Flatpicking Guitar Network

For Fans of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine

What are the essential components of learning by ear?

(Disclaimer - I've been working on this seriously for only about 6 months, so take anything I say with a grain of salt.)

here's the list I come up with:

(1) tone matching (transcription) - this should be pretty easy - if a single note is struck over and over again - can you eventually find/match it with your guitar or voice? If not, there are serious issues that I have no idea of how to deal with. But also very unlikely - if so, music would probably seem a bunch of noise and you wouldn't here.

(2) ear training (higher vs lower, interval recognition, chord recognition, absolute pitch recognition, . . .) - in my view, this the first essential component of learning by ear. Question is, what are best approaches, and how far to push it. The idea of absolute pitch recognition and 'perfect pitch' are worthy of further discussion.

(3) Getting the song in you head - essential, and for me the most difficult part or learning by ear. In fact I still can't really do it until after I've learned to play a song, but it is getting a lot closer.

(3a) Listening - essential, we all do it, but can probably get a lot better at.

(3b) Vocalization - singing, humming - not absolutely essential, but you are sitting on a two-legged stool without it.

(3c) Dots (standard music notation) - not at all essential, and you don't need to learn to read standard notation. But, it can be helpful in visualizing the tonal flow of a song.

(4) Music theory - (scales, chord progressions, song structure, moveable chord shapes, . . .) not absolutely essential, but it will greatly reduce your search space and lead you it the right directions.

Most material I've seen on learning by ear starts out kind of like: "If you've got a song in your head and can sing it, then you are ready to start learning it by ear" and then immediately start with twinkle-twinkle, or any of a number of songs we learned in out grade-school music classes, and proceed to teach you how to transfer from your head to the fretboard. For me, getting 'in head' is 90% of the battle, and transfering to the fretboard is almost trivial - although time consuming until you get good at it. So, the first thing I'd like to explore is effective strategies for getting a song in you head.

Y'all got any thoughts on this, or additions to the list?


Views: 155

Replies to This Discussion

(5) belief that you can do it, perseverance, and outside support. Don't worry about 'falling off the wagon' or 'cheating' (peek at Tab or videos now and then). Just make an honest effort before you do 'cheat'.

No additions, but a few comments...

(2) Almost the Holy Grail for me. I can't imagine ever being able to do this, but other folks do so it must be possible. But I'd love to just be able to get up on the bandstand and instantly recognize the key and the changes and just be able to start playing - and get it right. I've seen jazz guys do this a lot and it always boggles the mind. I used to put on a CD that contained whole bunch of two chord backing tracks in different keys, set it to play at random, and try and play in key. I got to be pretty good at that but I suspect I was subconsciously recognising drum fills and piano pushes rather than having an ear for the key... I recall jamming with a fiddle player and wishing I didn't have to keep asking her what key we were in, and wishing I could pick up the chords just from the melody (which I could do sometimes - but only when they were easy, and never first time!). Another example, I was talking to an experienced gypsy jazz guitar player about playing rhythm guitar, and what to look out for, and he said (words to the effect of) listen to the lead player, if he's playing the augmented 5th, then make sure you don't play the straight 5th or the notes will clash. I recall saying how do you hear that augmented 5th whip by at the pace those guys play at. He kind of just looked at me... All of that said, I once had a piano player in my band who had perfect pitch and who could hear something and instantly play it. It is possible... but whether it's possible to learn it...

(3) Memory is a huge problem for me. I really struggle to retain things I've learned. Any hints and tips that work will be welcome!!

(3a) Active listening is a subject close to my heart. Whenever I’ve been transcribing something I find myself listening so much closer than ever I do when I’m just listening. I wish there was a way to up my normal listening skills to the level I use when trying to figure out what the hell someone is doing. Again, other people are very good at that. But as most of my regular listening is done via my iPod whilst walking the dog I have to keep a huge percentage of my concentration on things like cars and other dogs… If I sit down, close my eyes, and just listen I fall alseep...

(3b) I’m a rubbish singer. Very limited range. I’ve heard it say that before you transcribe something you should be able to sing it – including all the little inflections. That would pretty much limit my transcriptions to Luther Perkins’ simplest few solos.

