Why do songs sound slower during training?
How to learn to hear melodies and chords in songs
Listening to melodies and chords in songs made easy
Tips and tricks on the subject of transcription
(Images: Shutterstock / by: Sasun Bughdaryan // Shutterstock / by: MSSA // Montage: bonedo.de)
Being able to hear melodies and chords in songs is a great thing. You don't have to rely on getting the sheet music for a song anywhere. Often it is just a lot more fun to play by ear. And if you listen to and practice what other musicians have recorded, you can learn a lot. Here we have put together some tips on how to learn to analyze songs in such a way that you can hear melodies and chords.
In this workshop I deliberately do not make a distinction between whether you are recording a piece of music by ear replay or as notes write down want. The process and the skills required to do this are initially the same. So you can analyze songs and hear melodies and chords even if you can't read and write notes. The other way around, it is also possible to write down music as notes just by ear, without ever touching an instrument. First and foremost, what matters is your internal hearing. And that's why this workshop starts with that.
How do you train your hearing to pick out songs?
The key to hearing melodies and chords is good ear. If you train your inner ear to recognize intervals and chords, you will find it easier to pick out songs. In addition, good hearing helps you with everything else that has to do with making music.
Don't worry: you don't need perfect pitch to hear songs out, which only a few of us have. It is also not about hearing, which is tested with beeps at the ENT doctor. The hearing that is important for listening is what is known as relative hearing, i.e. the ability to perceive by hearing the relationship between different tones. With relative hearing, for example, you can tell whether there is an interval of a fourth or a fifth between two tones, or whether a chord is a major or a minor chord.
Well-trained hearing is an important tool for every musician and is just as much a part of making music as playing technique on the instrument. By the way, it not only helps you with listening to pieces, but also with songwriting and improvising. The inner ear is also responsible for the fact that melodies and chords that you imagine in your head can be quickly implemented on the instrument.
So, while it may sound like a pretty dry topic at first, you should make ear training an integral part of your over-ritual. If you are currently taking lessons on your instrument, ask your teacher to include ear training exercises in the class. But you can also work well on your hearing on your own. In the next few paragraphs I've put together a few tips.
Tips on ear training
Exercise your hearing regularly. It is best to incorporate a small ear training unit into your daily over-ritual. It doesn't have to be long; ten minutes a day is enough! Regular, short exercises train your brain and hearing better than occasional, long sessions.
Start with simple exercises and slowly increase. The brain learns best when challenged but not overwhelmed. Plus, it's just more fun when you keep having little success stories.
Sing with me! Most ear training programs and exercises consist of melodies and chords played for you and questions about them. The best way to train your hearing, however, is not only to listen, but also to sing along to the exercises out loud - even if you are actually not a singer at all!
Practice intervals with your voice. Play a note on your instrument, hum it along, and then imagine what the note sounds like a major third above, a fourth above, a fifth below, and so on. Sing it out loud, and then take control of yourself by playing the note on your instrument.
Tip: To memorize the sound of different intervals, the following method has proven itself: Remember a song for each interval that begins with this interval. For example, "O Tannenbaum" begins with a pure fourth, and the well-known "Kuckucksruf" ("Cuckoo, cuckoo, calls from the forest") is a minor third.
Being able to recognize intervals by ear is an important prerequisite for listening to melodies.
Practice chords with your voice. Play the root note on your instrument and sing it out loud. Then imagine in your head how a major triad or a minor triad sounds on that root note and sing the notes one by one. You can use your instrument again to check it. Later you can expand this practice to more complicated chords like seventh chords. It is best to use alternating basic tones. By the way, this is also a great exercise if you later want to record choral passages with your own voice in the DAW.
There is an advanced variant of this exercise: Do not take the first note as the root note, but as the third or fifth of a triad. Example: Play and sing a C, and then form it into an F major triad (F-A-C) first in your head, and then with your voice. Or play and sing an F and form a D minor triad with your "inner ear" (D-F-A). Little by little you will find it easier and easier to identify chords correctly.
Major chords on all 12 root notes
What online courses and apps for ear training are there?
