As a musician – you’re most valuable skills start with your ears. Sharpening your ability to hear a musical passage and translate it onto your instrument should always be priority numero uno! But how do you reach such an intimate connection between your ears and your instrument?

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Listen to the Rhythm & Shape of the bass-line

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    99% of the time the bass plays the root of the chord. The bass-line is a melody, it’s just on the bottom. It has gravity and forms the reference for your ear to compare melody and harmony to. Melodies have a shape to them. Can you visualize the pitches in-time as they move up & down?

  2. Listen to the shape of the melody

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    Again – visualize the shape of the pitches moving up & down over time. As you begin to connect your understanding of the fretboard (note locations & intervals) you will get quicker at guessing and more confident at taking chances on where the sounds you hear are located. It’s common in traditional folk styles of music for the melody to outline the chord motion. Melody came first, harmony was added later.

    Frère Jacques - Canon

  3. Listen to the motion of the chords

    D/F# Slash Chord

    Bass and melody form the outer shape of a song. The chords are the flesh that fills in the skeleton. Again, most of the time the bass and chords will match up. But sometimes you’ll find interesting sounds when the bass plays a different note, either from the chord (inversion) or not (slash chord). I call them “Steely Dan” chords because they are so often used by Walter Becker & Donald Fagan.

  4. Find common forms
    12-bar blues, rhythm changes, I vi IV V, ii V I. Every styles has its own handful of common chord moves. The more you learn songs by ear, the quicker you’ll get at recognizing them. Create your own names to song features you repeatedly find.

    12 Bar Blues:
    12 Bar Blues

    Rhythm Changes:
    Rhythm Changes

  5. Capture the arrangement ASAP!

    Musical Sketch

    Write it all out if necessary, but try to memorize durations by feeling strums, toe-taps, head bangs or your own unique visceral reaction to the music.

  6. Build your library

    Music Library

    Keep growing your repertoire of songs, melodies, licks, solos, chord progressions, and substitutions. Your versatility as a musician depends on it!

    Song Spreadsheet

Chris Conly

About the author: Chris Conly is a musician & educator. He is a Maine native living in the borough of Brooklyn. Forever fascinated by nature, design, music & learning, Chris shares his passions with the world via his website, and with private students.