One of the most impressive musical skills is transcribing a song by ear. In my opinion, being able to learn songs by ear is the most important musical skill to possess, especially if you’re looking to play the blues or jazz.
And there is a strong reason why I say that.
Look, if you’re able to play what you hear on your speakers, you’ll eventually be able to play what you hear in your head and that's the best part of having this skill. Being able to learn songs by ear is one of the best ways to express your musical ideas.
That being said, it takes a pretty long time to develop this skill, and it can be extremely frustrating initially. A short three-minute song might take a week or more to transcribe. But as you practice, you’ll eventually be able to transcribe a song in a single playthrough.
So how to be that good? Read on my friend.
First things first, playing songs by ear can be separated into two approaches: transcribing chord progressions and transcribing melodies. Let’s look at how to transcribe chord progressions first.
Now is probably a good time to mention that you’ll initially make a lot of mistakes.
Don’t get discouraged though!
Making mistakes is just a part of the learning process, and even if you get some of the chords wrong, you can always look up the actual chord progressions online. The most important thing is that you tried to do it by ear first.
Now, let’s look at the steps of this approach.
1) All in DA BASS - For the first few months, you’ll want to work on songs with a bass guitar in it. The reason for this is you’ll be using the bass line as a guide for the chord progression.
In many rock and pop songs, more often than not, the bass guitar is playing the root note of whatever chord the song is currently on. So the idea is, if you can learn how to play the bass line on your instrument, you’ll have the root notes of the chords.
Some of you might have trouble hearing the bass line, so here are a few tips to help you out.
a. Use a pair of speakers or headphones that can reproduce bass frequencies well.
If your speakers or headphones can’t produce sounds at the lower end of the sound spectrum, you won’t hear the bass guitar at all. For example, the earphones that come with your iPhone are a bad choice for this.
b. Exaggerate the bass response on your speakers.
If there is a way to increase the bass response on your speakers using an equalizer or something similar, do it. It will be much easier to hear the bass guitar then.
c. Play the note you’re looking for over and over again.
What I mean by this is, if the note you’re looking for comes in at the five-second mark of a song, loop that section over and over again. Play the section once, then look for the note on your instrument, then play the section again. If the note you found on your instrument is wrong, try again.
Repeat this until you locate the correct note, then write it down.
2) Major/Minor - Once we’ve figured out the root notes of the chords, we’ll have to figure out whether the corresponding chords are major or minor chords.
What I used to do was to repeat the section I’m trying to figure out over and over again. I’ll try to match a major or minor chord with what I hear in the song.
So if the chord comes in at the five-second mark, I’ll play the song at that point, pause and try out a major or minor chord on my instrument, then play the song at the five-second mark again to check if I got it right.
This is quite time consuming so you’ll need to have the patience of a monk. This process can be sped up if you know your major and minor scales and their corresponding harmonies.
For those of you who are able to figure out the key of a song using just the bass line and some basic music theory, figuring out whether the chords are major or minor chords with diatonic harmony will be a breeze.
And don’t forget to write down everything you’ve figured out so far!
3) Seventh Chords - If we’re talking strictly about pop songs, more often than not, you will have the chord progressions down after the second step. Occasionally, you’ll encounter a song that uses seventh chords as well.
If that’s the case, you’ll first want to know whether the chord is based on a major or minor chord, then add the seventh note.
For example, we have a chord that has a G as its root note. We’ll first figure out if the chord is a G major or G minor. Let’s say it’s a G major, but it still sounds like it’s missing something. In that case, we’ll try out the maj7 or dom7 chords to see if those two fit better. If the chord sounds like it is based on a minor chord, try the min7 chord. If none of these work, try out the min7b5 chord or dim7 chord.
Again, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes at first, especially if the song has a lot of seventh chords. Don’t worry though, practice makes perfect, and it’s more important that you actually tried.
Let’s move on to transcribing single-note melodies by ear.
Melodies are a little easier to transcribe compared to chords, especially if you already have prior knowledge of your scales. A lot of transcribing melodies is just repeating a section over and over again while trying to look for the correct notes on your instrument.
Here are a few tips that can help speed up the process of transcribing melodies:
1) Know your scales - Without a doubt, the single most effective way to speed up the process of transcribing melodies by ear is to learn your scales.
The basic major, minor, and pentatonic scales should be enough to get you going for pop, rock, and blues tunes.
If you don’t know your scales yet, what you will have to do is loop a small section of the melody you’re trying to learn and then painstakingly locate each one of them on your instrument. You will spend quite a bit of time hitting the pause and play button.
I like to compare transcribing melodies without knowing your scales to treasure hunting without a treasure map; sure, you’ll find some treasure if you spend enough time searching, but the process would be sped up a lot if you had a map.
2) Sing - Before attempting to transcribe any solo or melody by ear, it is important that you know the part really well.
The bar I set for myself is, if I am able to sing the part without playing the song, then I know the part well enough. Some of you may have trouble controlling your voice while singing; if that’s the case, try humming instead.
3) Slow it down - If you find that you’re having trouble hearing the individual notes due to the speed of the melody, try slowing it down.
YouTube has a great “playback speed” feature that allows you to play a video back at 50% of the original speed while maintaining the pitch of the song.
4) Small chunks - Avoid attempting to transcribe large sections of a song at once. It is much easier to work on smaller chunks, and you tend to be more accurate this way too.
As you may have noticed, a lot of transcribing songs by ear just comes down to simple trial-and-error?
There are ways to speed up the process, but due to the nature of trial-and-error processes, it tends to take a lot of time. It does get easier, and I promise if you stick to these tips and methods that I’ve outlined, you’ll be able to pick up the skill a lot faster and subsequently amaze your friends with your listening skills.
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