How to Learn by Ear

Learning by Ear

If you are new to playing an instrument or have always learned using music or tablature, the fiddle tradition of learning music by ear can be very intimidating. Many students feel like they can’t learn by ear – but you can! You in fact have probably learned to sing many songs “by ear” by hearing them again and again. Now you just need to learn how to do that using your instrument.

One of the best ways to start learning by ear is to take a familiar song and try to figure out how to play it. How?

  1. Find a likely starting note – ask a friend or teacher, listen to a recording, find it in a piece of sheet music (especially if it is violin sheet music), or simply try a starting note and see how well it works out! You can play any common song starting on any note, but some are easier than others. The list below is a great starting place.
  2. Play your starting note. Singing along out loud or in your head, see if you can figure out if the melody goes up or down from there.
  3. Try to find the second note on your instrument. Keep trying! Playing the first note again can be really helpful in finding the second note.
  4. Keep going – see if you can figure out the first few notes. Start over from the beginning as often as you need to to keep the sound of the note you’re looking for in your head.
  5. Repeat those first few notes as often as you need to in order to play them smoothly.
  6. Continue this process through the entire tune. Sometimes you can go back just to the beginning of a section of the melody rather than all the way back to the beginning, either for figuring out new notes or practicing the ones you’ve already found.
  7. Celebrate!
  8. Challenge: If you want an extra challenge, one you can play the tune smoothly starting on one note, you can try figuring it out on a different starting note.

When you are learning an unfamiliar tune by ear, listen, listen, listen until you can hear the melody in your head and sing it. Sometimes just listening to a small piece of it at a time is helpful. Then use the process above to figure out how to play each section until you have the whole tune. Alternatively, you can try to play along with a recording again and again, picking out a few new notes each time. For more ideas on how I do this, see Making Technology Your Friend.

Well-known Tunes and Good Starting Notes for Violin/Fiddle

  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star: A, D, or G
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb: C# or B
  • Three Blind Mice: C# or B
  • Yankee Doodle: G
  • Happy Birthday: D
  • Pop Goes the Weasel: D or E
  • America the Beautiful: G
  • The Ants Go Marching/Johnny Comes Marching Home: F# or E, depending on how you know it