Author Topic: How do you figure out songs by ear?  (Read 4855 times)

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Offline Ħ

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How do you figure out songs by ear?
« on: July 09, 2012, 12:13:27 PM »
It seems like loads of musicians can do it. I can figure out melodies on my own, but how do people listen to songs and nail down things like harmony where there's hundreds of different chord combinations? How do a lot of the tab authors get everything down perfectly? Where do you even start?
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Offline Adami

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #1 on: July 09, 2012, 12:15:35 PM »
It seems like loads of musicians can do it. I can figure out melodies on my own, but how do people listen to songs and nail down things like harmony where there's hundreds of different chord combinations? How do a lot of the tab authors get everything down perfectly? Where do you even start?

Some people have REALLY good ears, other people don't.


I fall under the second category.
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Offline Ħ

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #2 on: July 09, 2012, 12:20:36 PM »
I'm sure it's partially genetic, but no one pops into existence knowing the western musical alphabet and man-made chord structures. A lot of it is training and experience I'm guessing - but how do you really train for such a thing?
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Offline Adami

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #3 on: July 09, 2012, 12:24:39 PM »
I'm sure it's partially genetic, but no one pops into existence knowing the western musical alphabet and man-made chord structures. A lot of it is training and experience I'm guessing - but how do you really train for such a thing?

There can be training, for which there are exercises; not sure how to explain them though. But most people who can do it just have that ability. Sure they learn how to read music and play an instrument (which I'm sure you can figure out how to do) but hearing the way they do is often something they have that gets refined with constant practice.
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Offline theseoafs

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #4 on: July 09, 2012, 12:45:35 PM »
I don't have a really good ear, but I'm adept at playing by ear.  It is a complicated process, but if you want to go about starting, I'd tell you to do this:

1)  Learn about chords and chord structure.  I imagine you're talking about rock/metal songs when you say "playing by ear", and even the most complicated rock songs usually come down to a linear list of chords.  Some chord progressions are more standard/common than others, and once you're able to pick out the chord structure underneath, things get a whole lot easier.  For example, say you're having trouble picking a note out of a harmony, but you know the chord under that measure is an E; at that point, except in unusual cases, you can rule out the notes which definitely don't make any sense, like F, G, and Bb.  You can also use your knowledge about the chord to take a stab at what the note could possibly be; since it's an E chord, the natural place to start would be an E, G#, or B (though it could be another tone). 

2)  Learn about intervals and scale tones.  Once you've got this down, you're pretty much set to play all but the most complicated or unusual rock music by ear.  Intervals are the distances between notes, and scale tones are the particular notes of the scale in comparison to the root or tonic note (D, for example, is the second scale tone of the C major scale, as it is the second note of that scale starting on C).  By playing a lot of music, it's pretty easy to figure out what the 5th scale tone of any scale sounds like, as well as the major and minor 3rds, the major and minor 7ths, the 4th, the diminished 5th, etc.  Locating these notes in a harmony or melody can pretty reliably point you in the right direction to transcribing the rest of the phrase.

In short, playing by ear is about recognizing common patterns in popular music, be they rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic.  In music where there is no pattern -- say, a speedy piano solo where there is no tonal center to speak of and which utilizes none of the common scales -- I would be lost and unable to replicate it (though there are, of course, people who have perfect pitch and who would have no problem doing so).

Offline Icebear

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #5 on: July 09, 2012, 01:14:11 PM »
I listen for the function of a chord. In other words, if a song is in the key of C, the chord we call C major is the "home chord". A G major chord in the same key would function as the dominant chord, a chord that very clearly leads back to the home chord. And it goes on like that, with training you can learn to instantly hear the function of a chord. The beauty of this approach is, that you don't need to know what key a song is in, in order to lay out the harmony. It's like a basic map, if you get the major roads and mountains and stuff sorted, you can always fill in the details later. But identifying that basic harmonic structure, that's something most people can learn (IMO), and it starts with learning simple intervals, how chords are built and how they relate to each other.

Online Kotowboy

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #6 on: July 11, 2012, 01:20:22 PM »
I have a good ear but it also comes from playing those chords and intervals A LOT. You eventually hear chord progressions like " Oh that sounds like A to D to G to E minor " because you're so used to the sound of those chords on guitar.

So for me it's mostly a good ear ( not being big headed - my music tutor said this also ) and also repetition  and practice.

