How I learned to transcribe songs by ear

The author of Ask Ceil is taking the holiday off, but she’ll be back next week.


When I learned how to play piano and guitar, I’d either learn songs from friends, or puzzle them out from sheet music. When I started playing in bands, things changed: Someone would hand me a record or a tape and say “here, learn this.” I’d have to figure out the song by ear. This was well before you could find chords and guitar tablature on Usenet and sites like Olga (and well before Olga was served with a cease-and-desist).

The general idea

The easiest way to do this is to attack it piecemeal. I’ll listen to the song a lot, then figure out the easy bits; then move along to the harder stuff.

I’ll first type or write down the lyrics, leaving room in between the lines for chord changes. (I also discovered that I was extremely lyrics-oriented, and songs without words were a lot harder to figure out. In those cases, I’ll sometimes make a list of the different parts of the song, just as a starting point.)

Next, I figure out the easiest parts of the song. This is generally the chorus, but it can be anything. Whatever parts of the song I’ve figured out, I’ll write those chord changes down above the lyrics. If the song has a main riff, I’ll work on that as well.

Tricks that work for me

I usually find it easiest to find the pitch of bass notes. From there, it’s easy to figure out if the chords are major, minor, seventh chords, or whatever. (You can try playing both major and minor and seeing what sounds closer. If needed, refine to seventh chords, minor ninth, whatever. This is where experience will build up an instinct for this.)

Also, I’ll probably try humming a note along with the recording, pause the recording while holding the note, then find it on the guitar. (Stringed instruments make this easier, since you can slide up on the neck until the note is reached, I have a harder time figuring songs out on the piano than the guitar.)

Chords and the song’s basic key

You say there’s no instrument playing chords in the song you want to transcribe? Untrue; there’s harmony in almost every song, and there will be implied chords, if nothing else.

You should now know what key the song is in, which will make figuring it out much easier. Keep figuring out various parts of the song until you have a complete lead sheet in front of you. If there are tricky parts, you may want to write them down in musical notation or tabulature, whichever works for you.

How do you know what key the song is in? Often, the first chord in a basic verse-chorus song is the key the song is in. Again, use trial and error to whittle down the key possibilities.

Conclusion

Many songs have chord sheets and tabulature on the internet, sometimes even on the artist’s own site. Using these is not cheating; these can give you a leg up and save you a lot of time. They can also be oversimplified, or alternate versions of the song, or just plain wrong. Use your judgment.

Once you develop your transcribing skills, you’ll start finding mistakes in online transcriptions, and even sometimes in pro sheet music.

You’ll also find that when you hear somebody play a song, you can start to join in. You might want to ask what key they’re in or ask about any tricky parts of the tune, but transcribing skills translate into playing-with-others skills.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor. He’s also a musician for the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides a mean bicycle, and he paints in oils when the mood strikes him.

This core of this article started out as a post Neil wrote on the excellent site Musical Practice & Performance .

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