Playing by ear: How I can play a song after hearing it only once

I can clearly remember my high school parties. As I was about 2 years younger than the rest of my classmates, it used to be hard for me to get along sometimes. Usually I attended only the big parties where friends would invite just everyone from the school class. I surely had some fun, but there was one particular party that I will never forget.

As soon as I entered the place, I noticed there was a piano. I immediately knew this was an excellent opportunity for me to shine. After a while I found the courage – with the help of a bottle of something strong – and made my way to the instrument. I sat down and began to play. People kept talking, Kelly Clarkson was playing on the radio. But I hoped people would notice. And they did.

I’m not sure the exact songs I played that evening, but it probably was a mix of some classical and popular pieces, trying everything I could to impress my fellow classmates. As more people gathered around me and the piano, I was actually starting to have fun. But then I noticed my crush had entered the circle as well. I knew she loved to sing so I nervously asked her if she liked to do a song together. But she was just as shy as I was. When we finally convinced her, she said “Ok then.. I can sing Foolish Games by Jewel, can you play that song?”.

Damn! I don’t. I mean.. of course I know it! I must have played it someday in a piano lesson.. but I certainly can’t remember the chords anymore.. I was screwed. I disappointed her and looked stupid for not being able to play this simple song.

Playing by ear

This was about two years after I started playing piano, long before I’ve learned the techniques about playing by ear that I know now. If you would ask me to play this song, I would be able to play it, because I know the song. It may contain mistakes here and there, but I have heard it enough times on the radio to recall the basic structure, harmony, melody and rhythm. In fact it is entirely possible to play any song you have listened to enough times.

It’s all about memorization. To understand how that works, lets review an important memorization principle:

Memorization principle #1:

Memorization involves encoding, retainment and retrieval of information

It’s clear that you have to remember the song to be able to play it later. The principle teaches you that you can improve this at 3 points in time:

  1. when you learn it (encoding),
  2. when you don’t use it (retainment), and
  3. when you recall the information (retrieval).

The moment we recall is where we are most powerless – most you can do is just trying to remember really hard. It can help to try to think about associations you have with it. For example, when I tried to remember the chords of Foolish Games at the party, I could have thought about the video clip, the key of the song, the time period I’ve learned this song, venues I have played it, that particular room I had the lesson with the song, etc. The associations might trigger the original subject you try to remember.

It would have been better if I invested time in retainment. This is what I do nowadays with songs I’m actively trying to memorize – I have created a long list of songs and once in a while I play a random subset of them. This refreshes my memory of the song, and gives me the opportunity to fix parts I have forgotten. What’s interesting is that you sometimes forget the exact notes but you can still play it. Muscle memory tends to be stronger than theoretical memory. This means that there is a point that you are unable to recall the chords or melody, but your fingers still know how to do the trick. Often times you can then refresh your theoretical knowledge by just letting your fingers play and learn from them! Amazing, isn’t it.

But what about songs that I’m not actively trying to memorize? The only retainment of those is listening to them. And these are the moments you learn the song – the most powerful stage of memorization. This is the moment you can actively build associations, which works best by considering as many aspects of the music as possible.

There are not many aspects for a non-musician to discover other than lyrics, groove and feelings or memories associated with the song. But for us musicians, we listen to a song in a completely different way. We can clearly define chord progressions, instruments used, climax build-up or suspension etc. It’s a feature that we sometimes would like to turn off – especially when composing – but we have to deal with it. So let’s use it to our advantage. Because God how amazing can it be! All the knowledge we possess about music theory can enrich listening to music in so many ways.

