Posted by: Debra Alexander / wordmavenmusic | June 19, 2012

How To Learn To Play A Song By Ear

There are many benefits to learning how to play the songs you like, and making a regular discipline of it. But that’s another Blog! Let’s get right down to it and learn to play a song by ear on piano/guitar –right off the record.


First, get an overall picture:

  1. What is the Form of the song? AAA, ABAB, AABA, VCVC, VCBC, Etc…? In other words, how does the song move into separate, distinct sections both lyrically and musically?
  2. What is the Time Signature of the song? 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, Etc…? In other words, how many beats are there per measure? Count like you learned to count when you played in the school band: 1234, 2234, 3234, 4234, etc. (Nine times out of ten, your song is going to be in 4/4 time.)
  3. Map out how many measures there are in each section. For example: verse-8, chorus-8, verse-8, chorus-8.

Then, hone in on melodic and harmonic details:

  1. What Key is the song in? Play one note on the piano/guitar, keeping the beat as the song is playing. Change notes until you find a note that sounds good throughout the whole song. That note will be the one that the song seems to “come home” to, or end on melodically. You can narrow it down to two or three notes—the other notes will sound bad much of the time. Concentrate on the beginnings and endings of lyric/melodic phrases, and try to find the note that sounds good every time in those spots. Usually the note that your song ends on is the starting note of its key.
  2. Now, can you build either a major or minor scale starting on your “home” note? Try the two or three notes you narrowed down to. Only one scale is going to sound like it absolutely fits the song. Many more songs are written in major keys than in minor keys. (And lots of songs are based on scales other than major or minor, but these are your starting points.)
  3. Can you harmonize the scale by playing a triad on each degree of it? This is your chord palette–where most, if not all, the chord choices have come from in the composition of the song. Try out some well known chord progressions, like I, IV, V, I, or I, V, vi, IV, etc., to see if you can determine the pattern.

Any questions? Any songs that have got you stumped? How has learning new songs helped your own songwriting?



  1. Aw, thanks Kat. Let’s get on that iPad keyboard and play! Have you seen Marshall Dane’s latest video, “Sure Thing”? He’s playing the iPad right off the top–funny!

  2. AMAAAAAZING!!! You make me wanna learn an instrument sooooo bad!!! Keyboard!!!!

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