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How To Play Your Favourite Songs By Ear Diana de Cabarrus – Key To Music

Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to play your favourite songs by ear? Are you impressed when you see other people do this seemingly effortlessly? It’s actually not as hard as you think, when you go through these steps below. As soon as you’re able to play power chords on the guitar, you can starting developing your ability to play by ear and work out how to play songs.

To really grow your understanding of songwriting, song structure and music, it helps to develop your ear and to analyse a lot of songs, by transcribing and learning them. The more you do this, starting with manageable ones, the more sophisticated your listening ability will be and the more readily you’ll be able recognise and interpret what you hear.

This is one system you can start using to train your ability to do this – which in turn enhances your understanding of music, your ability to work out anything you hear by ear, and your understanding of what musical choices you might have once you’ve established what the musical material is.

  1. Have an audio of the song to hand.
  2. Google the song chords. ‘Wait! You told me this article would help me play them by ear – why are you telling me to look up tabs? I thought I was supposed to avoid potentially inaccurate tabs online like the plague!’ Yes – it’s true that in general you want to avoid making youtube or tab sites your primary source for materials. But here we are using the tabs in a very specific way and we have a plan to find and deal with any inaccuracies. You will probably find a lot of different tabs, so see if they are rated well, whether they are written with a capo number, and treat the chords as provisional. Sometimes the chords are in different keys – or you may find one set of chords in the open position, and another set with a capo. When you have a choice, you may prefer to work with the set of chords that requires you to learn the fewest new ones for now as for this activity we are focused on developing our listening and transcribing ability, not our chord vocab. (You can skip this step and work out the chords 100% by ear, which is a useful skill to have, but you learn a lot by working things out in terms of structure, so googling the chords first is fine at this stage). If you can play power chords, you can play a power chord instead of any chord that’s written. C#m? That’ll be a C# power chord. Ab major? Ab power chord. Etc. You will still get the identifiable vibe of the song.
  3. Are the chords from a readily identifiable key? For example, can you see a major I IV V – are there two adjacent major chords that could be the four and five chord of the key? What does the song sound like – do the chords sound like they fit together and flow or does one of them ‘pop out’? It doesn’t matter if it’s not apparent what the key is, sometimes a song may be in more than one key. It also doesn’t matter if you haven’t been exposed to the idea of musical keys yet – just skip this step and move on if you don’t know what the concept of a key is.
  5. DO NOT TRY TO ….
  6. Get a piece of staff paper (with blank bars) or write some bar lines down yourself.
  7. Choose one section of the song – maybe the verse, maybe the first verse. Listen to it with the chords in front of you. Try to narrow down how long each chord lasts for. It might be a bar, it might be half a bar, it might change chords just before a new bar. You will get better at hearing the change in the music when the chord changes with practice. Often, listening to the bass is helpful. As you’ve googled the chords and have a fair idea of chord 1, chord 2, chord 3 etc, you’re not trying to use the bass note to figure out what the chord is (although this is a good strategy too) – you’re simply listening for when the note changes. I repeat – you get much better at this by doing it-don’t panic if at first the song you’ve chosen seems hard to hear. Listen to that same segment enough times that you are sure you can identify that section – even if you are not sure exactly and precisely when one of the changes happen. You may find that there is a chord sequence that repeats. If so, put the repeats in. At this point you might have something that looks like this:
    |D A| G | Em : ||
    Now play that section and check to see if you think it fits. If something isn’t quite right, don’t get stuck on it, but make a note that you’re not sure about it, and move on to the next section.
  8. Repeat step 7 with the next section of the music. If you started with a verse, a next section would typically be a pre-chorus, or a chorus. Add any annotations that are helpful ‘Verse, repeats x 2, then almost repeats with variation, then chorus’ etc are useful notes.
  9. Repeat step 7 with any other sections. For pop songs, very often they have 1-3 sections of musical material – which could be verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge or instrumental – combined in various ways. The different sections will probably have chords in common.
  10. Now you should have the song roughed out, with an idea of what the chords are in each section, how many times each section repeats, and what order they come in. It’s time to go back over any vague parts where you’re not quite sure if the chord is right, or you’re not certain what the rhythm or strumming is. Here it’s helpful to loop the segment of song in a bit of software and there are many inexpensive ones out there – and also to slow it down a bit. Transcribe is the one I’m used to, but anytune for iphone and ipad is good too. Now listen to it and count it very carefully, and you should find you can narrow down further where the accent or chord change is.
  11. Sometimes, the chords in a song will not be obviously played on a guitar but will be played by piano, string section etc. You can still create a version for guitar.
  12. Play whole song confidently, check it off your song list, feel good that you now understand this song, can play it, and have added to your ability to play by ear.
  13. If you want to arrange the song for solo performance, are there sections you’d miss out or shorten? Eg a big rock solo – or an instrumental. Make another chord chart for yourself with this change included.
  14. Now you can think about how you’d like to play it. Will you strum the whole song? Will you maybe pick some of the chords with picking patterns or fingerpick them? Are you going to play the chords in the same place or might you want to play them in different places? Arranging is a fun skill and you’ll start enjoying being creative with this too.


Diana de Cabarrus is a professional guitarist, singer and songwriter living in Edinburgh who helps students develop their skills on guitar and voice to enjoy expressing themselves. Contact Diana if you are interested in exploring your guitar playing, singing or songwriting in Edinburgh.