How to learn a song by ear: do you find it overwhelming or just don’t know how to start?
The easiest way to get started is to break the song down into smaller pieces and focus on each one at a time. I am a piano teacher who had to learn to learn music by ear to arrange music for my students. Over the years, I’ve simplified it into a process that I’ve successfully taught to many students over the years. Now you get to learn this process too!
How to learn songs by ear falls under the larger category of aural skills in musicianship. Aural skills refer to anything to do with the ability to perceive meaningful patterns in sound without looking at sheet music or any other form of notation.
This is also known as ear training, and this set of skills is an invaluable asset for musicians of any level. Some of the skills that form the larger skillset of aural skills include interval identification, chord quality identification, harmonic relationships, rhythm dictation, metric identification, and more.
The pieces of aural skills that you need to learn a song by ear are:
To do this, it’s helpful to break down a song in smaller parts. Although you don’t have to do it this way, I find breaking a song into form, melody, bass, chords, and rhythm and meter is one of the easiest ways to decrease the amount of information you have to remember each time you listen to the song.
1. The Form of Your Song
Identifying the overall map is one of the best first steps you can take. It gives you a handy fill-in-the-blank structure that you can use to hold all of the other pieces of the song we’ll look at in a minute.
For pop songs, this is often Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus or some kind of extended version of this. Christmas carols are often strophic, meaning they’re just Verse Verse Verse Verse until the cows come home.
Of course, there are many other forms, especially when including classical music into the mix.
2. Single Lines: Melody and Bass
Before diving into the chords of your song, it’s helpful to start with single lines: the melody and the bass.
The melody of the song is the part that you usually end up singing to yourself as you go about your day, so this part, the vocal line, is often the easiest part of the song to start with. But, you’re welcome to start with the bass line if you prefer. Both lines use the same tools.
The bass line is simply the lowest notes you hear. Sometimes they jump around, and sometimes they move melodically (like walking bass lines). Either way, they form the basis for how your harmonies are built.
You can figure out the melody and bass of your song with one or two tools: solfege (scale steps) and/or interval relationships.
2a. Key Center
The next three steps involve a little tonal knowledge. To figure out melody, bass, and chords, you first have to find the tonal center or key center of the song you’re trying to figure out.
Most often, this is the note in the bass that ends the song.
The way you can describe the feeling of key center is the pitch that feels most complete or at rest when you sing it in the context of the song. This is tricky to share without showing you in video, but it’s the note that would feel correct to end the entire song on, the note that many phrases end on, the note that just feels most important. That’s your tonal center.
You can also take the Play Music by Ear course and get a demonstration there.
Once you nail down the tonal center, you automatically limit the number of possible notes that could potentially appear in the melody, bass, or chords. This is a good and helpful thing.
That means that once you’ve identified the key center, any of your guesses of what notes could be the correct ones are almost 50% more likely to be correct.
To figure out the melody you’ll need to determine whether the starting note of the melody is the same as the tonal center or if it’s higher or lower and by how much. Then, you’ll go through the rest of the melody, note by note, and trying to see how much higher or lower than the previous note each next note is.
There are two tools in ear training that can help with this.
If you’ve seen The Sound of Music, you’re already familiar with solfeggio, Do Re Mi.
Each of the syllables represent a scale step in a key: there are 7 scale steps.
Do = 1, Re = 2, Mi = 3, Fa = 4, Sol = 5, La = 6, Ti = 7, Do = 1 (again)
Music theorists at high levels (graduates, professors) use solfeggio to describe complex harmonic relationships (Le-Sol-Fi-Sol), so you shouldn’t feel childish about using it!
In fact, I personally use solfege to parse out melodies for myself before I even sit down at the piano. It’s a fun game that music majors often play because we can: we’ll hear a song while we’re out at dinner, and we’ll all figure out the solfege for it.
Then, when we get to a piano, we pick a key and can play the song in literally any key because the solfege (at least in movable Do, which is prominent in North America music institutions) is the same for every key.
An exercise to get comfortable with solfege is called the “bungee” exercise, where you sing each syllable in order but with Do in between each, like Do Re Do Mi Do Fa Do Sol Do La Do Ti Do (high) Do. And you do that ascending and descending. Practicing sight-singing on solfege syllables can also help you to hear the relationship of each scale step to the others.
If you’d like some guidance on how to use solfege to parse out melodies (and harmonies, and bass), the Play Music by Ear course is a great resource.
2c. Interval Relationships
Using intervals is probably the quickest way into playing melodies by ear, as you don’t have the diatonic relationships to worry about.
Musical intervals are just the space between two notes. They are named as a number with a descriptor, such as minor 2nd. The number refers to how many alphabet letters are involved in the interval, so E to F is a 2nd, and the descriptor has to do with how many half-steps or semitones are in the interval.
Since describing every interval here would span well over the length of multiple topics, I’ll direct you to one of my favorite resources for teaching intervals by ear. This chart has a list of intervals with ascending (low to high) and descending examples in popular music. These include pop songs, folk songs, and other songs from pop culture with links to the moment in the music when those intervals happen.