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Offline Implode

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #7 on: July 11, 2012, 03:31:55 PM »
Everyone has said what you need to know. It's just practice. Evenutally you get used to hearing what certain chords sound like, their qualities, and their functions. I feel like it'd be much easier if you had perfect pitch, but I'm not sure how to go about learning that.

Offline Ħ

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #8 on: July 11, 2012, 03:59:32 PM »
Is "perfect pitch" a genetic gift? It would seem like it isn't, because that's way too complex of a thing to develop genetically...
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Online Kotowboy

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #9 on: July 11, 2012, 04:26:30 PM »
Not genetic - inasmuch as you don't inherit it but some people have it and some don't.

However - some tutors do think you can learn it by studious repetition and training.

Offline theseoafs

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #10 on: July 11, 2012, 04:39:42 PM »
Is "perfect pitch" a genetic gift? It would seem like it isn't, because that's way too complex of a thing to develop genetically...

If my understanding is correct, you are born with some genetic predisposition to having perfect pitch, yes.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you're born knowing the names of the different notes, because that's ridiculous; it does mean that once you do go about learning the names of the notes, it will be extremely easy, because to you, each note has an extremely obvious personal character.  If you have perfect pitch, you can't possibly mistake an E for an F because they sound so very different to you.

I don't have that capability; if you ask me to sing a particular note, I usually can only get it to within one half-step (for example, I just tried to sing an E, which turned out to actually be an F).  I have to rely on intervals and points of reference to identify notes.

A quick example:  a couple years ago I was driving on a road alongside a train.  The train blew its whistle and without even thinking about it I immediately identified it as an A.  How?  I set up a point of reference.  At about that time, I was playing keyboard very frequently for my church band, and one of the songs I did the most required me to play a melody on a horn patch, the first note of which was that very same A.  It was in the same octave, and the whistle's timbre sounded quite similar to a horn, so that song popped immediately into my head, and I recognized the A.  Needless to say, this kind of miraculous note identification doesn't happen to me often. :lol

So it's mostly by playing lots of music that you learn to recognize tones.  I don't know how one would go about learning Perfect Pitch, though.  I've seen advertisements for software that's supposed to train you to recognize pitch, but I doubt it works. 

Offline Implode

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #11 on: July 12, 2012, 07:24:53 AM »
Yup. Most people I've known with perfect pitch have always had it, but apparently it can also be learned. My grandfather said that he learned perfect pitch back when her played in a jazz band.

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #12 on: July 12, 2012, 08:45:56 AM »
It's also good to slow down the track in Windows Media Player

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #13 on: July 12, 2012, 11:54:30 AM »
My first major in college was Music Education and among the basic classes that all music majors take was Ear Training, which included Sight Singing.  We learned what different intervals sounded like and how to recognize them.  Eventually, she would play a short melody on the piano and we would have to write down what she played.  In advanced classes, you learn to transcribe four-part choral pieces (SATB) just by listening to them.  The other side of that was reading a melody on paper and singing it out loud.  You get to where you know what the notes sound like well enough to just sing them.

Don't confuse this with Perfect Pitch.  Perfect Pitch is a gift; you either have it or you don't.  You can learn to become quite adept at recognizing and reproducing notes, chords, and harmonies, but you'll never reach the level of someone who just has it inherently.  People ask me if I have it, and I don't (I joke that I have Pretty-good Pitch).  I have to figure it out, listen to it in my head, and I will eventually get it.  Then I can write it down and arrange it for my band or whatever I'm doing with it.  Someone with Perfect Pitch can listen to a piece of music and write it down just as easily as you'd listen to someone speak and write down the words.

Offline E.S.

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #14 on: July 14, 2012, 03:59:50 AM »
I developed both a good ear and perfect pitch. Didn't have that to start with.
I guess it's the lack of proper training, I never learned to read music when I was young (did that last week). Just endless hours of trying to figure out things by listening, especially when I transcribed some DT stuff years ago. Some notes here and there turned out to be wrong, but still it was good practice.

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #15 on: July 14, 2012, 04:15:42 PM »
If you got some notes wrong, then you don't have perfect pitch.  You have very good pitch, some well-trained ears, but by definition, perfect pitch is literally perfect.  I sing with a guy who has perfect pitch; he's the other tenor in the choir.  If there's a D written on the page, he opens his mouth, a D comes out.  Hit a D on the piano or organ, same note.  When we're working out harmonies in the praise band (I'm fortunate enough to have him), he'll say things like "I'm doing the third underneath; it sounds like you were going for a third above, but you need to go for a C#, not a C, on the third note, it's not just thirds all the way through."  And he's right, of course.  As I said, to him it's as easy as writing down spoken words.  He hears the pitches and knows exactly what they are; he sees notes on a page and can sing them without reference.

