Imagine you are in a rehearsal space with your band, but you have no Internet access. Your bandmate wants you to learn a new song to cover, but the only thing he or she has is the audio track on a phone or MP3 player. What are you supposed to do? You can’t look up the chord chart or the guitar tabs since you have no Internet. Your only option is to learn the music by ear. But how are you supposed to do that?
Well, with some helpful resources and a lot of practice, you will start to notice that learning music by ear isn’t so hard, and after a while, it might even become second nature to you.
Find the Key First
To find the key of an audio recording, you are going to need your instrument and the audio track. First, you need to be able to hear the audio track loud enough to be able to hear the chord changes. Listen carefully for the chord that seems to resolve the song. The root chord will often tell you the key of the song. You can start by picking a note on your instrument and stepping up note-by-note until you are playing the same note as the root chord. Simply look down at your instrument, find out what note the root chord is using, and then you’ll have the key of the song.
The first time you do this might take a while, so don’t feel embarrassed. This is a skill that takes musicians years to learn. The only way to get good at finding the key of a song is to practice doing it over and over again. If you are having trouble hearing the chords because of the vocals, try practicing to backing tracks. Simply search online for great backing tracks and where to buy them, and be sure to pick a website that hosts plenty of songs from which you can choose.
Backing tracks are a great way to learn the instrumental portion of the music, but they are also excellent for practicing singing, performing karaoke, and much more.
Learn the Chords
The root chord will tell you the key of the song, but now you have to figure out the chords. In any given key, there are at least twenty-four chords to choose from, both major and minor, but most songs only use about five to six chords, and sometimes even fewer. You will start to notice that most songwriters only use the most common chords, and they repeat their chord progressions over and over throughout the song.
Play your backing track through speakers or headphones and find the key of the song. Once you find the root chord, you can start by finding the root note of every other chord in the song. You will be able to tell if you’re playing the wrong note, as it won’t sound very good.
Once you find the root of every chord, you can start add the rest of the notes in each chord. Repeat this process until you have the song memorised, and you will have successfully learned the song by ear.