Here’s the scene: It’s summertime in Baltimore and the living is relatively easy. A future rock star sits at his record player (or cassette machine) as Mom goes off to work in the morning. Mom returns in the late afternoon and the young rock and roller is still there, learning songs and solos by ear with varying levels of success. Put the needle back and try again. Hit rewind and try again. Trial and error.
Back in the days before the Interwebz – aka, The Stone Age…you know, the 70s and 80s – we learned most of our music by ear. Sure, there was “sheet music”, but this was often written for keyboard players and singers. If you were a budding rock guitarist, you had to learn most stuff by ear, or from the guy down the block. He learned it by ear also, or from the other guy down the block from him. You get the picture.
Nowadays, there is a proliferation of information at our fingertips. Any guitarist looking for TABs can find plenty of high quality ones for sale in books and magazines as well as tons of mixed-quality TABs – mostly of the very low variety – for free online. The musical casualty of this Information Age – besides the neighborhood record store – is the time-honored art of learning music by ear.
This is a shame, because nothing quite empowers you on your instrument as the ability to decipher a tune, chords, or a riff by ear and then play along with it. And my students who have done this can testify to its power. Transcribing songs by ear is, at minimum, a fun challenge, and for some students, an addiction!
Strategies for Success
I’ve found that most guitar students, at least initially, have zero confidence in their ability to learn a song by ear. It seems like some sort of magical process, but it’s really not. If you’d like to do it, you CAN do it – just as thousands of guitarists before you have done.
Of course, like anything else, transcribing songs takes practice. There will always be a certain amount of trial and error in learning by ear – that’s actually part of the fun – but there are some definite strategies you can use to speed up the process.
Here are my go-to tips for learning the chord changes of a basic pop song:
1 – Figure out the key of the song.
This is the “home base” sound, also called the tonic chord, or root chord, or I chord. This is the chord where the song seems to come to rest. Some folks think that the first chord of the song (or chorus) is usually the tonic, but most pros will tell you that the last chord of the song (or chorus) is often a better choice. Although this is very non-scientific, experience tells me that the first chord is correct about 75-80% of the time, while the last chord is in the 90+% area. Try ‘em both out!
Once you’ve determined where the tonic is located in the song, you’ll have to match the pitch on your guitar. One way is to use trial and error with bass notes on string 6 to help match the sound of the tonic. Another solid choice is to try the CAGED system first – that is, the chords C, A, G, E or D. If it’s a rock, pop, country or folk song, you’ll have good odds for success since these chords are extremely popular. (Note: the CAGED system is used for a few things on guitar, most notably mapping out the 5 major scales and connecting the 5 major chord shapes along the fretboard. Using CAGED to find the tonic chord is a less common, but very smart, usage.)
If none of the CAGED chords match your tonic, then try some other root notes on the 6th string to find a match. For pop songs, good choices are F, B and Bb.
2 – Determine the primary major and minor chords.
Here’s where our knowledge of music theory comes in very handy! Once you’ve figured out the key of the song, determine the primary major and minor chords in the key – these are the chords that naturally fall within the key, so they will be the most likely chords you’ll find in the song. Seems good to know.
[Learning how to do this "from scratch" is beyond the scope of this article, so I'll give you the CAGED examples for free. You can Google search the primary chords, but it amazes me how little information there is out there for guitarists that is good and easy-to-understand. Guess I know what my next post will be! Anyways...]
In any major key, the primary major chords are located at the 1, 4 and 5 scale degrees. For example, in the key of G, the primary major chords are G (1), C (4) and D (5).
The primary minor chords are located at the 2, 3 and 6 scale degrees. Again, in the key of G, the primary minors are Am (2), Bm (3) and Em (6).
If your song is in the key of C: C (1), Dm (2), Em (3), F (4), G or G7 (5), Am (6)
If your song is in the key of D: D (1), Em (2), F#m (3), G (4), A or A7 (5), Bm (6)
If your song is in the key of A: A (1), Bm (2), C#m (3), D (4), E or E7 (5), F#m (6)
If your song is in the key of E: E (1), F#m (2), G#m (3), A (4), B or B7 (5), C#m (6)
What about the chord at the 7th scale degree? This is technically a diminished chord, which is not a type typically found in pop music. Classical, jazz and Broadway, yes, but not pop styles. Maybe you’ll find it in 1% of pop songs, so I wouldn’t sweat it right now. In my upcoming post on primary chords, I’ll cover a common substitution for the diminished chord.
