solos, and so on. Understanding the form of a song offers several significant advantages.

Firstly, it allows you to anticipate the flow of the song. You'll know exactly how many measures are in each section, which can be incredibly useful in a playing situation. You won't be caught off guard by a sudden transition or an unexpected repeat.

Secondly, it helps you identify when a section is longer or shorter than a standard 4 or 8 measure phrase. This knowledge can be crucial in maintaining the groove and staying in sync with the rest of the band.

Additionally, knowing the form of a song helps the music sound more settled and less distracted. When all the musicians are familiar with the form, the focus can shift from trying to remember what comes next to expressing the emotion and feel of the song. Nothing is a surprise, and everyone can play with more confidence and freedom.

Lastly, understanding the form of a song aids in memorizing the entire song. Instead of trying to remember a long, continuous piece of music, you can break it down into its parts and learn each section individually. This makes the process of learning and memorizing the song much more manageable and efficient.

In essence, understanding the form of a song is like having a detailed map for your musical journey. It guides you through the song, helps you anticipate what's coming next, and makes learning and performing more efficient and enjoyable.

Chord Progression / Bass Motion

The chord progression and bass motion serve as the harmonic foundation of the song. They set the stage for your guitar parts and give them a context to exist within. Leaning the chord progression allows you to anticipate chord changes and informs your note choices when playing.

Here's the real magic: when you know the chord progression and bass motion before you start figuring out the specific guitar parts, it significantly reduces the number of possibilities you need to consider. For instance, if you can hear that a chord is a vi chord, you've already eliminated the other six chords in the key. Now, you just need to find the right voicing.

By starting with these elements, you're setting a solid foundation for learning the song. You're not just learning to play the song; you're learning to understand it. And with understanding comes the ability to play the song with confidence, accuracy, and musicality.

Training Your Ear to Hear the Chord Progression in a Song

If you've been following along, you might be asking, "What does all this have to do with ear training?" Well, consider this as laying the foundation. We're preparing the groundwork for a strategy that will train your ear to identify the chord progression of a song. This is a foundational step in your progression towards mastering the art of playing by ear. So let's have a look at a strategy to develop this skill.

Here's a step-by-step guide to help you develop this skill. But before we dive in, a couple of caveats:

Resist the temptation to use tabs or tutorials. Rely on your ear and your guitar only. This might be challenging at first, but it's essential for developing your ear.

Listen to the song, repeat it in your mind, then think about where you would play it on the guitar. There will be some fumbling around as you try to find the right notes or chords, but that's part of the process.

Singing can be a powerful tool for strengthening your inner ear and solidifying what you're hearing in your mind. Don't worry about sounding good; the goal is to connect your ear, mind, and voice.

Now, let's get into the steps:

1. Determine the Key of the Song

The first step in identifying the chord progression is to determine the key of the song. The key provides the tonal center and the scale that the song's notes are derived from. Try finding the bass note / chord that sound like home and then try to sing it and play it on your guitar. Once you find the root, write out that key on a piece of paper or a tablet/phone so you can reference it throughout this process. The diagram below shows the relationship of A Major to the chromatic scale.

2. Focus on the Bass Note and Motion

The bass note and its motion can give you a lot of information about the harmony of the song. In fact, it can tell you about 90% of what's going on. For example, if the song is in the key of C and the bass line goes from C to B to A, there's a good chance that the chord progression is C - G/B - Am, which in Roman numerals would be I - V/7 - vi.

3. Always Reference the Chord Progression in Roman Numerals

No matter what the key of the song is, always reference the chord progression in Roman numerals. This is because your ear picks up on patterns, and the pattern of a chord progression is the same in every key.

4. Correct Your Mistakes

This is where the magic happens. When you hear a chord change from one to another, always try to identify it with a roman numeral. The I chord sounds a certain way that differs from the IV chord no matter what the key. The goal is to learn what that unique sound is by making mistakes and correcting them. The process of going from "This is what I thought it was" to "This is what it actually is" is invaluable it learning to identify the chords with confidence. It reinforces the correct information in your mind and helps you avoid making the same mistake in the future by becoming more familiar with the sound of each chord.

By following these steps every time you learn a song, you'll be training your ear to identify bass motion and chord progressions. This will make learning new songs faster, more efficient, and more enjoyable. Remember, it's a process, and every step you take brings you closer to becoming a more skilled and confident musician.

As we wrap up this post, let's look ahead to what's coming next. In our following post, we'll be diving into a live example of breaking down a song. I'll walk through the process we've discussed today, applying it in a practical, real-world context. This hands-on approach will help solidify the concepts we've covered and show you how they work in action.

But until then, I encourage you to make this process your standard approach to learning a song and training your ear to hear chord progressions. It may feel a bit unfamiliar at first, but with time and practice, it will become second nature. And the rewards - a deeper understanding of music, faster and more accurate song learning, and a heightened ability to play by ear - are well worth the effort.

So, keep practicing, stay curious, and remember: every step you take in this process is a step towards becoming a more skilled and confident musician. I'm excited to continue this exploration with you in our next post. Until then, keep practicing!

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