The benefits of understanding music

Here is what applying theory to a song adds to the experience:

  • You can get surprised by an unexpected chord or break thinking “oh my god what happened there?!”
  • You have more empathy for the composer – you understand why a song turns in a certain way and the choices the writer made in the creative process
  • It adds reproducable ideas to your own creative palette

Yes, it might lose some of the ‘magic’ as well. But trying to deconstruct by knowledge might be just as exciting in a different way. It’s the same with food. Before I learned how to cook, a nice pasta was just a nice pasta and vegetables were just that. But since I studied some books on how to cook and tried special techniques in the kitchen, food has become a lot more interesting. Ordering a meal at a restaurant is a more exciting experience because I am curious about the way my dish will be prepared. When I eat I try to distinguish flavors. Without the knowledge I gained through books I would have never tasted the parsley in my Fettuccine Napolitana, let alone understood that this is a very uncommon pairing.

Learning by listening

So when you learned how to memorize a song while listening (I’ll talk about how to do that in a minute), the second skill you require is to apply musical knowledge when you play. You are not going to remember all details, and it should not be the goal. You want to memorize just enough of the song to be able to play it so that people will recognize it and be able to sing along. The parts you forget will need to be ‘filled in the gaps’. A skill that is very similar to improvisation.

So, how should you listen to songs? First and foremost, don’t push yourself to make every song an exercise – you should still be able to enjoy listening to music. However, the better you become at this, the easier it will be to focus on the elements you need to memorize. Let’s recall the 5 basic elements of music:

Song principle #1: A song is characterized by its Structure, Melody, Harmony, Rhythm and Timbre

These are the 5 points you want to focus on in this process. I use the following steps when I try to deconstruct a song by listening:

  1. Start focussing on chord progessions.
    There are a few reasons why harmony is the best choice to begin to focus on. At first, melody and rhythm are often too ambigious. If I sing you a random melody, it is hard to memorize it without context. Same with rhythm – there are actually not that many differentiating factors in rhythm and for many songs it’s not a defining factor (except for ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ maybe). So you need to create a basic understanding of the context, that is, the harmony of the song. Figuring out chord progessions is a skill that takes practice (an article on daily practice routines will be published soon – a big part of that is focussed on chords and progressions).

    1. Focus on the first chord of the chorus. Find out if it’s major or minor. If you are unsure, here’s a trick you can try. If you think the chord is major, try to imagine the minor version in your head. You’ll find out that you will be unable to do that if the chord was already minor.
    2. Try to determine the second chord of the chorus. Initially only if it’s major or minor, but ultimately you want to find its relationship with the first chord. Start simple:
      1. Imagine the first chord was C if it was major or Am if it was minor. Also, imagine playing them on your instrument. It often helps to think about real chords and leave the abstract. Imagine yourself with your instrument. Sometimes you feel your hands go to the next chord by itself, thanks to the connection between music- and muscle memory.
      2. You can also listen to what the bass is doing: the chords themselves might be played using inversions. This means the pitch can go up while the chord is actually lower on the scale. The bass (usally) plays the root note so if you can find out where it goes, you found the root note of your second chord. This does require familiarity with intervals, but that’s an easy skill to acquire.
      3. If the bass can not help you, try to figure out if the second chord is major or minor as well. If the progression doesn’t sound too strange, you can assume the chord is close to the original chord on the circle of fifths. Let me give an example of how that goes:

        You’ve figured out that the first chord was major and you think the second chord is probably major as well. You imagine the first chord to be C (even though it might be something else). Being the first chord of the chorus, there is a high probability the song is written in C major. The only other major chords in this scale are F and G. Indeed, these are the two chords closest to C on the circle of fifths.

        Circle of fifths – Sub-dominant and dominant chords F and G are closest to root chord C

        Although less likely, the song may have been written in F major or G major as well. C would then be the 5th or 4th chord respectively and the second chords chould be Bb or D. As you can see, these are the next chords in the circle, and this goes on all the way to F#. A progression from C to F# would be highly unlikely – in fact I’ve never heard such a progression. If you did, please tell me the name of that song in the comments.. that would be highly interesting!

        Circle of fifths – C and F# are furthest apart from one another

        The whole process works similar with minor chords and mixes of major or minor. For example, when the first chord is major but the second one is minor, in order of likeliness the second chord will be: Am, Dm or Em, Gm or Bm, etc.