Dots and theory – I love it! To be able to pick up a music book and play the music within is a great joy. I’m better at this on the clarinet and saxophone than I am on the guitar (all those pesky chords and alternative positions to play notes) but I spend time every day (well, every week) working on reading skills. I consider it a key part of being a fully rounded musician, but it’s taken me 35 years to come to this consideration ;-)

Overall...I read somewhere on the web about a workshop in which I think it was David Grier who was talking about improvisation and he went round the room and asked person in turn to play the melody of Happy Birthday. Each person had just one shot – once you made a mistake you were out and he moved onto the next person. It was, apparently, amazing how few people could play a simple melody that they’d known all their lives. Try it now and be honest with yourself. David Grier (or whoever it was) said something like there there’s no point in getting into more advanced concepts until you can hear something like Happy Birthday in your head and know where the notes are on the guitar. Can’t argue with that!

Derek - Holy Grail indeed! To run into an unfamiliar tune, chord along on the first round and take the lead on the second . . . I'll be pleased as punch if I can to the point of figuring something out within a few hours of first hearing it (right now a few weeks, most of it listening).


RE - things falling out of your head. From what I understand, vocalization is the key. Vocal memory is much more compact and efficient (and less malleable) than auditory, visual, or muscle memory. If you are storing you songs there, I think this is a limited amount of space  - some limited number number of tunes (20,40,60 whatever) and then the new ones start to take over the space of the less frequently used old ones. Vocal memory - quasi permanent (I can still remember the words to songs I learned 40-50 years ago and haven't sung since - although not always the melody), and virtual limitless - how much gray matter does it take a Mynah bird to do it's thing? (Granted, they are prewired and we have to learn).

So, even if you don't sing - close the door and sing/hum/scat as much as you can while learning, and then subvocalize (or hum quietly) for playback.

As usual, these are my random thoughts and may or may not be correct.


RE Kathy's comment about 'every other tune' found on flatpick-L: I think I found it, and it is worth reposting here:



I just wanted to add my 2 cents about playing by ear. Learning to
trust/train your musical "ear" is (IMHO) the _most_ important asset any
musician can have. It's more important than being able to read tab OR
standard notation; more important than how many tunes you know; more
important than how much theory you know...etc.

As a guitar teacher, I'm often saddened to find that one of the most
overlooked skills by my students is reinforcing and developing their ear for
music. Over-reliance on tab and such from the start of learning an
instrument can be quite detrimental. I've had students in the past that
could rip through TR's Big Mon break or Grier's Tarnation break, but
couldn't find the right notes/intervals to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by
ear if they had all day (and their lives depended on it).

I refuse to believe that developing a "good ear" is beyond anyone's reach.
It's true that it comes easier for some than others but, with practice,
anyone can improve their ability to translate what they hear in their head
to their instrument. When I was young(er), things such as tab books were
few and far between and the only guitar instruction I got was learning the
basic chords from my Dad. Anything I wanted to learn, I _HAD_ to dig out by
ear. This meant destroying many LPs and cassettes, re-dropping needles and
rewinding till the tape stretched. But every song/phrase/lick that I dug
out made the next one a little easier and made me more confident in my
ability to translate what was in my head to the guitar neck. I would also
(and still do) make a game out of watching TV if my guitar was in my lap
(which it usually is). I'd try to find the melody for whatever jingle was
playing during the commercials before the 30 seconds were up. Same things
with movie soundtracks, tv theme songs, etc. (don't try this with your loved
ones in the room or they'll throw things at you in five minutes flat...trust

I'm partly writing this because I posted that "Your Love Is Like A Flower
Break" from TR a week or two ago. When I posted it, I think I mentioned
that I listened to the CD for "fifteen minutes or so" and dug out the break.
I got no less than 15 responses offlist from folks were either amazed or
thought I was full of sh*t. It's not amazing at all (but I am occasionally
full of sh*t); it's the continually evolving result of someone who's been
training their ear for over 20 years...every day, bit by bit. I'm not
saying that having a good ear is the be-all-end-all to music or
musicianship; it isn't. It will, however, make things such as
interval/chord theory easier to apply and will really be your pal when you
start learning to improvise instead of playing pre-learned arrangements.
There's nothing wrong with learning tunes/riffs via tab or standard
notation. Just don't let yourself become a slave to it. For every tune you
learn from tab, try learning one by ear. Even if you don't get it the first
time you try, keep plugging away at it. Over time, it WILL become
easier...for anyone.

