How to become a better musician by figuring out music by ear
Digital sheet music. YouTube lessons. Guitar tab sites. Today, it’s easier than ever to learn to play a new song you’ve just discovered. This is incredibly convenient of course, especially for beginner musicians. But it also has a downside. Having access to all those great resources has made it easier than ever to neglect an important skill: figuring out music by ear. StringKick founder Just Rijna explains how learning music by ear will help you to grow as a musician.

Drawing vs. Tracing a Picture

Say you want to copy a picture of a duck. Compare these two approaches:

Approach 1: You put a piece of paper over the original drawing and trace all the lines.

Approach 2: You carefully look at the original image and try to recreate it by drawing it yourself.

In both approaches, you’ll end up with a drawing of something resembling a duck. But though the final result might be quite similar, it matters how you got there. What if you were asked to draw that same picture a week later? If you went with approach 2 and drew the animal yourself, you’d probably do a much better job than when you simply traced the lines (approach 1). You’d have a much clearer idea of the shapes, proportions, lines and so on. Even if your drawing last week looked horrible, you probably still learned more than if you’d simply traced the picture.

How to become a better musician by figuring out music by ear

The Three Steps of Figuring out Music by Ear

Learning a song from a lesson video or guitar tab is a lot like tracing a drawing. You might get a good result faster, but you don’t learn as much, because you’re skipping a few steps. When you figure out music by ear, you go through three steps:

Step 1

You listen as closely as possible and try to accurately ‘record’ in your brain what you’re hearing. You’re training yourself to listen intently and to correctly hear everything down to the smallest detail.

Step 2

You have the sound in your head and figure out what your fingers need to do to get that sound out of your instrument.

Step 3

Once you know what your fingers need to do, you practice actually playing the song correctly.

When you use tab or a video, you’re skipping the first two steps. And that’s a shame, because you can learn a lot from those two steps.

How to become a better musician by figuring out music by ear

Hearing in Greater Detail

Step 1 – listening intently to the music – gives you a much better idea of what’s happening in the song. This step helps your ears to hear in greater detail. For example, in fast licks, you’ll increasingly hear each individual note, rather than a blur of notes. You may hear instruments you hadn’t noticed before because they’re a bit ‘hidden’ in the mix. Also, untrained ears often have trouble hearing the bass (guitar) properly, but by learning music by ear, you’ll get better and better at it.

Playing What You Hear

In Step 2, you train yourself to translate what you hear in your head to your instrument. This may seem like a skill that you either have or don’t have, but it’s just a matter of practice. Consider this: when you hear a song on the radio, you can sing or hum along to the melody pretty quickly. Somehow, you know how to manipulate your vocal cords to produce (roughly) the right pitches. Playing music by ear is basically the same thing, but instead of your voice, you use an instrument. When you’re just starting out, translating what you hear in your head to your hands is slow and involves a lot of trial and error. But as you get more experienced, it will get faster and faster and feel more and more natural. Being able to play what you hear ‘in your mind’ gives you an enormous sense of musical freedom. It will help you in almost all your musical activities: from songwriting and rehearsing to improvising and performing on stage.

Explore What Makes You Unique

It may take a little more effort to figure out music by ear, but it has huge benefits. Not only does it make you a better musician, but you are no longer dependent on something or someone else when you want to explore new music. From the most obscure bands, to intro tunes from tv shows or podcasts, to movie soundtracks, or even video game music. You can determine your own path and explore any music that appeals to you. In short, having well trained ears enables you to follow your own taste: that which makes you a unique musician.

See also

» Transpose Music Yourself in 3 Steps
» Finding the Chords Yourself & Figuring Out the Song
» Diminished, Augmented & Seventh Chords: Learn Them Here!
» Understanding Chord Progressions: Intervals, Leading Notes & Tension
» The Pentatonic Scale: Easy to Learn
» Tips to Help You Memorise Sheet Music
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale

Guest blogger Just Rijna (StringKick)
Just Rijna is a musician and founder of StringKick, an online training academy for guitarists. StringKick features articles and practical courses that will help you train your ears, better understand the guitar fretboard and develop your musicality. Want to know more about learning music by ear and how to get started with ear training? Check out this article about Guitar Ear Training.
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