Using your brain to develop your ear
Learning music by ear is one of those things that can just seem unobtainable. When you think about it though, it’s really just a game of “repeat after me” (albeit a complicated one). Today we’re going to look at ways to use your brain to train your ear to hear the chords that make up music. As with all things, learning by ear is a skill that takes time to develop and if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. I’m going to assume that you understand a little about music theory, particularly the number system and diatonic chords. This will be a longer one, so buckle your seat belts and let’s get started.
Step 1: Getting the form down
After listening to the song a whole bunch, the first step is to look at the big picture and understand the overall form of the song. How many sections does the song have? Most songs have verses and choruses, but also listen for a bridge, instrumental portions, intros, outros, solos, etc. It doesn’t matter whether you call it a verse or a chorus; you can easily just label each section A, B, C, etc.
Once you’ve done that, it’s important to write down how long each section is. Maybe the verse has 8 measures and the chorus has 4? Write it down. This way you’ll be able to catch any differences between say, verse 1 and verse 2. Once you’ve done this, you’ll have a pretty solid map of the whole song.
Step 2: Finding the first chord and the key
At this point, you kind of just have to guess. Listen to the bass. If there’s no bass, what’s the lowest note that the piano/guitar is playing? Often times this will be the root of the chord. Trial, error, and a lot of guessing will get you there. Once you’ve got the bass note, we need to know what the quality of the chord. If your ear isn’t yet good enough to be able to hear if it’s major or minor, just try each one and see which sounds right.
Now we need to try and start placing this chord in a key. Let’s say your first chord is G major. Logically you might deduce that there are three possible keys this song could be in. That G major could be the I chord in the key of G, the IV chord in the key of D, or the V chord in the key of C. We don’t have enough information to know for sure yet, but start thinking about it and gather evidence to find out.
Step 3: The diatonic chords
Unless you’re trying to figure out some strange jazz or prog rock odyssey, most songs stay in one key. If you know the number system/diatonic chords then this narrows down the possible chords to 7 and often times only 6 (sorry vii, nobody likes you).
The most commonly used chords in a key are the I, IV, V, and vi chords. Be aware of this as you try to figure out what key you’re in. If you find that the next chord in this song is a D major, then chances are you’re not in the key of C major, as we’d normally find a D minor in that key.
Let’s say you’ve figured out that you’re in the key of G major. Most likely the chords you hear throughout the song will be G, C, D, or E- (or it’s variants, Cadd9, E-7, etc). That makes things super easy. If you run into a chord that isn’t one of those, try the less used chords from that key.
Step 4: The weird stuff
Everything should be smooth sailing at this point. There are millions of songs that won’t need this fourth step, but let’s say you run into something that isn’t one of those diatonic chords. Assuming we haven’t modulated, it’ll probably be one of two things. A chord from the key that has a different quality (in the key of G, an E major instead of an E minor) or a chord with a root note that’s not in the key (in the key of G, any type of Eb chord for instance). At this point, it’s almost like step one again. Listen to the bass and use trial and error. Sometimes I’ll listen to the melody too and see if that helps.
The most difficult thing about doing something like this is not being sure if you’re, but at some point you have to trust yourself. It’s often helpful to have someone help guide you through this process to teach you what to listen for and let you know if you’re on the right track or not. It’s also very helpful to have a program that will slow the song down.
I will say it becomes a lot easier the more you do it. At a certain point you’ll be able to recognize and hear progressions without touching your instrument. Just make sure when starting out, that you’re going in with a purpose. Sure, the first step is randomly guessing, but make sure that’s not all you’re doing. Using your brain to help guide your ear will bring you much farther than poking around a piano until you get lucky.
-Michael Hilbun is a New Orleans based guitarist and educator. In addition to performing and recording with numerous acts, he maintains an active online Skype lesson studio and teaches students around the world. He has a Bachelor of Music from the University of Louisiana. You can find out more about him at his website www.michaelhilbun.com.