My 2 cents, YMMV, yada-yada-yada,

Jamey Pittman
Struggling Guitar Teacher in Atlanta


Wise words from Jamey...He's put in the work and it shows.... (check out his you tube videos)

that's my 2 cents (we're up to 4 cents, now.)

re: Derek's item 3, this is my motto: "improvisation is God's way of keeping us from having to remember too much stuff."

So.... all I have to remember is how the melody goes. Then, I have to remember the rules and strategies I use to play the melody.

Ok, I admit, you have to learn that melody. So be it. You don't even have to have a guitar in your hand to do that....

Here's a document I use a lot in teaching. Check it out... stuff to think about.

I'd add:

1) Know how to figure out the key by ear. Know how to play in the key by study and practice.

    1a) Know how to find the first note of a tune.

    1b) know how to find the last note of a tune.

2) Rhythm is the primary element of music (at least the types of music I enjoy).

    2a) Timing is essential, too.

3) Patterns and repeated riffs. They are everywhere in music. Try to figure them out as early as possible when learning a song.

4) "Theory" and different playing techniques are shortcuts that will help you hear what's going on in the music of other people and will help you express the music you hear in your head. Listening skills increase as playing skill increases. It is very hard to gain theory and technique skills by listening only.

5) Listening to yourself is just as, if not more, important as listening to others.

6) Learn how to play outside of the melody in case you make a wrong turn somewhere or don't remember the melody exactly.

7) Kathy's "somesimpletheory.pdf" contains essential knowledge. Understand all of it.


I'd subtract:

1) Tone matching. Not good to get stuck on that if you play socially, where changing keys is an important skill to have.

2) Melody is a series of tones that sound pleasant relative to each other. Therefore, absolute pitch recognition, perfect pitch, etc.  are complete wastes of my time, except when tuning my instrument. If I ever find that digital tuners aren't good enough, I'll have already developed this skill.  

3c) Dots: waste of time. For guitar, TAB is much better. But it needs to be good TAB, like found in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine.


Ganon, you can get a melody in your head without learning to play it. Think of all the children's melodies and advertisement jingles you can hum. Of course, they may not be very interesting to you. Interesting melodies are more challenging to 'get in your head', especially if they are fiddle tunes. I suggest you select simpler melodies to train yourself on. And have more patience. OTH, I think it is just as good to get tunes in your head while you are getting them into your fingers - see my #4 above. Plus, a stronger base of scale work would help. In your "Shootin' Creek" example, all the blueprint that was necessary was to know that it was in the key of D. I didn't bother reading your these-frets-on-these-strings hint, but I could get a decent version out after a couple of listens because I determined the key while I was listening the first time through. I don't have the song memorized, but I could sit down with you and trade leads just by knowing the D-scale notes, the structure, and the first note (albeit at the slow speed of your recording).


great stuff, Jim, but I must disagree with your 3c. I much prefer dots to TAB. TAB is useful specifically for understanding exactly HOW someone plays a sequence of notes. When that's important, great. However, dots convey the right information (the notes of the melody) but leave it to you to figure how how/where you want to play them. That's a pretty important process and (IMHO) essential to learning how to play the guitar. TAB locks you into the way, say, Grier or Sutton prefers to play it. Frequently, that's just too hard for me!


Kathy, besides the excellent points you make about 'guitar growth', there are a couple of practical points worth mentioning, although they don't deal directly with ear learning:

(1) Try sharing guitar tab with fiddle, mandolin, banjo, piano, or trombone players.

(2) Do you like playing and discovering slightly obscure fiddle tunes? Open one of the various Fiddler's 'fakebooks' or go to thesessions.org and see how much guitar tab you can find.

My 0.02


Thanks for the comments.

I think my problem will turn out to be a lack of patience. I started listening to a simple version of Salt Creek with the intention of getting the melody inside my head and only then onto the guitar. But after just a few listens I couldn't resist and I picked up the guitar... It wasn't too difficult to find the right pitches on the guitar (I'm only talking about the first few phrases, not the whole thing), but I'm not sure that I'm adhering to the rules - I was listening and picking rather than listening, internalising, and only then picking. That said, I didn't play along to the music to find the right notes - I tried to match the guitar with what was still echoing in my short term memory. So maybe I wasn't too far away with the spirit of the technique.