In addition to the exercises described above, there are numerous online offers, computer programs and apps on the subject of ear training that can be very helpful. Of course, ear training is most fun when you're hooking up with someone. You can set each other different tasks and both benefit from it. Your teacher on your instrument can also help you with your ear training. But you can also train your hearing wonderfully with these offers on your own.
Like so much on the Internet, most ear training programs are in English. The good thing, however, is that, as is well known, the music works across all language barriers. So to participate, all you have to do is learn what the intervals and chords are called in English, and there aren't that many vocabulary.
Here is a small selection:
- musictheory.net / Tenuto
On musictheory.net you will find extensive, free online courses on music theory and ear training. Click on "Exercises" and then scroll down to the "Ear Training" section. Here you will find several exercises on intervals, scales (scales) and chords.
The “Tenuto” app for iOS devices also comes from the makers of musictheory.net. You can use it to train your hearing on the go. The app does not require an internet connection. It is available for € 3.99 in the App Store.
Here, too, you will find extensive, free ear training exercises. A “Melodic Dictation” unit is also offered, with which you can feel your way around listening to and noting down simple melodies.
Another free offering with exercises on topics like intervals, chords, chord progressions and scales. Here, too, there are melodic dictations with which you can practice listening to melodies.
But let's finally start with the actual topic of this workshop: Listening to melodies and chords! The good thing is: you can practice all of these wonderfully at the same time. It's not that you have to “know” about ear training before you dare to listen to songs. It all belongs together, and by listening to it you also train your hearing again and again. However, it will be much easier for you to hear out if your hearing is already a little practiced.
How do you hear the melody of a song?
The easiest way to hear the melody of a song is if you know the key of the song, work your way through small sections and determine the intervals between the individual tones. But it is best to proceed one after the other.
When listening to songs, it doesn't matter at first whether you want to write down the melody as notes or just sing or play on your instrument. Basically, the first thing is to grasp the melody with your brain and inner ear so that you can safely sing it along. In fact, if you've ever learned a song by ear and sang along with it, then you've already heard a melody. The better your inner hearing becomes, the more confident you will be and the more confident you will be with whether you are singing along to the melody correctly. The writing down or replay then follows in the second step.
Start with a simple song. If your first listening exercise is an Oscar Peterson piano solo, you may find yourself giving up in frustration. It makes a lot more sense to start with simple melodies that you can hum along. That rather leads to a sense of achievement. So rather pick one of your favorite songs and try to hear the vocal melody instead of trying complex solos right at the beginning.
Listen carefully! Listen to the piece very carefully several times. Pay attention to details like: which instruments play the melody, which the chords? Are there multiple voices that overlap? Is the piece in a major or minor key? Does the key change during the piece? The more often you listen to the piece - and it's not even about finding out the exact notes - the more you will internalize it and discover details that can help you later in listening.
It can also be very helpful if you make a rough plan of the structure of the piece: What is the verse, what is the chorus, or what are parts A, B and C? Which parts are repeated or appear again later in the piece? The better you know the piece, the easier it will be for you to hear it out.
Find out the time signature and key of the piece. To determine the time signature, try to feel the basic beat. Imagine the rhythm in which you would dance to the piece, or tap the beat with your foot. Next, try to find out where the stressed beats are and how many beats make up a measure. In pop and rock music, the 4/4 time signature is by far the most common, but there are also pieces in other time signatures, for example 3/4 or 6/8.
Figuring out the key can be a bit tricky at times, as there is no one easy way to do it that always works. So you can't say in general: “The first / last note of the melody is always the basic note of the song key”, or “The final chord of a piece is always the song key”. Both of these clues are often true, but not always. To make matters worse, there are also pieces in which the key changes in the middle. A good method is to listen to the song while looking for notes on the piano, guitar, or other instrument that go well with it. The more you do this, the more you will find that there is usually a series of tones or a scale that sounds like the tonal "home" of the piece. Often a tone feels particularly good and acts like the tonal center of the whole piece. As a rule, you have found the key of the song and its keynote.
Sing with me! As with ear training exercises, it helps a lot when listening to melodies if you don't just imagine the tones in your head, but sing along or hum them out loud. Even if you are not a singer, you should definitely give it a try. This makes every note physically palpable for you, and it is easier for you to see whether you have found the right note.
