View Full Version : how to play songs by ear/compose?

10-28-2009, 08:09 PM
hey, i've been playing uke for a while and i played guitar before that. i've had no formal training, but i'm pretty decent.

how do you go about learning to play songs by ear?

also, how do i compose? are there any good weebsites, books, anything that could help?


10-28-2009, 08:15 PM
When I try to learn a song by ear, I try to match the A string with whatever I hear.

Ex: If you're listening to "I'm Yours", the first chord being played is a B major, right?...if you hold down the 2nd fret on the A string (assuming your Uke is tuned GCEA), then it'll sound somewhat like the chord being played...I believe my friend told me that the A string represents like...the "bass line", and...well it makes sense to me, I just can't explain it thoroughly.

Sorry. I'd be a horrible teacher, lol.

10-28-2009, 08:24 PM
Learning to play "by ear" is really just finding the basic chords of a tune and following along or figuring out the chords based on a melody and vocals. The easy way to learn how to play by ear is to jam with experienced musicians and follow their hands while hearing and becoming familiar with the sounds of chords you are playing.

As for composition, what I do is start with a song concept and try to create a melody that suites the mood. I am not a prolific writer, but when the mood strikes me, I write a song start to finish in a matter of five or ten minutes. Keep in mind that I am a professional songwriter, too, but lots of pros write using different methods. Some take days or weeks to write a song and some are like me, the lyrics come quickly.

There are lots of books written about songwriting. I have never bothered to read one, but my mother was a professional songwriter and I grew up with the business all around me. One book I have used, though, is the "Songwriter's Market".

10-28-2009, 11:21 PM
check out the circle of fifths, there's a simple rule which will help.

First, take a piece of paper and write these down in a circle, going counterclockwise:

C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, Ab, Eb, Bb, F

(so C is at 12:00, G is at 11:00, D is at 10:00, etc, that's the circle of fifths)

Now the rule is, pick a root or starting chord (in this case C) and jump to any other chord on the circle,

THEN work your way back to C, moving clockwise around the circle.

Try this example:

Start on C, jump to E, then work your way back to C:

C, E7, A, A, D7 G7 C (G7)

(if you write this out in a circle you can start on any root you want, typing it in a line I had to start with C)

The bridge of a song (part B in AABA form) can be a shift to change to one of neighboring fifths, for C that could be F. Adjoining fifths are closely related - in either direction. Now we're moving back and forth along the circle:

F, C, G7, C, F, C, G7 G7,

and hanging on the G7 sets up the return to C.

So here's the whole 5 minute song:

C, E7, A, A, D7, G7, C, G7,
C, E7, A, A, D7, G7, C, C,
F, C, G7, C, F, C, G7, G7,
C, E7, A, A, D7, G7, C, C.

I like to think of it like taking trips away from home, you can take short familiar trips or long exotic ones. Taking a big jump is like flying one way and driving back, it can start off exotic and dramatic but as you get closer to home things get more familiar:

C, (big jump to) Eb, Ab C#, F# B, E, A, D7 G7, C

(in this case the commas separate measures, some have two chords per measure).

Another useful trick is to substitute a relative minor chord for a major chord. For C, substitute Am, for G, Em, for F, Dm, etc.

C, F, G7, C is one nice progression

Am, Dm, Em, Am are the substitutes. They even work in the same line:

C, F, G7, C, Am, Dm, Em, Am

There are other tricks to play with - and having that circle of fifths in front of you helps a lot.

Have fun

10-28-2009, 11:54 PM
Being able to work out songs by ear is largely a function of pitch memory, which is informed by the characteristics of the given instrument upon which the tune is being played. You also have to be able to get your mind around the form of the song, and the rhythmic values of the changes.

The longer you play the easier it'll get.

Probably the best single thing you can do is to keep your uke tuned correctly and make sure you are tuned correctly every time you pick up the instrument. It'll aid in the development of pitch memory.

10-29-2009, 07:11 AM
To play songs by ear and compose, you don't have to know music theory, but it sure helps.

To start learning music theory, I have two resources to recommend - Howlin' Hobbit's excellent "Cheater Theory (http://www.howlinhobbit.com/docs/cheater_theory_v2.pdf)" document, and musictheory.net (http://www.musictheory.net/).

Basically, when I figure out a song, I find out what key it's in first. The key is the tonal center of a song. It's the note that the song seems to resolve on. Usually, it's the last chord of a song, but not always.

Once I know the key, then there are only a few choices of chords that I can choose from. By listening to the relationships between the chord changes in the song, I fiddle around with those chords until it sounds right.

Listening to the bass notes in the song is a big tip. Usually, the bass is playing the root note, so if I can find out what that root note is, I can figure out what chord is being played.