Couple of observations:


1) It's far easier (for me) to remember a piece once I've transcribed it. Maybe the action of actually playing it on the guitar helps re-inforce the memory

2) There's still no way I could have sung aloud what I'm learning. Aside from range issues the notes (even on this relatively slow version - it's from SK's PLP series) were too fast for these old vocal chords to articulate.

3) 'Tis a grand feeling to have confidence that one can do this and won't have to worry (too much) about tab again. I'm sure there are many pieces out there that I won't be able to "hear" let alone play, but I reckon overtime it'll be easier to do it this way than by reading tab.

Sounds like a great way to go about it, Derek. Don't worry about rules (oh, except the one!). You picked up the guitar when you were ready to find the notes. There's a couple ways of going about this, one is to get the entire melody in your head before you sit down to find it on the guitar.

I can impatient sometimes though and set to learning something before I have listened enough... so your method is how I do it, get a few notes in my head, then find them on the guitar. Find the next few notes, then find them. Here's the important next step: before you go to the 3rd phrase, tie the first 2 together.... because you still need to learn how to get from the end of phrase 1 to the beginning of phrase 2. Once that's down, then go to phrase 3. So getting the entire thing in your head first is best, but not the only way to "learn by ear."

For me... I'd get stuck somewhere in the latter part of the A part for a while (or more likely, because phrases are repeated, the entire A part) and work on this for a while before moving on to the B part.

your comment 1, that's ok, but it doesn't do anything to reinforce the skills (motor memory, auditory memory) that you need to learn the tune. Transcribing takes a lot of time that you could using on improving your listening skills, etc.   btw don't forget that you can "practice" any time... you don't need a guitar in your hand. In fact, once you can trace the entire melody in your mind's ear.... don't even use your auditory source any more. Test your knowledge of the melody by hearing it in your head. If you're like me, there's always one or two spots where I tend to forget "what comes next." 

comment 2, that's ok. The point is that you KNOW the melody.

comment 3, great! then you can use TAB for information... I'll post something about that soon.

rock on, sounds like you're on the way!


Don't Miss These!



Latest Activity

Profile IconMark Hubble, Marc Thebeau, James Ross and 16 more joined Flatpicking Guitar Network
Conch Hampton updated their profile
Jim Cornwell updated their profile
Bob Mesher replied to Bob Cron's discussion Norman's Preferences
"All I remember was when he had a Martin with flush frets on it (i.e. just markers for a guitar that was designed for slide only) and he had it converted for flat picking. "
Nov 2
Bob Mesher commented on Joe McColley's video

St Anne's Reel

"Nicely played. "
Nov 2
Keith Mellinger updated their profile
Oct 30
jerry L. Pujol posted a song

 play Nine Pound Hammer Practice Tracks and Tabs (4) (1).zip

Sep 22
Sam Byerly updated their profile
Aug 29
Ralph Schut updated their profile
Apr 24
Ralph Schut left a comment for David Bullock
"Hello David, sorry for the late reply - I had not visited this site for years. Unfortunately, I do not have tabs for Man of Constant Sorrow - the video you saw was recorded by somebody who had requested me to teach them the song - I only played it…"
Apr 24
Ralph Schut left a comment for Dave Siler
"Hallo Dave, ich spreche auch ein Bischen Deutsch :) Danke für Ihre Nachricht! Alles Gute und viel Spass beim Flatpicking!"
Apr 24
Ralph Schut is now friends with Maria Calfa-DePaul and Dave Siler
Apr 24
Profile IconCary bowden, Donald S. Brazelton, Leland Tam and 6 more joined Flatpicking Guitar Network
Apr 23
Bob Cron posted a discussion

Norman's Preferences

I saw a video in which Norman discussed why he preferred a certain fret when refretting one of his Martin's. I am about to refret my D-35 Martin, and I would like to know if anyone remembers a video in which Norman discusses his choice over the Frets Martin uses. Thank You.7See More
Apr 6
Cams left a comment for Dr. Kent Gustavson
"Hey Kent - fancy meeting you here! "
Apr 6
Alan Anderson updated their profile
Mar 23

© 2018   Created by Dan Miller.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service