View Full Version : Resources for learning to play songs by ear

The Gunrunner Rimbaud
07-01-2010, 10:40 PM
Okay, so one thing I'm realizing is that a lot of songs I want to play aren't tabbed and probably never will be unless I do it myself. Of course I can listen to a song until I get sick of it, but I still for the life of me can't figure out what the chords or picking melodies are.

Right now I'm working my way through Gary Ewer's Easy Music Theory book and CD set, but it doesn't really seem to have an ear training component. So, what would fellow ukers recommend to learn how to pick up what others play? I'm mostly wanting to take Indie pop and twee songs that I enjoy and convert them to uke.

Thanks a bunch!

Ukulele JJ
07-02-2010, 01:34 AM
Okay, so one thing I'm realizing is that a lot of songs I want to play aren't tabbed and probably never will be unless I do it myself.

And a lot of the ones that are tabbed out are wrong, too! So good for you for taking the initiative! Developing your "ear", like anything else, takes time and practice. Along the way there will be some frustration. It's all part of the process.

It's like learning to read... you're not just going to be able to just jump in and start reading Shakespeare right off the bat. There will be a lot of slowly "sounding it out" one letter (or one note) at a time. But that struggling is building the foundation for the skills that will eventually make it a lot easier for you.

For what it's worth, here are some things that have helped me:

Just do it. Sounds trite, but it's true. To this day I remember the first time I sat down at a piano bench with a cassette player (yeah--that's how long ago it was!) to try to figure out the first song I learned by ear. Listen to a bar... rewind... listen... rewind. Try a few notes. Try a few more. Rewind. Listen to a bar again...
Start simple. I'm talking "Happy Birthday" and "Twinkle, Twinkle" simple.
Once you get good at picking out melodies/vocal lines, listen for other monophonic parts of the song. Guitar riffs. Synth doodles. String lines. Bass parts. Background vocals. The notes they play/sing are often big clues as to the chord that's being used.
Especially bass parts. That's a huge help for me, personally. I almost always rely on singing the bass line: Bum-bum-bum-bah-bum, etc. Once you pick out those notes on your instrument (and you'll likely need to shift octaves), you're home free. It's very often the root of the chord.
Keep the uke by your side when you watch TV and practice plinking along with commercial jingles, news show themes, etc.
Avoid running to the internet when you get stumped. In a way, I had it easier back in the day. If I didn't figure it out by ear, I pretty much didn't learn it! There was no easy way out, which was pretty motivating. :-)
Tune your uke by ear as often as you can. Either by matching the notes with a pitch reference, or by tuning the strings "to each other". People who rely on their electronic tuners every time are missing out on a great ear-training opportunity.

The biggest help for me? Learning and using the Nashville Number System. I can't stress how much of a quantum leap my ear took once I moved here and started playing gigs. :-)

You should have an easy time with getting up to speed with it, since you're already studying some theory. Basically, you start thinking of chords in terms of their relationship to the key, rather than by their letter name. So instead of Brown-Eyed Girl being this...

Hey, where did we go?

Days when the rain came

It's this...

1 4 1 5

If you have a stack of chord sheets that you play from, start rewriting them as Number charts when you have the time. Why does this work? Well, it forces you to notice the harmonic patterns in songs and associate their sounds with a key-independent representation. Recognizing a G chord requires perfect pitch, which most people don't have. But recognizing a 1 chord moving to a 6 minor chord just uses relative pitch, which most people can develop. But you can't learn the numbers if you're still using letters!

I'll tell you what doesn't help me much is associating intervals with songs. You know... a perfect 4th is "High-ho, High-ho" and a 6th is the NBC theme, etc. It's a handy trick in a pinch sometimes, but it's too much "translating" for most real-world scenarios when notes are flying by at 120 beats-per-minute.


07-02-2010, 03:02 AM
Jim D'Ville has a great blog called (oddly enough) Play Ukulele By Ear (http://playukulelebyear.blogspot.com/) that applies music theory to ear training. He also offers a DVD.