I've been using TAB for a while but I want to transition to picking things up by ear. What is an effective way to do that? Please give answers about methods you have experience with and explain how they work.


4 Answers 4


Transcribing by ear can seem daunting at first. The key is to break a big, complex piece down in to little, manageable bits and tackle those first. Then piece them together to build up the entire song.

I've always found that slowing things down, when trying to transcribe by ear, is the best thing I can do to learn a piece. Break it up in to small pieces, by phrase or a few bars, and learn just that part, slowly, before moving on.

I'm a Mac user and I own and love Capo for this task. Windows users I know rave about The Amazing Slowdowner, though I have no direct experience with it. The important features in both of those pieces of software is that you can control speed and pitch independently and you can set regions, so you can loop for ever on a small piece of the song and really dive in to what makes it work.

I also find a keyboard is a handy thing for working out chord voicing and inversions. Especially if the piece isn't a guitar-centric bit of music, the keyboard can be a whole lot friendlier to matching the inversions that are being played by multiple instruments when transcribing than a guitar can be. Once you have the chords behind the melody you can work out suitable chords for your guitar.

  • If Capo is giving me the chords and notes...do you think this would slow my ear training or speed it up?
    – Anonymous
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 18:02
  • IMO it'll speed it up. Partly because its note and chord extraction is not perfect, so it's at best a loose guide to what's going on in the music. And partly because you'll be training your ear and your brain to connect sounds to chord names. Capo is really amazing software, I can't say enough nice things about it. It's available for your iPhone/iPad as well.
    – Ian C.
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 18:09
  • 1
    If you want to go quick and dirty, you can use VLC to slow stuff down. I've found it to be quite handy for nuanced riffs. Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 11:41
  • +1 for suggesting Capo, seriously considering buying it now, it looks fantastic. May I add that for quick slowing down, there is a function in Audacity for that. Not brilliant, but reliable and serves a purpose. :)
    – Ali
    Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 12:13

Start with some of your favorite songs, the ones that seem simplest, and sound them out bit by bit.

Most rock and folk songs use a small number of chords and are based around a 1-4-5 pattern. You'll start to hear patterns.

For me, it's about keeping up the motivation. Being able to play songs you like is a good one.


Note that some folks are good at this and some are not. Also..The term "transcription" or "transcribe" seems to mean different things to different people. To me, to "transcribe" is to listen to a piece of music and then write it out in standard notation. That's what the "scribe" part means.
What the above respondents, and most of the people using this term seem to mean is just "figuring the piece" out; sitting there with your instrument and copying the notes/chords as best you can. A time-honored method of learning. However, one that requires not only a good ear, but a good memory. Modern inventions (not available when I started) that slow down tunes are a great boon. We used to take vinyl records and slow them down by playing them at slower speeds on the turntable. Unfortunately... This changes the pitch as well...

  • "However, one that requires not only a good ear, but a good memory." -- well, if you do a little scribing, even if you use a short hand notation or something of your own invention, you'll have something to reference and you won't have to rely on a good memory. :) I just about always do a chord chart. Sometimes I'll write out melody lines I can't seem to remember. Sometimes fingerings that I can't remember.
    – Ian C.
    Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 2:54

I think that these answers are great and PRACTICAL. But I would also add that if you are going to pursue music BY EAR, that you at least add some MUSIC THEORY to give yourself some structure.

MUSIC THEORY should not be frowned on or looked at as some massive hurdle. I don't have a music degree or have the ability to sight read BUT

  1. The Circle of Fifths helped me understand why the Am is so important in songs in the Key of C and also helped me learn to transcribe songs from one Key to the another
  2. Learning the NAMES of the 8 dominant notes plus their sharps and flats gives you 12 tones to work with and learning their Letter Names, means that you can effectively NAME THAT TUNE
  3. Understanding some form of Chord Theory so that you can UNDERSTAND why heaps of songs have a I IV and V chord

... just to name a few! The ear will still be your ultimate guide but having some MUSIC THEORY will actually help you develop your ear/listening skills and allow you to label what you are hearing. Hundreds of musicians have done this work for you and have spelled out some common music rules.... it can only be to your advantage if you also use this on your journey.

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