If you were to go back to the time before the internet was a thing, back before there was widespread access to ʻukulele tabs, even as far back as when people were like: “Jake who?” There in the darkness you’d find a time in which everyone was pretty good at figuring out songs by ear.
It was part of the required skill set as an ʻukulele player. Without it you were at the mercy of only learning songs from friends or binders full of faded, typed – or handwritten – pages.
Fast forward to now where thousands of websites are at the tip of your fingers waiting to show you the chords to another song. It’s an age of zero patience and “About 1,710,000 results (0.23 seconds)” searches.
I’m sad to say it, but:
People have gotten lazy!
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Figuring out a song by ear is not hard to do. It just takes patience.
With all the “answers” available via the internet nowadays you might wonder why you’d take the long way around. Fair question. Here’s my detailed answer (the first part).
In a nutshell: I think that when you learn a song note for note off the record you…
- …remember it better.
- …have more of a chance to “make it yours.”
- …are forced to get comfortable just playing what sounds good.
- …and, perhaps most importantly, you are more committed to something you’ve put effort into figuring out yourself.
How to Figure Out a Song:
Start simple. Simple!!!!
If you are new to using your ears in this way, you will thank yourself later for starting with an easy piece. For instance: Down On The Corner is a much better place to begin than Bohemian Rhapsody.
If you’re not sure what piece you want to try first, look at a list of two or three chord songs. On my page of simple ʻukulele songs look for the ones that only have three chords. Don’t click the links or you’ll spoil the challenge! Just use it to get ideas. Pick something you’re familiar with and go to town.
A vocal song is going to be easier to navigate for now. The words give you a handle to reference.
Make sure you choose a song that you know really well. If you can sing or hum the whole tune, you’re golden, if not, you’ll be spending time getting familiar with the song as well as earring out how it goes.
Determine The Key
For starters I would recommend learning a song for which you have a reference recording – a CD or .mp3 to listen to. That way you don’t have to keep the pitch in your head and think about more things. Down the road, earring out a song by memory follows basically the same process, but your mind takes the place of the CD.
Finding the key can be a little finicky because it’s determined by the melody and the chords of the song. But the melody and chords are harder to figure out if you don’t know what the key is! So it is indeed a puzzle and the process you take might not be linear. Here are a couple ways to figure out the key of a recorded song:
- Start noodling around until you find a note that sounds good. Then find another and another. When you have seven notes that fit the tonality of the song, you most likely have figured out the major or minor scale that the key uses. Use a reference chart, if you need it, to determine which key your notes fit in.
- Listen for the most consonant or “home” sounding chord. When it comes around, try and nail down the note that is the root – or the most “home” note out of the chord. The bass often plays this note. If it doesn’t it can be confusing.
- Determine if a chord in the progression is major (happy) or minor (sad). Then move a chord shape around until you find that chord. Do this for all the chords until you have enough information to outline the key like in option #1.
Find The Melody
Once you have established what key the song is in you can use that as a framework to find the melody. Remember that there are no hard and fast rules that limit music to a key, but most three chord songs aren’t going to break them. Pick out each note on your ʻukulele listening to if you need to move higher or lower. Go slow and sing along if you feel that helps. Sometimes simplifying what you are hearing (by only singing) can make it easier to pick out the key parts.
Something to keep in mind: Many times the melody starts and stops phrases with notes out of the chord. This is what makes the parts lock together and can aid you in figuring out the chords or vice versa if you’ve already gotten the chords dialed.
Mark The Changes
Harder than you’d think is the task of locating not WHAT the chords are but WHERE they change. If you know this information you can isolate your efforts in these last two steps.
Print out the lyrics to the song and spin the tune. Mark above the words where you think the chord changes happen. Be aware of chords that stay the same across multiple measures. The chords often change on the 1, but they don’t always!
- Listen to the bass. It will shift when the chord changes.
- Isolate each instrument with your ears (focus your ears on one instrument and its volume will appear to jump) and see if one points out the changes more obviously.
- Watch the hard beats. Like I said, the 1 often hosts chord changes. So does the 3. Odds are a simple song won’t have any changes on the off-beats.
Find The Chords
In each key there is a set of seven typical chords that you will find in a song. Basically, the pattern assigns either major, minor, or minor7b5 tonalities to each note in the key. It looks like this:
Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor, minor7b5
If you apply that to the key of C:
C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bm7b5
If you’re playing in a minor key you’d just start the pattern from the 6th chord.
Of course there can be exceptions, but this “rule” will get you 90% of the way there.
Use your ears to locate places where the root chord appears – the “home” chord. This is going to be the name of the key – either major or minor. Fill in the blanks as best you can. At first the song will look like this:
? ? ? ?
But with every chord you figure out you can fill in a question mark:
C ? ? ?
Once you get the root chord in as many places as possible, the second and third most common chords are the 4th and 5th. Try each in the remaining slots and see what you can come up with:
C G ? F
Whatever is left is either 1. a minor chord or 2. something that falls outside the key. Start by trying the minor chords in the remaining slots.
C G Am F
Usually this will finish the puzzle, but if it doesn’t, keep looking.
Improve, Polish, Check
Once you have the framework, go back over the song and double check yourself. Even for me, I miss a lot of things the first time through. Things like relative majors and minors are easy to interchange on accident. If one part sounds a bit off, it probably is. Try and work out the kinks.
If you get to the point that you’ve done your best and just can’t seem to figure out the last 5% – look it up! You’ll learn more from checking yourself than being frustrated. Just don’t sell yourself short! It takes time to learn this process and you might need to sit on a song for a couple days until you get the whole thing.