Work in sections. Divide the piece into manageable sections that you listen to repeatedly while listening to the melody. (Tip: A transcription software helps a lot; see below for more information.) For simple melodies, the sections can be several bars long. In the case of complicated passages, you work with shorter sections accordingly. If the melody is very complex, it can be half a bar.
First rhythm, then melody. Especially with rhythmically complex passages, it can be very helpful if you only deal with the rhythm before you dare to approach the notes. Tap the basic beat with your foot and clap or tap the rhythm of the melody until you internalize it. You can write it down if you like. When the rhythm is in place, the second step is to find out the tones.
Sing or hum the first note of the melody and memorize its sound. Then you grab the instrument of your choice and use the trial-and-error procedure to approach it. The piano has proven itself particularly useful for this because all the available notes are clearly laid out in front of you, but of course you can also hear them out with other instruments. When you find the first note, memorize or write it down and move on to the next note.
And that brings us to the point where relative hearing can help you a lot. If you are good at listening to intervals (see the ear training section above), it will be much easier for you to recognize a sequence of notes. After the first note has been found, you no longer have to laboriously approach the remaining notes. Instead, you'll soon hear that the second note is, for example, a minor third lower than the first, and the third is a fifth higher than the second, and so on. So you hear the notes relative to each other. This process is simplified again if you know the key of the song. In most cases, almost all the notes that you find in the melody will come from this scale, which limits the selection considerably. But be careful, there are of course exceptions to this rule.
How do you hear the chords for a song?
There are a few tricks you can use to hear the chords in a song. For example, the bass note can help you find the right chord. If you are familiar with the theory of harmony, you will often reach your goal faster.
Listening to chords may seem more difficult than melodies at first. After all, you have to pay attention to several notes at the same time, which to make matters worse, maybe also played by different instruments. Often the right accompaniment chord for a certain point in the song is not served by a single instrument "on a silver platter", but results from what several instruments such as guitar, bass, keyboards and possibly brass instruments are doing at the same time. But fear not - the better your inner ear can tell the sound of different chords apart, the easier it will be.
It is also very helpful to deal with ear training for listening to chords. Use the links above to find exercises that will help you distinguish between major and minor chords. If that works out well, you can also incorporate more complicated chords such as seventh chords into your ear training ritual, as well as chords that use a different note than the root note in the bass. Each type of chord has a distinct color, and the more you train your hearing, the easier it will be for you to tell them apart. You will come a long way in listening to the vast majority of pop and rock songs if you can differentiate between the following types of chords:
If you know these types of chords, you can go a long way in listening to pop and rock music.
Major chords in which the third is replaced by the fourth (sus4) or major second (sus2) are also widespread in pop music. This is because these chords are often easy to grasp on the guitar and this can bring some movement into the chord accompaniment. Usually sus4 and sus2 chords are resolved shortly afterwards into the "normal" major triad. This is how chord patterns like this are created:
Widely used in pop music: sus2 and sus4 chords
And something else can help you a lot when listening to chords: Even if the topic is often rather unpopular: The better you are familiar with music theory and harmony, the easier it is to hear chord progressions. Because you will quickly discover certain patterns and cadences that keep popping up. For example, if you know what a II-V-I or I-VI-II-V connection is and what it sounds like, you can often tell by listening to a song before you have even really started listening.
In the following legendary video, the band "Axis of Awesome" impressively demonstrates how widespread certain chord progressions are in music. The sound of such a combination of three to four chords can be memorized as a whole and, with a little practice, can be recognized immediately when listening to a song.
But what is the best way to proceed if you do not find a structure that is so familiar and often heard? I have put together a few tips here:
What is the bass playing? The bass note in an arrangement, whether it is played by a bass, a cello, or a synthesizer, is in many cases the root note of the chord above it. However, there are exceptions: sometimes the bass plays a different chord tone (fifth, third), and many bassists incorporate intermediate tones and decorations into their basslines that lead to the next chord. But if you pay attention to what the bass is playing on the “1” of a bar, in many cases you are very close to correctly recognizing the chord.