Offline BlobVanDam

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #16 on: July 15, 2012, 07:22:43 AM »
Perfect pitch is something you're born with, but it's not required to have a great ear for music. It largely comes down to training your ear. Even with perfect pitch, you still need to train your ear to assign names to notes, recognize intervals, scales etc. And this can be learned without perfect pitch, although probably not with the ability to pluck a note out of thin air.

Most of the ability of working out music can be learned, and comes down to a good sense of relative pitch, ie. being able to recognize notes relative to one another to identify chords, scales, intervals etc. My brother doesn't have perfect pitch, but he knows guitar so well that he can figure out chords and progressions on the spot very easily just from the sound and voicing of a chord, much better than I can even though I have perfect pitch.

I think it just takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.
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Offline BlackInk

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #17 on: July 15, 2012, 09:43:00 AM »
It's also good to slow down the track in Windows Media Player
That's still possible? Can't find that.
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Offline Implode

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #18 on: July 16, 2012, 09:57:48 AM »
I know you can do that in VLC, but it doesn't hold the pitch. So you either have to do some math to figure out the transposition, or just make sure you slow it down to 50% so it's exactly one octave lower.

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #19 on: July 16, 2012, 10:03:41 AM »
foobar2000 has plugins for slowing down music, and it maintains the pitch. I think I used to have plugins for it in Winamp too.
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Offline Sir GuitarCozmo

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #20 on: July 17, 2012, 11:28:48 AM »
Or, you can download a free copy of Audacity and use it to slow down the track, in addition to all the other sweet ass-things that Audacity can do.

Offline Ruba

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #21 on: July 18, 2012, 01:34:00 PM »
I probably have some talent. And I have played guitar a lot.

Like theseoafs said, some notes just don't fit together. Those can be found with experience, no one can sit in front of piano and start to play perfect Space-Dye Vest. I don't know the exact scales, but I know which notes sound good together.

I just put the song playing and pause when necessary. Though songs I try to find out are easier than an average Dream Theater song. Often I can tell the key of the song, but that's also result of lots of practice.

Most of rock/pop music is based on chords, and finding the right chords is pretty easy, because they're often made with "right chord progressions" (not anything random, like Abm-E-Fm7-Dsus2). For example Em-C-G-D and Dm-G-Bb-C sound good, and progressions like those are usual, but the key can be different. And learning majors, minors, 5's (aka power chords, very common in rock music), 7s, sus's and tritonus will make you capable to figure out lots and lots of different songs. I can also play 6's and possibly 11's (those on piano), but not any fancy jazz chords.

I can figure out melodies well on piano and harmonies OK, it's harder on guitar.   
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Offline jsem

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Re: How do you figure out songs by ear?
« Reply #22 on: July 20, 2012, 03:20:00 PM »
I echo what was said earlier about the function of the chord. And then listening to the bassline is a huge help. The bass usually plays the root of the chord on the first beat of the chord change, so even NHOP who played super fast and was all over the bass always played the root on the first beat of the chord change so it swung and worked perfectly harmonically. If a recording is really bad and I have to pick it out, and the chords could be anything like in certain acid jazz songs where the bassline is extremely important, I slow it down in VLC and maintain the pitch and try to bring the bass as loud as I can.

Listening for extensions, like #11, b13(#5), b9, #9 etc is just learning how they sound by ear. If it's a dominant chord, you can hear the tension - how it goes from dark to light. I try looking for lead tones in figuring that out, like in an Am7->D7, the G in the Am7 leads to the F# in the D7. Then it's also analyzing what chord works against the melody. Even if it sounds like something is a certain chord or could be, it has to work with the melody. If a melody starts on the root of the chord, you never play a major 7th chord for instance, you'd play a 6th instead if you want to color it, maybe add a ninth too.

One thing that I've used more and more is using my voice too. Singing the scale that fits until you find the root and/or certain colors.

And all of these things take practice. The first time you pick out a song it may take five hours, but the next time it takes three. It's all about making yourself familiar to the chord changes and the sounds of different chord shapes (like my fav mi9 chords or 13b9 or anything).