Roadmap – Songs by Ear

Start With The Song

What song are you trying to learn? What key is the song in? Is the song way above your skillset? Does the song require rhythm in your left hand? Will you be playing the song by yourself? These are the types of questions you need to think about while learning a song. The answer to these questions will guide your musical approach to the song.

If you’re playing with a band your left hand won’t play lots of bass runs. If you’re playing with a drummer only then your left hand or left foot might have a lot of work to do. Ask yourself these questions so you can approach the song correctly for your situation.

Curve 1 – The Key

The first hurdle of any song is the key. What key is the song in and how well can you play in that key? (Don’t you dare use transpose) Most beginners stumble at the first curve in the roadmap of learning songs. The key is based on the scale. If the song is in a key you’re not that great in start by practicing that scale. Get the notes and the number in your mind. E =1, F# =2, etc.

After you get the scale down, keep driving to curve #2.

Curve 2 – The Progressions

The second curve isn’t a difficult one to handle if you know the scale. Learning the progression of a song is simple in theory. All you need to do is listen to the bass line. The bass line will give you the number of the progression. I.E: 3.6.2. which in the key of C Major is a E, A, D bass line.

Once you get the bass line you can start off with the most basic 3.6.2 chords you know.

Next keep driving to the third curve to learn the chords.

Curve 3 – The Chord Types

This curve is the most dangerous one. The hardest part of learning a song is creating the exact same sound that was created in the song. In gospel music, not all chords are simple three note triads. (I.E. C.E.G) Sometimes you have to use eight fingers. As you approach the chords of the song ask yourself this question. Is it a simple chord or a fancy chord. Approach curve three by figuring out if the chord is Major, Minor, Diminished, etc. If you do this, you will discover that most of the chords to the song fit into this category.

Other times there are chords that aren’t so simple. When you encounter this type of chord you are dealing with extended chords. Chord extensions are simply the extra colors you add to a chord. CEG is a simple chord but when you add B it becomes a C Major 7. There are many extensions like 9,11,13, etc that create the foreign sound to your untrained ear.

To find the chord extension you simply need to focus on the highest tones in the chord. You already know the bass note because you learned it on curve two. Now, listen to the top notes. By doing so you are trying to hear the extension of the chord. Sometimes you need to listen to a section of a song over and over again.

Also, it helps me to think logically about a chord that I’m stuck on. Does it sound Major or Minor? Does it sound like another chord in that other song you play? These questions will help you to figure out the chord. How does the chord make you feel? How much tension is in the chord? Is it bright or is it a dark chord. If you ask yourself these questions it may help you to find the chord. (It’s not always easy to do but you can always get in the “neighborhood” using our roadmap.)

Curve 4 – The Expression

The last aspect many have to master is “how you will play the song”. Is it very rhythmic? Will my left hand and right hand play different rhythms? How will I voice the chords? Will there be breaks and build ups in the song. These are all expression issues. Think about what the song is doing and keep practicing until you get it.