Getting Rid of the Crutch

Many music teachers have told students, “Don’t memorize.” My first advice to learning to play by ear is, “Take away the sheet music.” Why? Because this forces you to try to remember the progressions, and forces your ear to pick up the slack. People who always play with their music in front of them don’t learn to play by ear.

When you set aside the sheet music, you begin memorizing bits and pieces and store them in a temporary memory buffer, recalling them while you are playing the song. When you play a wrong chord, your ear recognizes the conflict, forcing you to try another chord. You may eventually have to play through a series of chords (starting with the ones in the chord family) to get it right. But this is good development for your ear.

Additionally, music takes a different path to the brain and enables better memory. So you do have this in your favor.

Patterns

When we take away the sheet music, we can begin to look for repeated patterns in the song. We also can recognize when the pattern is slightly modified. Many times verses have a repeated pattern, and maybe a slight change in the pattern before transitioning to the chorus. The chorus then has another pattern or series of repeated patterns.

Look for patterns in the music, slight adjustments to them, and store them in your temporary buffer while you play.

Sing While You Play

Some of my students sing while they play (even if they sing a little out of tune). Some don’t. The ones who sing while they play develop their ear more quickly, because they are intuitively comparing what they are playing with what they are singing. This can greatly affect getting the right timing of a song.

Progressions

Another key to learning to play by ear has to do with progressions. By familiarizing yourself with different chord progressions, you will begin to pick them up in different songs even though timing and tempo may be different.

Chord Family Relationships

Barre chord theory enables the guitarist to visualize the chords in each key and where they are in respect to each other. There is a distinct sound difference between the I and the IV, the I and the V, the I and the vi, etc. Practicing with barre chords, helps us see the relationships while we hear them. If we then switch keys using the same barre patterns (or inverting them — starting with the “A shape” instead of the “E shape” or vice versa), this develops our ear further.

The four most common chords used in pop, country and rock music are: I, IV, V and vi. The next most popular chord is ii; but watch out for the bVII chord. This chord is the major chord a whole step lower than the root chord or I chord.

Chord “Traffic”

There is often a “flow of traffic” in music, that, when recognized can help give an educated guess as to the next chord expected in a song. This “traffic” can be picked up at any point in the progression:

iii – vi – ii – V
For example, if you are in the key of G, and you find yourself playing the iii chord, Bm, many times your next chord will be the vi chord, Em. And again many times (not all, or even most, but many) the vi chord is followed by the ii chord, which would be Am in the key of G. A majority of times, the ii chord is followed by the V chord, thus after Am, usually the D comes next in the key of G.

Other Tools

There are other tools and tricks to playing by ear. If you know of any, please contribute a comment.

If you have any questions regarding this page, please post a comment as well.