As a musician, your ears are your greatest asset. In this article, we’ll break down how to stop playing “visually” while fostering a connection between your ears and your instrument.

Generally, we create and digest music through the following inputs:

  1. Touch – Finger muscle memory
  2. Conceptual understanding – Knowledge of music theory
  3. Sound – Responding to auditory stimuli and developing an internal sense of sound

Internalizing sound (ie. hearing and digesting music in your mind’s eye) is the ultimate goal for us as guitar players – it transcends any muscle memory or theory knowledge. In no small way, when you internalize music it naturally becomes a part of you as a person!

The classical music giant Ludwig van Beethoven started losing his hearing at age 28 and was profoundly deaf by 44. Did that stop him from composing music? Absolutely not!

Beethoven is a fantastic example of a musician who had such a strong internal ability to identify chords, intervals, rhythm, and melody that he was able to transcend his ability to hear altogether and still create groundbreaking compositions.

The lesson here is that a solid ear-training foundation strengthens your imagination and not only allows you to interact with music on a listening level, but also at a psychological level.

Even more than the guitar itself, training yourself to have a great set of ears can help you unlock a world of exciting possibilities and crucial musicianship skills including:

  • Transcribing guitar solos just from listening.
  • Composing music in your head.
  • Becoming a more musical improviser.
  • Learning to play songs by ear on guitar.
  • Hearing and understanding how chord progressions are created.

This article helps you take your first steps to start developing your ability to play guitar by ear and some practice material to get you started.

Identifying chords

Your ears are the single most valuable tool that you’ll ever have.

Learning to play guitar by ear is about having a set of aural tools that you can apply to any piece of music to identify chords, rhythms, intervals, and how these musical fundamentals form the makeup of almost every song!

For most songs, chords form the harmonic groundwork that allow a singer to place a melody above, or a drummer and bassist to place a rhythmic groove below.

Here’s a step-by-step method to help you start learning how to play songs by ear on guitar:

  • Being able to pick out whether a chord is minor or major is a key skill needed for breaking down a whole progression.
  • There are various apps that have chord identifying tests and listening challenges.
  • Start slowly with basic major and minor triads to see if you can figure out which ones sound ‘happy’ or ‘sad’.

‘Arpeggio’ is the Italian term for ‘broken chord’, where each of the notes that forms a chord are played individually.

  • By breaking a chord down into individual notes, it becomes easier to identify by ear.
  • It is an important part of identifying chords that you are able to sing minor and major arpeggios.
  • For most of these exercises, your guitar be used as a reference tool and answer checker.

Need an extra challenge?

If minor and major chords are a walk in the park,  try to sing the arpeggios and identify the following:

  • Diminished chords
  • Augmented chords
  • Major and minor 7th chords

Hearing chord progressions

Have you ever seen a guitarist listen to a piece of music for a couple minutes and magically start playing a song that they’ve never played before? Once you can hear the difference between chords, the next step is to learn how to identify a whole chord progression.

Learning how to play songs on the guitar usually starts with figuring out the key of the music.
When you know what key that the song is in, you can figure out which scale the chords are coming from.

Each chord in the major scale has a special sound relationship to the key center.

For example:

  • The I chord will often start and end the song because it is the strongest sounding chord in the key.
  • The V chord often precedes the I chord, it’s job is to signal a return to the end.
  • The VI chord is the most stable ‘sad sound’ in the key and frequently used to write ballads and sad songs using chords from the major scale.  

Most songs that you’ll hear are written using chords exclusively from the major scale.

To train your ears to hear each of these chords and their relationship to one another, check out some of these practice tips:

  • Start by memorizing the order of chords found in the major scale and which degree of the scale they appear. For example, F major is the IV chord in the C major scale.
  • Sing the arpeggios for each chord in the major scale. This will help you hear every possible arpeggio in the key.
  • Learn some basic, four-chord songs and try to figure out the roman numerals that describe the chord progression.

As an extra challenge, take a basic, four-chord song and see if you can recreate the same chord progression in a different key. This will require some knowledge of the major scale in different keys.

Hearing intervals and melodies

Learning music theory gives us labels for the things that we hear. But our ability to sing songs, melodies, and other musical ideas is a skill that transcends music theory.

  • If your desire is to be a better improvising guitarist or to become someone that can compose music away from the instrument, being able to hear melodies and identify intervals is crucial.
  • Interval recognition is like having sat nav, it helps you navigate the next jump in your melody.
  • Whether playing a solo, or composing a new melody, playing guitar by ear often relies on your ability to hear the next note that should be played, before you actually play it.
  • When learning someone else’s solo by ear on the guitar, the goal is to listen in slow motion to hear where the next note of the phrase lives.
  • In time, your interval recognition will become so finely tuned, that you’ll be able to hear a phrase or melody and find it immediately on the fretboard!

An interval is the distance between two notes.

Knowing how intervals work is a super useful ingredient for hearing how a melody is formed. If you imagine a melody as a long, continuous line, intervals are what cause the line to rise and fall. This is the anatomy of what makes a melody.

There are two kinds of interval types:

  • Diatonic intervals describe the relationship between two notes that are part of the same major scale.
  • For example, C and E create a major 3rd interval and both notes live in the C major scale.
  • Non-diatonic intervals (also called chromatic intervals) that describe the relationship of two notes that are not related by any scale.
  • For example, C and G# create an augmented 5th interval that only lives in the chromatic scale.

How to start training interval recognition:

  • Start with diatonic intervals and try to sing each of the intervals found in the major scale. For example, start with a major 2nd, a major 3rd, or a perfect 5th.
  • See if you can sing a simple melody from a song and find it on the guitar. Can you describe the relationship between each of the notes?
  • Sing everything you play and practice on the guitar. Whether it’s scales, arpeggios, or a brand new lick, singing helps you internalize the notes that are associated with the fretboard patterns.
  • Listen out for intervals in everyday life! What interval is created when hearing a police siren, or a doorbell?

Especially for improvisers and more advanced guitar players, your best ideas often happen in your mind before they appear in your fingers. We highly recommend checking out Rosie Frater-Taylor’s Master Class on learning to sing and play at the same time.

Additionally, our Ear Training Master Class with Michael Mayo will help you strengthen your ear-to-guitar connection so you can break free from scale shapes and start playing what you want to hear.

Author: Jack Handyside