Learning songs by ear pt 2

Learning Songs by Ear – pt 2

In this next section, I’ll give you some advanced tips for learning songs by ear in various styles.  

What to listen for and think about in different styles


Metal, Randy Rhoads

Randy Rhoads







Mostly power chords, with an occasional major or minor chord.

Classic Rock


Eric Clapton, learning rock songs by ear

Eric Clapton

If it’s on the lighter side of classic rock – rock ballads – listen for mostly major and minor chords, with an occasional power chord, and maybe an occasional dominant 7th chord. On some rock ballads, you may find some notes added to your basic major or minor chord. Major add 9 chords are very popular, as these chords are perfect for rock ballads- very pretty chords. If you’d like to know more about these chords, let me know, and I’d be happy to give you some info on them in a separate post. For the heavier stuff, it’s reversed – mostly power chords, with an occasional major/minor chord.

Blues/Blues rock

Robert Cray, figuring out blues songs by ear

Robert Cray

Anything that sounds “bluesy” is likely to have a fair amount of dominant 7th chords. Once you’ve heard them a time or two, they’ll probably jump out at you compared to the major and minor sounds. Blues rockers like Eric Clapton, and many others, generally use a combination of power chords and 7th chords.
Like I said generally speaking…

Folk/Folk rock

James Taylor, learning songs by ear

James Taylor

Major, minor and few dominant chords



Chet Atkins, learning songs by ear

Chet Atkins

These songs rarely use power chords, but rely more on major, minor and dominant 7th chords.
For this next group, you’ll most likely need a good amount of experience with chords, and actually playing songs in these styles. For that matter, for any style of music, the more songs you’ve played, the easier it is to hear and identify the chords.

Pop – By pop, I’m referring to the big pop ballads that you might hear Mariah Carey (like “Hero”) or Whitney Houston sing. Pop songs use a bit of a wider range of chord types. They’ll use major, minor, dominant 7th, major 7th, minor 7th, and others. They also use what are called inversions. The basic concept of a chord inversion is that instead of an A note being the lowest sounding note in an A major chord (the usual situation), another note from the chord takes its’ place. In the case of an A major chord, either a C# or E. They usually take a bit of experience to hear. But there are ways to figure them out, using a little music theory, which I’ll explain later.

So given all that, you may want get some experience with some of the other genres before tackling these . But don’t let me stop you if you feel ambitious and want to test your ear! That’s always fun, when you work and struggle to hear something, and you FINALLY get it. I’ve been transcribing songs for over 20 years, and that feeling never gets old – and I always learn something.


George Benson, learning songs by ear

George Benson

Seventh chords, inversions, and some more advanced techniques – slash chords, polychords. Slash chords are kind of like inversions, except they can have ANY note as the lowest note, not just the notes of the chord. Polychords are combinations of 2 chords, which can create a very sophisticated and complicated sound. For these kinds of chords, you’ll most likely have to figure them out note by note, which I’ll talk about shortly.

Advanced tips and tricks

What I’ve covered so far should get you up and running. However, no matter who you are, you will ultimately get stuck at some point. Here are some advanced ideas to help you out of a jam to help you if you get stuck.

If you’re not currently using a piece of slow down software, this is where they usually pay for themselves. You can loop down to less than a second of the song, and slow it down at the same time. I’ve found that if I just step back and listen – and not try to figure it out – the notes become clearer to me.

This applies to both lead and chords. If you’re stuck on a chord, most of these software packages allow you to “freeze” a chord and loop it. Once you’ve done this, try to sing the notes in the chord. It will take some practice, but try to match your voice to the notes that you’re hearing in the song. I’ll let my voice slide up and down until I feel like I’ve “landed” on a note that matches the chord. Then, I’ll search for another note in the chord that way. Sometimes I can figure out the whole chord this way. Other times, I can hear only part of the puzzle. Which leads to…

Figuring out chords this way is kind of like playing Wheel of Fortune with notes. Once you’ve snagged a few, the picture will become clearer and hopefully your growing knowledge of chords will lend a hand and solve the rest of the problem for you.

Here’s what I mean by that: What if you hear the bass player play an E, and you hear a G somewhere in the rest of the chord? Well, if you know your chords, you’ve already got some options to try…
Em: E G B

C : C E G

What do these chords have in common? Well, they both have an E and a G in them. These are the only 2 major and minor chords that have both notes. If you included 7th chords, you would have more options to work with. Now all you do is test both chords against the one in the song, and decide if you’ve guessed right. This isn’t an exact science, but it will definitely help you get to the finish line.

Transcribing, or figuring out songs by ear is quite a challenge, but it’s definitely worth it.  All the great players have done it, and it’s largely how they got to where they are today. So, keep learning about chords and scales and learning everything you can by ear.   This way, you can think AND feel.  I think it’s the best of both worlds. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing  what your experiences are.


Here’s pt 1:

Learning songs by ear – pt 1