Learning to play by ear can seem like a daunting skill that you have to be born with in order to learn, and if you’re not born with it then surely it must take years if not a lifetime to master?
Learning to play by ear can take a reasonably short time when starting with easier melodic songs. If you can learn how to properly practice playing by ear then you should start to see results in a matter of weeks not years.
It’s a skill all guitar players can pick up, so today we’re going to run you through what to expect and a few tips to help you on your way to playing by ear.
How Long It Takes for Most People to Learn Guitar by Ear
The journey towards learning guitar by ear relies on you consistently training your ears and does somewhat rely on your initial aural skills.
For most people you’ll be able to start playing by ear after a couple weeks of practice. The hard part is understanding what to practice !
There are two skills you can nurture that will allow you to play guitar by ear. However, one of them is extremely rare and is more or less impossible to learn if you’re not born with it. These abilities are known as perfect pitch and relative pitch.
Perfect pitch is something you’re either born with or not. While this sounds disheartening it’s not something you need to master playing by ear.
In fact, most of your favorite musicians probably don’t have perfect pitch.
Perfect pitch allows you to hear a note or chord and identify what it is without any reference or context to work out what the key is.
Relative pitch on the other hand is a skill that can be learnt and improved with practice. Training your relative pitch will allow you to start playing by ear in a matter of months or weeks with the right kind of practice.
Relative pitch will allow you to work out what a note is by comparing it to a reference note meaning once you’ve worked out a single note of a song or progression you can then use that note to work out the rest of the notes or chords that come before or after it.
With this in mind, the first thing you want to aim towards is developing an understanding of relative pitch. For someone that has an already decent understanding of the guitar this learning curve usually takes between 6 and 12 months to totally master.
Unless of course you’re one of the lucky few that have perfect pitch but we will not be focusing on that today as it is such a rare gift to have.
Can Everyone Learn to Play Guitar by Ear?
Yes absolutely anyone can learn to play guitar by ear. It’s not one of the first skills you’ll learn or a skill that is straightforward to pick up. It is however very achievable with practice and will make learning songs and riffs far more intuitive once you’ve got the skills down.
A common misconception about learning to play guitar by ear is that one day you should magically be able to hear a riff and know each and every note being played before you’ve even touched your guitar.
This is not at all the reality of what learning to play by ear is about.
That magical ability is known as perfect pitch and as we mentioned before is an extremely rare ability that you’re either born with or not.
The reality of learning to play by ear is by mastering the way different notes and keys relate to one another. This is something that can be practiced and improved with time. While it doesn’t have the same mystical allure of perfect pitch; this technique is what musicians are referring to when speaking about playing by ear.
To play by ear you don’t have to know what note you’re hearing as you listen to a song, only one of them!
This is what makes playing by ear less of a natural ability, and more of a learnt skill. Which is great news for players of all levels.
Do Kids Learn Faster by Ear Than Adults?
While playing by ear is a learning skill there is a level of intuition to it. This does mean that kids will likely pick it up faster if it’s ingrained into their musical learning from a young age.
While many guitarists will play for years without thinking to integrate learning to play by ear into their practices, the earlier in your guitar journey you begin to think about it the more naturally it will come.
For a kid to understand the guitar as a series of notes that are relevant to each other while their young will speed up their ability to play by ear dramatically.
The issue that may arise if this hasn’t been taught to you early in your guitar playing is learning to view your fretboard in a different way than you’ve taught yourself.
Many guitarists will learn to view the fretboard as a series of numbers. We learn songs by memorizing which numbered frets we need to play after each other to play riffs. This is especially the case if you’re learning using tabs.
While tabs are a fantastic way to learn songs; you need to unlearn the way they make you think about your fretboard a bit when learning to play by ear.
Instead of numbered distances between frets you need to start thinking in terms of a note being a certain number of semi-tones up or down. For instance, E string fret 3 to 5 in a riff is really a G note to an A note.
This can be taught to kids from the start of their learning, whereas this can be a difficult change in logic for older more experienced players who haven’t integrated playing by ear into their practice.
Does Knowing Music Theory Make Learning by Ear Faster?
As with learning any type of musician technique a little bit of music theory will never be detrimental! However, it is far from essential when learning to play by ear.
Learning to play by ear is more about understanding the relativity of notes to each other; this doesn’t even require you to know the notes that you are playing only the difference in pitch from the note before.
Music theory is more about understanding music before any sound is played. Learning to play by ear is about understanding music as a sound is played.
When learning to play by ear you always have a reference point to an actual musical note. All you need to understand is whether the next note is a higher or lower pitch. How much higher or lower is where developing your skills in relative pitch requires practice but this isn’t within the realm of music theory.
What Methods Make Learning Guitar by Ear Faster?
Learn to Recognize Intervals
The number one skill to pick up when learning to play by ear is to understand intervals. While you don’t need to know the exact pitch of a note learning to understand its relationship to notes around it will allow you to pick up entire riffs with only one note.
An interval refers to a note one fret higher or lower than the note you’re playing. This removes the need to know what a note is just by listening to it. Knowing the relationships of notes in intervals will mean you can work out how many intervals a note is from the starting note of a riff.
You can probably already recognize when a note is being played in a different octave, such as an open note being the same as the 12th fret of that string. By training yourself to recognize what an interval up sounds like you can start to teach yourself riffs just by moving around these intervals.
Mimic Any Music You Hear
A great way to become a custom to learning by ear is to try and mimic any music you hear, whether it be songs you hear or simple jingles on TV.
Learning to play by ear takes time and you should start by learning short and simple melodies while you’re building your confidence. A great way to do this is by sitting with your guitar while you’re watching TV.
When an ad or TV show features a short and catchy jingle try noodle around and play it on your guitar. You don’t even have to play it in the same key. Just pick a note to start with and mimic what you hear.
Use the relative intervals to play the melody back. It’s a great way to learn even while you’re relaxing.
Make Up Your Own Melodies to Practice
A great little exercise to get comfortable learning by ear is to pick any note on your guitar – play it – then hum a melody that starts with that note out loud.
Keep the melodies short and sweet then try recreating that melody on your guitar. You’ve already got the starting note so you don’t have to work out where to begin.
While it’s super easy to make a melody with your voice transferring it to your fretboard is where you’ll need practice.
This exercise will help you work out whether a note is higher or lower than the one before. While that sounds like it should be pretty obvious you might be surprised when you can’t work out whether you should be going up or down the fretboard.
This exercise will help you understand the way notes relate to each other and is a great way to test your ears when getting started with learning by ear!
Play the Same Riffs at Different Fretboard Positions
This one is both a great exercise for understanding intervals as well as a tool to make playing by ear easier!
If you’re learning a riff by ear and the movements around the fretboard seem to be a little too difficult then you should try playing the riff somewhere else.
Start by finding the same note either higher or lower on the fretboard and relearn the intervals between the notes. Some riffs that might have seemed difficult when played low on the fretboard might become far easier when played higher up, or on other strings.
This is also a great way to nurture your ability to identify changes in intervals by ear and is a great skill to have when your want to play the same riffs at different octaves to add versatility to your playing.