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How to Figure Out Songs: Transcribing by Ear

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.

This was part of the required skill set as an ʻukulele player. If you didn’t use your ears to analyze songs you were at the mercy of others and their handwritten transcriptions.

Nowadays there are thousands of tab websites are at the tip of your fingers. It’s an age of zero patience and “About 1,710,000 results (0.23 seconds)” searches.

This allows players to almost completely skip the most important part of musicianship: listening!

Is figuring out a song by ear hard?

Not as hard as you might think. More than anything, it’s just an approach that most people aren’t familiar with.

This doesn’t make it more difficult. I just makes it different.

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Figuring a song out on your ʻukulele by ear is like understanding spoken word as opposed to reading. Putting it on the page doesn’t make the message any different. What changes is the device used to interpret the message (ears instead of eyes).

Of course, most people are much more comfortable speaking their native tongue than they are playing music.

So, with that in mind, it’s best to approach this method of learning music with the same open-mindedness as a new language learner. It’s not going to be perfect at first. But if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded.

Why should I make the effort to learn by ear?

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 by ear…

  • You remember it better.
  • You have a better chance to make the music your own.
  • You are forced to get comfortable playing what sounds good instead of what you think is right.
  • You are more committed to a song you’ve put effort into figuring out yourself.

But most of all, exercising this part of your musical mind frees you. It helps you connect your ears to your fingers.

Someone who nurtures this connection is able to easily jam and play stuff they hear in their head.

I like what Victor Wooten has to say about playing without theory in this video snippet (in our case here, “theory” can mean what’s written on a page). Skip to 3:40.

How Do You Figure Out a Song by Ear?

So now hopefully I’ve got you convinced that you should really make an effort to play by ear.

But how the heck do you do it? I’ll try to break it down.

Here’s a video lesson I recorded recently about the subject:

Start Familiar and Simple

The first few songs you try to figure out by ear on your uke have two requirements:

  • They’re easy (aim for three chord songs)
  • You know them really well in your head

The first item is obvious. Jambalaya (a two chord song) is a much better place to begin than a crazy-complex jazz tune. Set yourself up for success – even if it seems boring!

Your first goal shouldn’t be to learn your favorite song. It should be to give your ear a friendly place to learn the skills it needs. You can progress to harder stuff later.

Second, if you know the song, you can pick it out by ear without needing to reference a recording. Listening to a song is fine, but it’s much better if you can hum the entire tune confidently.

Well-known traditional songs are a great place to start. They aren’t fabulously interesting, for the most part, but I bet you can hum most of these:

  • Amazing Grace
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat
  • Yankee Doodle
  • When the Saints Go Marching In
  • Ode to Joy

Pick one and start there.

This is an interesting test to see how well you can identify whether a simple melody is correct or not. Try it out and see how you do! (I got 26.)

Find the Starting Note of the Melody

You can play a tune in any key if you have it in your mind. This is ideal for learning to play by ear because you can start in an easy key.

If you have to listen to a recording you might end up playing in a hard key and spend your time feeling lost instead of figuring out the notes.

C is usually the most familiar key for ʻukulele players so start there. Strum C G7 C and hum an improvised little tune to get your ear accustomed to the sound of the key.

From there you need to find the note the melody starts on. Strum C and let the sound get in your mind. Conjure up the melody into your head and try to hum or sing the first few notes.

All of the songs included above start on the root chord so you can strum C while you sing. Sing the beginning of the melody a few times until you feel confident it’s right and fits with the chord.

Then isolate the first note and sing it by itself. Now it’s time to find it on your ʻukulele.

The first note of a melody is usually a note in the first chord. In our case, C. The notes of a C chord are C, E, and G.

Try playing any of these three options on your uke while singing the first note of the melody. Hopefully one will sound obviously consonant and “home.”

Other chord tones might also sound nice, but if you start on the wrong one, you’ll be initiating your melody from the place a harmony line would otherwise start. This harmony will usually move up and down similarly to the melody, but at a different pitch.

This is confusing to your ear, but is all part of learning process. If the melody just isn’t working, return to the start note and double check yourself.

The hardest part of playing by ear is learning to identify which note is right. This takes practice.

The good news is that it’s pretty easy to hear when you’re wrong. If you eliminate all the wrong options, you’ll have to trust that what is left is the right note.

Continue the Melody

Once you have the starting note dialed in, you can continue to other notes in the melody with relative ease.

This is simply a matter of answering these questions:

  1. Does the note stay the same, move up, or move down?
  2. If it moves, how far away is the note?
An ear training app is a very powerful practice tool that’s especially helpful for honing the skills needed for this step. Interval training exercises help you learn to identify the distance between notes.

This little test has a section on identifying whether a note moves up or down.

If the note stays the same you won’t hear any kind of movement in pitch.

For reference, here are the songs from the list that use the same note multiple times at the beginning of the melody: “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “Ode to Joy.”

Sing them out loud (your voice vibrating your head helps you hear changes in pitch) and identify when the first note changes.

If the note moves up or down, the pitch will change accordingly. This can be hard to hear at first, but one thing you can listen for is an intensifying of the note’s vibration.

This might sound silly, but think about it, a note is simply a vibration occurring at a certain frequency. (This is measured in hertz – “hz” – or how many cycles the vibration makes per second.)

If the pitch moves up, the note vibrates faster. If the pitch moves down, the note vibrates slower.

Not that it’s possible to count the vibrations; the lowest note a human can hear is around 20hz. But it’s certainly possible to feel these movements.

For practice or fun, take the blind pitch test. It tracks your accuracy at identifying the direction of very small pitch changes. The easiest is a 50 cent difference – half of a note. The hardest is 1 cent – an almost imperceptible difference.

If you can get used to hearing the differences of pitch in the test, it should be no problem to track a melody.

Once you’ve determined whether the note moves up or down, you need to figure out how far it moves.

Besides interval training (find an app – link above), there’s really no way to know this without lots of trial and error.

The good news is that there are only a limited number of options. Simply move up or down using an educated guess based on how far it sounds like the note moves. Then pick your way around until you find the right note.

Repeat this process until you have a solid basis for the melody. Be sure to occasionally play it from the beginning so you don’t forget where the right notes were.

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!

Tips:

  • 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.

Want to learn more while also supporting the site?

Check out my ebooks on chords and technique! Learn essential tricks and how to play more confidently with some of the very best uke resources available.

Browse my ebooks!

Brad Bordessa

I'm an 'ukulele artist from Honoka'a, Hawai'i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I've taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me