Practical Music Theory Tips #8 – Using Theory plus your Ear to Learn Songs

Ryan Egan —  January 23, 2008 — 10 Comments

We’ve looked at several different things that can give you a quick boost in your theory knowledge in the last several posts: chords, chord suffixes, relative minor chords, chord progressions, key signatures and seventh chords. Now let’s put it all together and apply it.

Many people can use their ear to learn songs but have no idea what the structure is behind what they’re learning. They hear it and they can play it. Many people can look at music to learn songs and understand theory, but have a hard time learning something by ear. We want to develop our skills to be able to use both, and the two ways of learning really go hand in hand.

Every melody, hook, riff or whatever else makes up a song is really as simple as taking the notes of a chord and working with it to create the sound that is desired. Take for example, “Yankee Doodle.” The first four notes of the melody are directly related to the I chord. It starts out by using the root note twice on “Yan-kee.” Then, the goal of the end of the phrase is to get to the third note of the scale on the syllable of “-dle”. Instead of creating boring melody and playing the third note of the scale twice on “Doodle” the composer added what’s called a passing tone on the second note of the scale. The passing tone is used to pass through to the next note, creating interest. The melody basically stays within the I chord with one exception, the passing tone on the second note of the scale.

With this knowledge at your disposal, it is very simple to listen, apply theory, then learn. Here are some simple steps to do this:

  1. Figure out what key you’re in. Do this either by listening and experimenting on your instrument while you listen or find out what key the song is in. Don’t find the music, though, as we’re trying to learn by ear at this point!
  2. Warm up on the basic chords of the key (I, IV, V, iv). Break them apart and create your own little fills and melodies. You might find that these turn out to be the same as in the song you’re trying to learn!
  3. Listen to the melody, hook or riff in the song (listen to very small chunks at a time). Take a short chunk of music, figure out the notes it is using by trial and error on your instrument, then figure out what chord these notes are basing themselves around. If you have familarized yourself with the basic chords, these melodies should come very easily as they are most often composed by breaking up basic chords and adding some passing tones.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This could be very frustrating at first, but believe me, if you practice it enough, it will pay off. I remember when I was younger and my brother could sit down and figure out a song just by listening to it. I was amazed and wondered how in the world he could do that. Now, after many, many practice hours and a good amount of music theory knowledge later, I can do it just as easily.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask. Have fun!

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Ryan Egan

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Ryan is a follower of Christ, husband, father, worship leader, & creative. He is heavily involved in the Association of Free Lutheran Churches and desires to teach others to live a life of worship in everything they do.
  • http://www.guitarboomer.com VintageP

    Well, I think this might be good news! I’ve assumed in the past that the ability to hear a song and then play it was some inborn trait rather than something that could be learned. Time to crack open the books!

  • http://www.guitarboomer.com VintageP

    Well, I think this might be good news! I’ve assumed in the past that the ability to hear a song and then play it was some inborn trait rather than something that could be learned. Time to crack open the books!

  • http://www.iamanoffering.com Ryan

    I absolutely believe that you can learn to play by ear. The more theory you can teach yourself and the more time you spend listening and experimenting, the better you will get. Keep working hard!

  • http://www.iamanoffering.com Ryan

    I absolutely believe that you can learn to play by ear. The more theory you can teach yourself and the more time you spend listening and experimenting, the better you will get. Keep working hard!

  • http://www.guitarboomer.com VintageP

    Will do, thanks for visiting!

  • http://www.guitarboomer.com VintageP

    Will do, thanks for visiting!

  • http://flagpoles.bz Ray

    Making a joyful noise.

    Boy this is very helpful. I had a stroke as a kid, so my guitar and piano need all the help they can get. I’m teaching (sort of) our 1 year old grandson on the Q chord autoharp. He just comes in my room and changes chords and stuff.
    I hope you eventually get to those modal progressions(?) I think they are called C Bb F G or whatever. Thanks again. In the meantime can you suggest a site with that?

    Years ago my sister had a guitar group at Mass. I convinced her to call it: “The Second Collection”.

  • http://flagpoles.bz Ray

    Making a joyful noise.

    Boy this is very helpful. I had a stroke as a kid, so my guitar and piano need all the help they can get. I’m teaching (sort of) our 1 year old grandson on the Q chord autoharp. He just comes in my room and changes chords and stuff.
    I hope you eventually get to those modal progressions(?) I think they are called C Bb F G or whatever. Thanks again. In the meantime can you suggest a site with that?

    Years ago my sister had a guitar group at Mass. I convinced her to call it: “The Second Collection”.

  • http://www.iamanoffering.com Ryan

    Hey Ray, I’m glad that you found this helpful. I am hoping to do some more in the future, just haven’t decided what to do yet. As far as modal progressions, that’s getting into a little bit higher level of music theory that I don’t think I’ll touch here. If I can find a good site with information I’ll point it your way.

  • http://www.iamanoffering.com Ryan

    Hey Ray, I’m glad that you found this helpful. I am hoping to do some more in the future, just haven’t decided what to do yet. As far as modal progressions, that’s getting into a little bit higher level of music theory that I don’t think I’ll touch here. If I can find a good site with information I’ll point it your way.