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Deciphering Songs (For "Playing By Ear" & Transcribing)

What types of things should we look out for when attempting to "Play by Ear" (i.e.: play from memory without reading the Sheet Music) or to Transcribe a piece of music?


• Can you pick out each instrument (by its Timbre)? What instruments are associated with this style of music?

• What is the Range of each of these instruments? What is the highest and lowest Notes that they can play?



• Feel the Beat of the music (through tapping feet and/or clapping hands).

• Compare this pulse with a clock. Count how many Beats occur within 15 seconds and multiply this number by 4 to find the number of Beats Per Minute (BPM).


• Listen for "Rhythm Instruments" (e.g.: Drums, Bass, Piano Accompaniment, etc.).

• Which of the Beats are Accented by them? If there are no discernable "Rhythm Instruments", listen for repeating patterns within the Melody lines (i.e.: Phrases).

• What Time Signatures will work with this pattern of Accented Beats? Check this against the most common ones (e.g.: 4/4, 3/4, etc.). Are there any particular Time Signatures and Accent patterns usually associated with this style of music?



• Find the Note that sounds Consonant throughout the entire song by humming until you hit it. You can also use a tone generator to produce a Drone to do the same thing. It is often the very first / last Note of the song (or the Root of the first / last Chord).

• Check what Note is being produced by the tone generator, or hum the sound into a tuner to check what Note it is.


• Now that you have found the Key of the song, use the Scales associated with it (e.g.: Major, minor) to find most of the other Notes that are probably used within it. A large portion of the Notes in the Melody might be from the corresponding Pentatonic Scale.

• Be sure to also listen for the Intervals! Did this Note shift up or down from the previous one, and if so, by how much?


• Use the Scales that you have already found to also derive the Chords that are probably used within it.

• Pay close attention to the Bass (if there is one) as it often plays the Roots of Chords.

• Try common Chord Progressions (e.g.: I → V → vi → IV). Are there any Chord Progressions commonly associated with this style (e.g.: Jazz and the ii → V → I)?