      4. If you have a little more ear training with recognizing chord functions, it will help a lot. This is the technique I use most often to quickly determine the chord progression. The big advantage is the fact that it is insensitive to pitch. For example, if you imagine the first chord to be C and the next chord is actually a Bm that is played higher than the first C, it’s hard to imagine the progression is actually going down.
        The Bm chord is played in first inversion, so it sounds higher than the C chord. Click the play button for a sound example.
        The Bm chord is played in first inversion, so it sounds higher than the C chord. Click the play button for a sound example.

        See? You’d think the second chord is above C somewhere. However, if you’ve listened to the function of the chords, you might recognize this as a IV-iii progression. I want to emphasize that a higher level of ear training is needed, but all is possible with proper training. This is true because you can gradually increase difficulty (definition of trainable), and start by learning to recognize the most basic progression I-IV-V-I and build from there.

    3. Continue hopping from chord to chord to find individual relations. Try to notice anything exceptional, like strange tones (blue note? dorian?), modulations and unsuspected minor chords (iv6?)
  2. Pay attention to structure.
    Now this can be a tough one. I’ve always found it hard to memorize the amount of measures per line, lines per verse, verses before the chorus, etc. Even the songs I’ve listened to a million times – if I had to play those without a lead sheet or any accompanion, I’d be lost in how many times to repeat the verse and chorus or when the bridge should begin. This means there is no unconciousness memorization going on like there is with melody and rhythm. You have to pay attention. The way I like to tackle this is to memorize the deviations from the usual pattern: V C V C B C. A lot of songs have this structure, so there is nothing to memorize if this is the structure of the song you are trying to learn. Any irregularity stands out and should be actively memorized.

    Lets take a difficult example. The song Fantasy by Earth Wind & Fire has the following structure: I V P V P C I C C C C C C. Highly irregular with all the verses and pre-chorusses in the beginning of the song, and all the chorusses at the end. This anomaly by itself makes me able to memorize the song better, because it’s something special and out of the ordinary. When hearing a song for the first time, it’s nearly impossible to first find out the structure, and then remember it. Luckily, in most situations it’s okay if you don’t have the structure exactly right. The other band members or vocalist might guide you into the right direction.

    For the adventurous

    The way I would tackle this is to find patterns and groups.
    ‘Fantasy’ can be splitted in 3 groups: I2(VP) – CICC – 4(C*).
    – The intro and verses, the buildup part
    – Three times the chorus with a repetition of the intro in between
    – A modulation with another four chorusses.

  3. Melody and rhythm (almost) go by themselves.
    Memorization requires some sort of algorithm based on associations. As a musician, you have one of the best algorithms already available: the music. Maybe you know a lot of songs already. Don’t you think it’s amazing that you can memorize something abstract as a chord progression for so many different songs? It’s only 7 letters wich are repeated in many different orders and variations. Still you know which progression is linked to which song.

    It’s because you associate them with the sound of the song, which is a very strong differentitating factor. Melody and rhythm can have even stronger associations than chords, thanks to lyrics and phrasing. Even non-musicians can memorize songs – the challenge for the musician is to translate what is heard to notes. It’s one of the most basic (though not simple!) solfege exercises: being able to repeat a melody on your instrument after you’ve heard it. By now you’ve figured out the chords, so the first thing you should think about is where the first note is in relation to the chord. Take for example ‘Someone like You’ by Adele. The first chord of the verse is the tonic (I), a major chord which we envision to be C to make things easy. Now in theory, there are 12 notes that Adele can sing. But we can rule out many of them at once: popular music uses only notes inside the scale, sometimes with the addition of the blue note (b3) or the dominant 7 (b7). So we’re left with

    In the key of C, it is unlikely for a pop song melody to contain C# (b2), F# (b4) or G# (b6). Color intensity represent likeliness of a note to be in the melody.