Although the six primary chords will not necessarily cover all your needs in a song, you can bet that these chords will cover a LOT of ground in about 90+% of the songs you’ll learn.
3 – Map out the song on a “lead sheet”.
Lead sheets are one-page outlines of a song detailing the format and the chord changes. They don’t give every bit of information, but they act as a convenient guide.
To get started here, I just use a “fill in the blanks” approach. While you’re listening to the song, just place a blank wherever you hear a chord change. You can also format the page by titling sections “intro”, “verse”, “chorus”, “bridge”, etc. so that it’s easy to see where you are in the song.
Musicians call this approach mapping out the form. So in this step you’re doing double duty by mapping the form and adding blanks for chord changes. Once the blanks are filled in, you can rewrite it, if you wish, as a clean lead sheet.
4 – Locate all your tonic (I) chords and fill them in.
Once you know your key (and therefore your tonic chord), I would spend a few minutes playing through the primary chords in your key and really emphasizing the tonic chord by repeatedly returning to it. This will help to lock the “home base” sound of that chord in your mind and ear.
For example, in the key of G, play G…then C and back to G…then D and back to G…then Em and back to G. You’ll start training yourself to hear the tonality of the key as a whole, but specifically the sound of the tonic chord. This is vitally important because, at minimum, you’d like to be able to fill in the blanks with the tonic chord wherever you hear it. Listen for the “home base” sound!
5 – Add in the other primary chords as you can hear them.
This part will take some trial and error, but you’re down to only 5 other chords, so it shouldn’t be too terribly hard to pin them down. Write in the chords as you match them, and go ahead and number them by scale degree as well. Numbering the chords will really help you to start hearing the relationships between scale degrees.
A great strategy is to listen for the “brightness” of major chords and the “darkness” of minor chords. If you spend a lot of time playing a particular chord – Em, for example – you may get really good at just identifying that chord by its unique sound.
Identifying sounds by tone quality can be very helpful, and unique tone qualities are what musicians call timbre. (Timbre can also refer to the actual tone of instruments, such as a trumpet versus a clarinet.)
6 – Look for chords outside of the key.
Once you’ve exhausted the chords within the key – the diatonic chords – you’ll have to look for chords outside of the key – non-diatonic – to complete your lead sheet. This is where you may have to put on your detective hat, but as always, your humble servant, JB, has some strategies for easing the pain!
Two of the most common non-diatonic chords you may encounter are major chords a whole step (2 frets) higher than the tonic and a whole step (2 frets) lower than the tonic. Example in the key of G: A (the 2 chord, a whole step up) or F (the b7 chord, a whole step back). Note that A is considered non-diatonic here, because in the key of G, the diatonic 2 chord is Am.
If you’re looking for the chord right before the 5, again try the 2 chord, major or dominant 7. Example in key of G: try A or A7 before the D. If you need the chord right before the 6 (minor), try the 3 chord, major or dominant 7. Example in key of G: try B or B7 before the Em. These are called secondary dominant chords and they have a strong musical pull to the next chord.
If it’s a classic rock-style song, or if the chord has an odd or dark vibe and you just can’t place it, my go-to choices are the major chords 1-1/2 steps (3 frets) above the tonic or 2 steps (4 frets) below the tonic. Example in the key of G: Bb (the b3 chord, 1-1/2 steps up) and Eb (the b6 chord, 2 steps back).
If it’s a Beatles song, I always try the minor 4 chord. This is one of Paul McCartney’s signature moves, but you can find this example in lots of songs. Note that the 4 chord is one of the primary MAJOR chords in your key. Sir Paul often liked to play it major, and then make it minor, just for fun. Example in the key of G: Cm.
6 – When all else fails, play some bass notes and try to match the pitch.
When we’re tapped out of ideas, we just take our best guess. But if you try the above strategies first, you should have most songs locked down in no time!
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Open your ears and get powerful, rock stars! I’ll see you at your next guitar lesson!