How To Learn Songs By Ear

Rhythm Guitar Version

<--break- />Being able to figure out any song comes with a lot of experience, but there is a process and a few tricks you can use along the way to help you develop your own ear. Here’s my approach for learning a song from scratch.

Find A Starting Point

So much of learning songs be ear is figuring out where to start. I usually start by identifying chord shapes rather than individual notes. Open chords like E and G have a distinct tone while D and A really lend themselves to changing from the suspended voice to the 2. Bar chords without any open strings also have a unique sound and are instantly recognizable once you know how to spot them.  The benefit of recognizing the shape is that it not only helps you find the notes to play, but can also give away the use of a capo. Take a song like I Am They’s "King of Love". The song is in the key of Bb, but the electric guitar is clearly playing a G shape.  Put that G shape on the neck until the fretted notes match and now you know where to put your capo and you can build from there.

So much of learning songs by ear is figuring out where to start.

Find The Key

If a song is like a painting, the key is your color palette. Certain colors always go together. So how do you find the key of a song? I have two different ways. The first is to find the resting chord. This is the chord the song feels like it resolves on. Nine times out of 10 that will be the last chord of the song, but that 10th time will really screw you up if you don’t know to look for it. Take a song like Your Love Never Fails. It’s in the key of  Bb, but ends on an Eb chord. Try playing the ending but resolve to a Bb (G if playing the capoed version) and you’ll hear the resting chord. Every song has a resting chord. The other option is to just work your way up the neck one note at a time on the E string. When the note sounds like it fits, try playing the major scale (Ionian mode) starting on that note. If every note of the scale works, that’s the key. If not, keep going.

Find The Chord Progression

Once you have the key, you have narrowed the chords that can be used in a song. I’m not going to go into too much detail because you can view this lesson to learn more on which chords fit each key. If you are having trouble knowing where chord changes are happening, one trick is to try singing along with just your guitar. You should be able to tell when a chord change happens and you can use trial and error to find which chord it is (Remember to stay in the key!) Do this enough and eventually you’ll recognize full progressions by ear.

If a song is like a painting, the key is your color palette. Certain colors always go together.

Find Time To Practice

Learning songs by ear is about building your experience. The more chords you learn in the context of actual songs, the easier it will be to recognize them in others. The beauty of learning songs on Worship Artistry is that you can actually check if you are doing it right! Try pulling a few songs from the collection “Four Chords And The Truth” and see if you can figure out what to play. Once you think you have it, check it against the lesson. It may be frustrating at first but do it enough and it will become as natural as reading words on a page.

Jason Houtsma serves as Worship Pastor for Mosaic Church in Bellingham, WA, Husband to Alli, Father to Bjorn and Asher, and guitar instructor for

How To Learn Songs By Ear

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Just a typo

Be should be by:
"So much of learning songs be ear is figuring out where to start."
It's in a callout (tweet). So thought you might want to fix that:)

Thanks for the heads up!

I'm not always awesome at spelling good.