5 Tips To Learn To Play by Ear (Podcast Episode 5)

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Why Play By Ear?

In this podcast episode, I talk about why it’s so important to be able to play by ear as a worship leader.

Most worship music you receive isn’t spelled out for you. You get chord charts, which are just words and chords. No notes.

This is a little disconcerting for classically trained musicians and those who learned to play in orchestra. What do you mean you’re not going to tell me exactly what to play!

So what do you do when you want to learn a song to sing or play an instrument, but all you have is a chord sheet?

In this podcast and post, I break down some ways you can learn to play by ear whether you’re the lead worshiper or an instrumentalist in the band.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some people are born with a really strong ear. For those people, it’s easier to play by ear than to read music.

That’s me.  Personally, I can’t read sheet music very well at all. It takes me forever. But I can play a worship song by ear after hearing it just once or twice.

In many situations, it’s much better to be able to read music.

But as a worship leader or worship instrumentalist, it’s better to be able to play by ear. Most of the stuff we do is live, which often requires improvisation and doing things that weren’t exactly planned.

If you’re stuck to a script, these moments fall apart.

We also have to learn songs quickly. Often, we don’t have time to learn every note in a song. We just have to learn to play and sing the bare bones of the songs the best we can.

Without further ado, here are the 5 tips.

1. Learn basic music theory

You might be freaking out right now. You might not know what music theory even is. But if you can count to 7, you can learn music theory.

Music theory is simply learning what notes and chords typically fit together in various keys. Review my post “5-Minute Music Theory” to learn what music theory is and how it can help you.

2. Play the melody of a familiar song on guitar or piano

This is something kids do naturally, so  you can too. How often have you seen a kid walk up to a piano and play Mary had a Little Lamb?

This is the most basic form of playing by ear. If you have enough skill to recognize and play the melody of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on your instrument, you can learn more complex songs, too.

Choose 3-4 songs you are familiar with, to start.

Sit down at a piano or guitar and figure out the melody on your own, just by listening to the music. Don’t get a lead sheet out or even a chord sheet.

Once you’ve put together a few songs, your ear will start to develop.

3. Figure Out Chords For These Songs

Repeat the exercise. But this time you’ll figure out the chords while you sing the melody.

Review my music theory post. If you know what key the song is in, you can pretty much guess what chords are going to be in it.

If the song is in G, you’ll probably see G, C, D, Em, and Am.

If in E, you’ll see E, A, B, C#m, and F#m.

Knowing just a little bit of music theory is going to unlock your ability to learn songs almost on the fly.


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4. Listen to the bass

The fourth tip is to listen to the base.

Props to a site called StringKick for this idea. You can start to figure out the chords of a song by hearing the bass notes.

This works great in worship music because 90% of the time, the bass is playing the root note of the chord.

Print out the song lyrics and follow along with the recording. At each chord change, find the bass note by matching the tone on your guitar or piano. Your note might be an octave or two higher, but it will still give you the same note.

When you get through the entire song, you’ll likely have most of the chords written down. For instance, if the bass is playing a C note, the chord is likely a C chord at that spot.

Here’s a bonus tip also suggested by Stringkick: turn up the bass tones in your equalizer on your music player. This will help the bass notes more audible.

Play through the song now, using the chords of the root notes you wrote down. Sometimes you’ll hear weird notes, as sometimes the bass plays the 3rd or 5th instead of the root note. But over time you’ll be able to decipher the root note even when the bass is playing something else.

5. Ditch Your Written Music (For a While)

The last tip to learn to play by ear is to get rid of written music for a time. These sheets that tell you want to play, note for note, are not helping you develop your ear.

Playing by ear uses a totally different part of the brain. At least that’s my theory.

If you’re one of those musicians who has played by sight for years, take a break from it.

If you’re in lessons, ask your instructor to give you ear training exercises for a while instead of more note-driven pieces. Find a song you want to learn — it could be a worship song or anything else — and use your love of that song to help you learn to play by ear.

Don’t look up tabs, notes, or chords. Figure out parts of the song on your own.

Eventually try playing and singing it at the same time, all from stuff you figured out by ear.

The Bottom Line

We looked at how you can lead worship even if you don’t play an instrument in this episode. Be sure to download this episode and subscribe so you don’t miss future content. To review, here are you 5 tips to help you play by ear.

  • Learn music theory
  • Start by figuring out a simple melody by ear
  • Figure out the chords to those songs next
  • Use bass notes to uncover the chords in a song
  • Give written music a rest for a while and do everything by ear for a time

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