How to Learn Songs by Ear

How to learn songs by ear

Learning songs by ear is becoming a lost art.  Most guitarists find a popular piece of tab, learn song basics and quickly move on to the next tune.  In this article, I’m going to discuss a few standard techniques for copying songs from recordings.  There is no better guitar lesson than copying a song by ear.  As you learn how to accurately play your favorite songs, playing skills will improve dramatically and affect everything that you play.

Last week I wrote an article called, Getting Past the Plateau.  If you’re “stuck in a rut” with your guitar playing, it offers 12 tips to move forward.  There was a discussion about the newsletter on our forum.  The clear favorite tip was number 10:

“If you don’t try to play anything with super accuracy, try to learn something difficult. Be accurate with perfect technique.”

I think all guitar players have their unique strengths and weaknesses in their skills.  For example, some are born shredders; others are Masters of Theory; still others are great songwriters.  I’m obviously a pretty good instructor… and modest too.  As an instructor, a skill that I’ve always been known for is accurately transcribing songs.  I’ve always been intrigued by song details because that’s where the magic lies.   Tab completely misses most nuances of playing guitar and is usually inaccurate.  Years ago, Steve Vai said the following in an interview, “When I was teaching and transcribing, I captured everything, even the mistakes.”  Some mistakes are beautiful and can form the signature sound of a riff – that squeak, moan, or slightly out of pitch vibrato makes all of the difference.

Around 1986 I had a series of Classic Rock Song lessons.  I transcribed Ozzy, Hendrix, Dokken, Guns N’ Roses, and Zeppelin with permission from the original artists.  It was licensed which didn’t come cheap.  The license expired many years ago so they’re no longer available.  Don’t ask.  These lessons were incredibly popular and I still get request for copies today.

Back then transcribing was tedious.  I used a reel to reel tape recorder and manually moved the reels to repeat a song section many times until I got it right.  Before that, guitarists would put a vinyl record on slow speed and tediously drop the needle.  Thankfully, today’s software digital audio workstations (DAW) make this process quite simple.  If you don’t currently use a DAW, now’s the time to get started.  There’s very little learning curve to do the tricks that I’m going to explain.

The following is a list of techniques that I use to learn songs by ear.  I am focused, obsessive, technically minded, and somewhat neurotic.  All of these traits benefit you, because you often receive the knowledge gained from my attention to detail.  Still, I know that much of this is too challenging for the average player.  So, use any of these tips that appeal to you and you’ll be ahead of the game.  Use all of them and you’ll be just like me, but trust me, you don’t want to be just like me.  So, you’re forgiven if you choose to go lightly here.