I really appreciate people who put together resources like this, and you can check out some of my other favorite resources here.
Using intervals only, you can simply move from one note to the next. The difficulty I find with this method is that unless you write down every note as you figure it out, it’s a lot harder to remember what you figured out by ear. With solfege, I personally find it easy to just remember each syllable as I go, but experiment and see which method works best for you.
2d. Figuring Out Your Song’s Bass Line
Before figuring out the harmony (chords) for your song of choice, it can be helpful to focus on only the bass line. This is for songs that have really active bass lines or ones where the bass just holds out notes for long periods of time.
The reason I have most students begin with the bass line is because it impacts the way we hear the harmonies, so I’ll explain a bit more about that in the next section.
Figuring out the bass line is much like figuring out the melody: note by note. Generally, the bass will start on either the key center or on a closely related harmony like the dominant (V). Of course, this depends on the key, but these are both good guesses.
From there, follow the same process as with the melody, either move by interval or by solfege.
3. Hearing Your Song’s Chords by Ear
Hearing chords by ear are one of the trickiest parts of playing music by ear. Instead of listening to one note at a time with its relationships to the note that came before it and the note that comes after it, you have to listen to many notes.
What will help you the most with this is learning how chords are built.
I explained root-position triads briefly in this video on Tiktok:
Three-note chords, called triads, are formed by stacking two sets of thirds where the thirds share a note. On the staff, they look like a snowman.
The first step to making out a song’s chords is learning the difference in sound between major and minor triads, and Game of Thrones can actually help us out here!
As I explain in the video, the first four repetitions of the Game of Thrones theme outlines a minor triad with a passing tone from the middle to the highest note. Then it switches to the major triad by “raising” the middle note by half a step. Raising that middle note (the 3rd) gives the triad a brighter sound, whereas the minor triad sounds a bit darker.
Once you’ve gotten some practice identifying major and minor triads, it’s time to bring that bass line into the mix with what are called chord inversions.
If you really want to understand your chords, here’s a course just on building chords!
3a. What Does the Bass Line Have to Do With Chords?
We started the discussion on chords with root position. This is the most stable and easiest to see configuration of chords, and we start with these to help you find the notes of the chord easily. Chords don’t have to be stacked in order like this, though.
Instead, we can move them around and have either the third or the fifth of the chord as the lowest note. So that C minor triad from Game of Thrones can have the E♭ as the lowest note with G still a 3rd above it and C a 6th above it. This is first inversion. Or G can be the lowest note with C a 4th above it and E♭ a 6th above it. This is second inversion.
The next activity to master is hearing how the different inversions of the same chord sound. In functional harmony, each inversion of a chord is slightly less “stable” than the previous one. That means root position is the comfiest configuration to land on. First inversion can be a nice place to finish a phrase, but if you were to finish a song on it, it wouldn’t convey the same sense of completeness or rest (stability) as root position. And second inversion is even less complete-sounding.
Once you get used to those, you can take the bass line and start figuring out chords. Definitely go chord by chord for this and remember that every bass note can only be part of 3 different chords in your key.
When I first started playing by ear, I found it easier to just start with root position triads built from the bass note, and if that didn’t sound right, then I would see if other inversions fit.
That means if, for example, we’re in the key of G major, and the bass line starts with G, we have 3 options for chords: G major (G B D), First Inversion E Minor (G B E), or Second Inversion C Major (G C E).
For pop music, the first line or two of the verse often repeat in the second half of the verse. And the chorus is often repetitive as well, so once you figure out how a few sound, you may have the entire song figured out in no time!
4. Playing Rhythm and Meter by Ear
At this point, you have form, melody, bass, and harmony all figured out! The last piece is just putting it together in the correct rhythm and meter.
Since most people pick rhythm and meter up fairly well, I won’t spend much time here.
The important thing to pay attention to is the difference between surface rhythm and harmonic rhythm. Surface rhythm refers to the specific, played rhythms, and harmonic rhythm refers to how fast the chords change.
Start by feeling how many words tend to fit into a chord.
Then listen for if the bass is repeating notes to fill in the space of a chord (the bass is playing a surface rhythm, but it moves notes at the rate of the harmonic rhythm).
And That’s How to Learn a Song by Ear!
I hope that this article helped you to see that there’s a lot of different things going on at the same time in a piece of music, so when you first start to learn how to do anything with a piece of music, it helps to break it down into more manageable ideas first, then put them back together.
In fact, if you see videos of people playing songs by ear, you’ll see them thinking. I’ve seen a few actually play the tonic and try out a few chords before they just dive right in. That’s these impressive musicians following the strategies I outlined in this article. After spending time practicing the process, they’re able to go through it much faster than it feels to read this entire article!
And the more songs you learn by ear, the faster you’ll get at it too.
For a more comprehensive look at how to learn songs by ear, check out the course Play Music By Ear. Not only do I get to go much more in depth into each of these topics and provide many examples for each, I also got to put together some exercises (like practicing intervals or major versus minor chords) that you can go through for as long as you want and get immediate feedback on how you’re doing.
There’s also a community and personalized feedback for any questions or comments you have along the way.
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.