Pay attention to the melody. The melody can also bring you closer to the right chord. Although melodies usually contain more "non-chordal" transition tones than basslines, the notes emphasized in the melody (e.g. stressed beats, long notes, stressed syllables in a vocal melody) will in the vast majority of cases consist of chord tones. This can be the root note, the third or the fifth of the chord, or of course others for more complicated chords.
Pay attention to the timbre of the chord. In the best case scenario, you already have two chord tones if you know the bass and the melody. To find the rest of the chord tones, you should pay attention to the timbre of the chord (and this is where ear training comes into play again ...). Is it a major or a minor chord? If the chord sounds complex and layered, there is probably a seventh in it, and maybe other notes as well. It is important that all instruments and the vocals together form the chord that can be heard at any point in a piece - and not just the harmony instruments such as guitar or piano.
Just try it out! Just like melodies, you can also use the trial-and-error method to identify chords. First find out the bass note, and then use the piano or guitar to create different types of chords on this root note. Compare their timbre with what you hear. If nothing really fits, the bassist may not be playing the root note of the chord. Think about which chords the bass note you are listening to would be the fifth. For example: the bass plays a D. If it's not a D major or D minor chord, is it instead maybe a G major or G minor chord with the fifth in the bass? If that doesn't work either, take the bass note as the third of a chord and see if it fits.
Which software helps to listen to songs?
Transcription software can be very helpful when listening to melodies and chords. Many of these programs offer the option of slowing down selectable sections of a song so that details can be heard better.
In the days of records and tapes, listening to music from a recording was a cumbersome task. You had to keep resetting the needle or rewinding the tape to hear a section again, often ending up far away from the desired location. Even with CD players and even with the standard player apps of many smartphones, it is often not possible to play a freely selectable section in a continuous loop.
It works better with special software or apps for listening to (transcribing) music. These programs can usually slow down the playback (sometimes extremely) without changing the pitch. The quality of the playback suffers, of course, but it's all about finding out which notes and chords are being played. Most transcription programs also have a loop function, which allows you to listen to any section repeatedly until you have finished listening.
Some modern transcription programs and apps even offer algorithms that analyze the recording and indicate which frequencies or notes are particularly emphasized in it. Sometimes you will also find software that can transcribe music almost automatically by converting an audio file into MIDI notes or musical notation, or by displaying the chords directly. Even if such software has a certain error rate in complex arrangements, this can of course be extremely helpful in finding the right notes. However, your inner ear will then be accordingly less challenged and trained, and you will miss the great sense of achievement when you have successfully heard a piece. I therefore recommend that you only use such software for "automatic transcription" if you are stuck. Musically you get a lot more of it if you transcribe yourself.
Utilities for listening to music
- Amazing Slow Downer (macOS, Windows, iOS, Android) - The classic par excellence and available for many years. The Amazing Slow Downer allows the playback to be slowed down considerably and has a loop mode.
- Transcribe! (Windows, macOS, Linux) - A convenient transcription tool with many options. Among other things, with slowed playback, flexible loops and markers as well as with an analysis tool that shows emphasized frequencies in the recording on a piano keyboard. For Windows, macOS and Linux.
- MusicTrans (Windows, macOS, Linux, Android) - With slow playback, loop mode and a graphical representation of highlighted frequencies in the recording that can help find the right notes.
- Audipo (iOS, Android) - Simple player with slow playback. Allows you to set markers and has a very long playback bar on which you can easily "move to" places. In the App Store or Play Store.
- Riffmaster Pro (iOS) - Clear player app with loop and slow playback. In the App Store.
A very extensive list of links with transcription software for all platforms can be found here: https://www.seventhstring.com/resources/transcription.html
Listening to melodies and chords from songs is worth it! Because this opens up a whole new world of making music for you. Do you hear a guitar or piano solo that you like, or a concise chord accompaniment? Hear it out, act it out, and learn from your role models. If you don't always have to take the detour via sheet music, you can make music more freely and informally and also get creative yourself more easily.
And even if you may find it a little difficult at the beginning: the better your ear gets and the more experience you gain with listening, the easier it will be. And you will see: if you practice listening out regularly, at some point you will suddenly hear almost automatically how a melody or chord progression is going, and you can simply play it back.
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