How to learn folk tunes by ear

Posted on September 05 2019

Anyone can learn to play by ear and don't let anybody tell you otherwise! 

Don't believe any of the rubbish some people say like "I'm too old to learn by ear" or "I'm not talented enough" it's all wrong!

Think of something somebody told you recently, a fact or a sporting score, or something in the news...you can remember it right? Well if you can remember that, why can't you remember a tune? You CAN!!

First learn it in your head

So my first, and most important tip would be to first learn the tune in your head.  Properly.

Don't even think about picking up whatever your instrument is until you can hear the entire tune in your head, all the way through.  No gaps / mistakes.

So if you're just starting to learn by ear, pick a simple tune that you vaguely know but can't play.

Listen to it on repeat for as long as necessary until you catch yourself humming or whistling it, and can do so all the way through the tune.  (I've been known to listen to a single tune driving to and from work for a whole week, that's an hour a day for one tune which is probably only 2 minutes long).

Initially you'll probably find you know most of it but that there are some gaps in there, bits you're not quite sure of. Go back to listening to the tune again, and focus on those parts. If you find the tune on YouTube you can slow it down to make it easier.

There are also apps for your phone to slow tunes down, I like "Amazing Slow Downer"

Other top tips

  • Train your ears to hear intervals
    This is something I learnt whilst I was taught classical piano.  It takes a while but it does help if you've got the patience.  I was taught to be able to identify the different intervals between notes; my teacher would play two notes and I had to say what the interval was.  I had rules to help:
    • 2nd - this one is easy, they're adjacent notes
    • 3rd  - no specific rule, but it's not a 2nd, and it's not a 4th
    • 4th - I used the first two notes of the Wild Rover
    • 5th - Star Wars theme tune
    • 6th - My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean

  • Pick random tunes and try to play them
    e.g. Watch TV with your instrument nearby and when a theme tune you're familiar with comes on, turn the volume down and have a go at playing the theme tune.

  • Slow down
    Just slow it right down.  If you get a part wrong, go back and try it again.
    Remember to purposefully practise, so when you're "practising", make sure you really ARE, and that you're not just "playing". There's a difference.

  • Make it a regular part of your practice
    Try and learn a new tune every day. Just have a go. Just try playing something you know in your head, be it Happy Birthday, Auld Lang Syne, The Birdie Song...anything. Try it.

  • Be patient — it really does get easier with practise - I promise!

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