If you want to up your game as a songwriter, musician, producer, performer…
Learn to play music by ear.
Playing by ear simply means playing what you hear. Or playing something that fits with what you hear.
It’s a skill every musician should have.
So if you need help learning to play by ear, keep reading.
But if you just want to learn about Playing by Ear specifically, keep reading.
Why Would You Want to Play by Ear?
There’s a saying in the music world…
If you take sheet music away from a musician and they don’t know what to play, they’re not a real musician.
Harsh but true.
Want to learn a new song? Join a band? Jam with fellow musicians? Solo?
That all involves playing by ear.
This skill will also help you as a producer.
A lot of music production is just experimenting with stuff. Trying different riffs and instruments to see if they fit.
But if you can’t play by ear, you won’t have much luck with it.
How Do You Learn to Play by Ear?
Now let’s cover the basic steps for learning how to play a song by ear.
This will give you the skills you need to play along with a song just by hearing it.
Step 1: Listen
This may seem obvious, but you really need to spend time on this step.
Preferably, you’ll be learning to play a song you’re already familiar with.
If not, listen to the song several times. Listen to the song many times over several days.
Get to know the song. It will make the playing-by-ear process much easier.
Step 2: Find the First Note
Don’t try to learn the whole song at once. You’ll get overwhelmed fast.
Instead, just find that first note. It may take some time, but you can’t move on until you find that first note.
Even if you have to play every note on your instrument to find it, do it.
Once you find it, listen to the first note of the song and the note you’re playing back to back. Do this a few times so your brain makes the connection that they’re the same.
Step 3: Go One Note at a Time
After you find that first note, go one note at a time. Don’t even try getting two notes at once.
In the same way bricklayers stack one brick at a time, you need to learn one note at a time.
As you find each note, write it down.
Write the note’s letter. Write its notation.
Even if you have to take a picture of you playing the note, take the picture.
Anything to help you remember the notes.
Step 4: Practice
After you’ve found and written down all the notes in the melody, put it all together. Play it front to back.
Then play it again. And again.
Practice is the only way to memorize music.
Tips for Learning to Play by Ear
In addition to the above step-by-step process, here are some general tips to keep in mind as you learn to play a song by ear.
Slow It Down
One of the most helpful ways to learn a song by ear is to slow it down.
If you’re using YouTube, adjust the playback rate.
If you’re using any other platform, download the song, drop it into your DAW, and slow the playback rate. Just make sure it doesn’t change the pitch in the process.
Whatever you do—especially if you’re having trouble learning it by ear—slow that sucker down.
Just Focus on the Melody
When you’re learning to play by ear, don’t try to figure out the chords just yet. Only learn the melody.
Once you get good at finding melodies by ear, then you can try your hand at finding the other parts.
For now, just figure out the melody.
Write Down the Notes
I already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating. Write down the notes of the song.
As you figure out what notes you’re playing, write them down in whatever way you’ll remember them.
Use the letter names. Notate them if you know how to write sheet music.
Shoot a little video of your hand playing the melody.
That way, you won’t have to relearn the song if you forget how to play it.
Learn to Read Music
I know I’ve been giving off a “you don’t need to read music” vibe, but it can be very helpful.
Knowing how to write and read tabs or sheet music can make playing by ear easier.
It’s a clear way to remember how to play a melody, just in case you forget.
This is the key to playing music by ear. Be patient with yourself.
If you’re going to be learning a song note by note, it may take a while. So just understand that before you start.
Musicians have to be some of the most patient people on the planet. Channel that patience as you learn music by ear.
Songs to Learn by Ear
Here are some songs you can easily learn by ear. I picked songs that most people know and that would actually be fun to play.
“When the Saints Go Marching In”
A classic and catchy song.
The Pink Panther Theme Song
A funny show and a fantastic melody.
“Yesterday” (The Beatles)
Possibly the most beautiful song in modern music.
“Seven Nation Army” (The White Stripes)
One of the most memorable bass lines in rock music. And quite a banger too.
“Good Feeling” (Mister Rogers)
A great song from a great songwriter (and great overall human being).
“Pure Imagination” (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory)
Dare I say, possibly the best song from a movie ever written.
“Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (The Wizard Of Oz)
Okay, this song may be tied with “Pure Imagination” for the best song from a movie.
Remember, the most talented musicians can play by ear.
And now you know how to get started.