How to Learn a Song by Ear

  1. Drag and drop the audio file onto a track in your digital audio work station (DAW).
  2. Use the DAW to analyze the song’s tempo.  It may inaccurately choose a half tempo.  If the tune is obviously fast and the program selects a ballad tempo, double the speed and you’ve got it.
  3. Delete the track from the DAW, set the correct tempo in the DAW and import the track again.  Unless you do this procedure the DAW will probably change the tempo of the original track when you change the master tempo of the DAW.  You don’t want that.
  4. Move the wav file around on the track until it appears to line up with measures as created by the DAW.
  5. If you find the correct tempo you will be able to visually identify approximately where each measure begins and ends. The reason I say “approximately” is, unless you absolutely nailed the tempo, and the original artist played with a click track, it’s not going to perfectly align to the designated measures.  Often, you’ll find the original artist changes tempo throughout the song; gradually speeding up during the intense moments and slowing down during the laid-back parts.
  6. Some DAWs are able to “fit to measure” or may allow you to stretch the track so it fits measures.  This can be somewhat tedious until you get the hang of it, but it sure makes the entire process easier.  This also means that you’ll be slicing up the composition at the beginning and end of parts like the verse and chorus.  The original composition will now have glitches, but that’s no big deal.  Go through the entire arrangement and fit each song section to measures.  For example, fit the intro, then move on to the verse – complete the entire arrangement a section at a time.
  7. This may seem obsessive, but trust me, when it’s time to create a drum track it’s great to hear where the beats occur in the measure.
  8. Next, go through the composition to determine song parts: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, lead played over a chorus.  As you review the composition, you’ll notice that it’s actually composed of very few sections and these sections are repeated throughout the song.  Label each by dropping markers on the timeline.
  9. Write down the composition and it will make it much easier to remember and play along with the original.  That will also come in handy for many of the other things that we’ll be doing.
  10. Now we can start having fun.  If you can find tab for the piece online and are so inclined, download it and let the cheating begin.  Even so, I want you to use your ear.  Assume that the tab is incorrect but a good starting point.
  11. Either tune your guitar to the track or tune the track to your guitar using the DAW.  Find the key of the song.  If you’ve been studying my Complete Course this shouldn’t be difficult.  After finding the key you can play single notes over the track and fine tune that single note/string to the track.  Next, plug into a tuner and see how sharp or flat your guitar is.  Let’s say that you’re 3 cents sharp.  Tune the original track 3 cents flat, retune your guitar to standard pitch and you’re in tune with the recording.  Quite often this process is unnecessary because the track is already tuned to pitch.
  12. Use the DAW to slow down very small sections without changing pitch.  You can drag these small sections to another track to keep the original recording in sync and intact.  It may be necessary to work on this part using a saved copy of the file to keep from damaging the original.
  13. Hum along with the track.  Play your guitar as you hum to find the correct note or chord.  With chords you’ll probably hear the root note first and gradually try other notes on other strings to complete the chord.  Often, it’s just a simple fifth type chord (first and fifth tone of the scale).  Also known as power chords.  As you begin to work on the piece you can use power chords for all of the chords and take care of the details later.  Listen to the bass guitar.  The bass is usually playing the root note of the chord.
  14. When you’re new to this process it can be quite tedious.  As you learn, you will get better and copy much faster.   Once you’re satisfied with the part, record your guitar on a track as you play with the slow recording.  Just remember, both of these parts won’t sync with the original due to the changed tempo but that’s okay.  It will also help to you remember what you’ve learned as you review these recordings weeks, months, or even years later.  You’ll find that you’ll constantly be hearing new things and making adjustments.
  15. When I get stuck on a part, I play it a few times before going to bed.  The next morning, I can usually play the part easily because my subconscious works while I’m asleep to figure out amazing detail that I’m not able to capture consciously.
  16. As you capture these slow parts, learn them through repetition, and gradually increase speed.  Once you can play them at tempo, record them along with the original track.
  17. Once you’ve got a verse completed, for example, you can plug that into all the versus along with the original recording.  Eventually you may want to work additionally on these versus to capture licks and nuances.
  18. Sometimes I’ll take the original track and slow the tempo a bit.  It makes learning at tempo easier.  Let’s say the tempo is 118 bpm.  Save the song file that you’re working on, so you’ve got the original tempo recording when you need it later.  Slow the tempo of the track on the copy by simply changing the tempo in the DAW. This will normally resample the original recording, so it still matches measures.  Plus, the recording still sounds pretty good.  Now you have a song file at the original tempo and another at a slower tempo.  While learning the song you’ll be using the slow tempo file.  Once it’s mastered, return to the original tempo file.
  19. There is a pretty good chance that you’ll find it convenient to work with three recordings.  One, at normal speed.  The next, at half speed.  The third copy is slower than the original but not by much.  It will make playing along easier when you know the song but can’t execute at tempo.
  20. Using the medium tempo file, record a guitar track section by section using the punch-in, punch-out feature.
  21. For bonus points, begin building a backing track.  Listen to drum parts on the original recording, particularly the kick and snare.  Use a drum plug-in to drag and drop parts to the track.  It’s not going to be an exact match but could be pretty close if you listen closely and capture accurate details.  You’ll also learn a lot about composing drums.
  22. Next, if you’ve got a bass, learn the bass part, mute the original track and record the bass while listening to the drum track.   It’s a good idea to also record the bass as a midi track so you can easily change tempo.  Changing tempo, to play along with your rhythm track is as simple as just slowing down the song tempo.  It’s a great way to practice challenging parts.  Loop the section and play along until you’ve got it down.

Now you’ve got a cool backing track that can be mixed down to an MP3.  Put it on your phone and perform for friends or teach the song to your band.

And hey, you’re making music!

This article was written by Metal Method Instructor Doug Marks creator of The Complete Rock Guitar Course.