    That’s still 9 possible notes. Luckily, the start of a phrase is almost always with a note inside the chord. That’s either C, E or G. C is the easiest to recognize, because it strengthens the tonic quality. If you listen closely to the first word Adele sings, ‘I’, you notice it does that. If that would be the only thing she sang, the song could end there. That is a strong indicator that the note is the tonic. Each of the 9 notes have their own characteristic, which you can practice and study. For example, the 3 emphasizes the major quality, while the 5 sounds like an exclamation.

  4. Timbre is about details. Many songs are recognizable on whichever instrument they are played, however using the right sound and dynamics can make it sound much more like the original. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and you need to be creative. In a piano version of Lucy in the sky with Diamonds (The Beatles), I might replace the vibrato of the guitar melody with slightly delayed octaves to get a similar effect.If you have more colors to choose from, you should use that opportunity to get closer to the original. Examples would be using synthesizers or effect pedals for guitar. Now it makes sense to pay attention to instrument details when listening to a song. When the time comes to reproduce the song, you want to know what the original instruments and effects are.

When it’s time to play

So you did your job, you’ve listened closely to the song and now it’s time to recall what you still know. It starts with deciding on the key. If you’ve remembered the original key – either by ear or from sheet music – that helps. But any key can work, because you’ve memorized relationships – not the actual chord names.

In the next video I’ve recorded myself learning a song I’ve never heard before. I will talk you through all of the thought patterns related with the steps I described above.

I encourage you to listen more closely the next time you listen to the radio. There is a LOT to discover in songs that goes unnoticed by most people. The added benefit is that you will be able to recall the song much better later on. Might save you a date.


Intervals made easy

Today I have a very short and simple, but highly useful table for you. A list of intervals with songs you can associate with to study Relative Pitch. Don’t focus on trying to achieve Perfect Pitch alone – it’s a different skill and to understand music, Relative Pitch is even more important than Perfect Pitch.

The songs in this table can be replaced by others. I use tunes that I’m highly familiar with, preferrably from songs that are often played in different keys (like ‘Amazing Grace’). I’ve noticed my moderately developed Perfect Pitch sometimes gets in the way when I try to recognize an interval using a song in another pitch. In some way it doesn’t sound right then.

25 songs to find ascending and descending intervals


UnisonprimeQueen – Bohemian Rhapsody [‘Mamma..’] YouTube link
Minor secondmin2Jaws YouTube linkFur Elise – Beethoven YouTube link
Major secondmaj2Rudolph the red-nosed rendeer YouTube linkYesterday – The Beatles YouTube link
Minor thirdmin3Greensleeves YouTube linkHey Jude – The Beatles YouTube link
Major thirdmaj3Four seasons: Spring – Vivaldi YouTube linkSymphony No. 5 – Beethoven YouTube link
Fourthp4Amazing Grace YouTube linkGeorge of the Jungle – Jungle Book YouTube link
TritonettThe Simpsons YouTube linkDeep Cover – Snoop Dogg [Bass] YouTube link
Fifthp5Twinkle twinkle little star YouTube linkFlintstones YouTube link
Minor sixthmin6Vangelis – Conquest of Paradise YouTube linkGoodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John [‘Blue-ues’] YouTube link
Sixthmaj6My Way [‘And now..’] YouTube linkThe Voice Within – Christina Aguilera
[‘No one’] YouTube link
Seventhmin7Somewhere – Barbra Streisand
[‘There’s – a…’] YouTube link
Lady Jane – Rolling Stones [‘Just heed’] YouTube link
Major seventhmaj7Norah Jones – Don’t know why
[‘I wait’] YouTube link
Talking Music Theme [‘Sit down’] YouTube link
OctaveoctaveSomewhere over the rainbow
[‘Some-where…’] YouTube link

Practice routine

Part one of the effort is to memorize this table. The second and more important part is to test yourself regularly (I do this as part of my general practice routine). It can be fun to have a friend play intervals for you, but when you’re alone you can use one of the ear trainers available on the internet. I like to use this one by EarMaster has great software as well. Make sure to check the settings to change instrument, speed and play mode so you keep being challenged.