Skip to content
To guitar gurus- th...
Clear all

To guitar gurus- thoughts on playing by ear

7 Posts
7 Users
Estimable Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 44
Topic starter  

Playing by ear apparently is one of the most important skills an aspiring songwriter has to cultivate. The first song that my teacher's got me learning is the classic rock song by Derek and the dominos(Clapton) “I looked away.” He wrote out the chord progression of the intro, verse, prechorus and chorus for me to study and review.

Since I have a decent understanding of music theory, he also taught me some general rules and how at times great songwriters have tendencies to break “the rules” of music theory in order to color their songs with more of their own taste/creativity ultimately in pursuit of keeping the listeners more on their heels. He mentioned the following, so that I would not be caught totally off guard when I'm trying to figure out songs and some chord that “violates the rules” pops up. For example, he mentioned

1. the use of secondary dominants-
(II minor 7's, III minor 7's, VI minor 7's) and how they can, regardless of the melody, play the role of a dominant. (the role of creating more tension)

2. the use of passing diminished chords.
Apparently the #IV dim chord serves as a nice, smooth transition chord in between IV and V. so in the key of C, the passing diminished chord would be F# diminished.

To maximize the educational value in learning these songs, we're starting with “I looked away” by Derek and the dominos because it tends to break the rules. Anyone know some other songs that tend to break the rules?

In relation to general rules he mentioned
1. that the tonic has a tendency to transition into the IV and VI chords.
2. that in common chord progressions like, I-VI-II-V (which in the key of C would C- Am-Dm-G) that chords have a tendency to transition in perfect 4th's. As you can see there the perfect fourth of A is D and the perfect fourth of D is G and the perfect fourth is G is C and we're right back to the cycle.

Anybody familiar with this kinda stuff? Am I getting too theoretical? I know there/s lots of great guitar players out there who don't have much background in theory but still manage to write great songs. Anyway, I guess having a conscious understanding of this seems to be beneficial nevertheless.

So here's the impression that I have gotten with respect to learning the chord progression.
1.first identify the key so you know what chords to expect.(from the tonic all the way to the VII diminished)
2.listen to the new bass note in every given bar.

QUESTION- Is there anything I'm missing here?

What also concerns me is how does one figure out the slash chords? I can hear the bass notes, but not the actual chords in these slash chords. Any ideas?

(My kind of music is rock- I like bands like U2, bonjovi, bryan adams, goo goo dolls, coldplay etc. Should I just try to learn their songs since I like them or are there some classic songs that can be of more educational value/help at this point?)

Anyway, please feel free to mention anything that you have found useful in your own learning processes of playing by ear. Advices, suggestions, thoughts, comments, are most welcome.

Thanks fellas!

P.S. Just out of curiosity- after one gets a grasp of identifying the chord progression, how does one transition to learning riffs and then the solos. That's so far from my reality right now but I would just like to get a glimpse of HOW it works. Are riffs and solos just a random (yet pleasant sounding) arrangement of the notes within the scale of the given key? If there's some OTHER major step I'm missing, in between identifying the chord progression and then learning riffs- that one must go though, please mention!

Illustrious Member
Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 4921

One of the problems of studying music theory is that rules are taught that aren't really the whole story... three are 'except for...' parts that are left until later.

None of your examples violate the rules, but a few show some confusion on what the rules are.

Maybe the biggest confusion is this one: "that the tonic has a tendency to transition into the IV and VI chords"

The tonic doesn't have a tendancy to transition anywhere - it's the natural resting place of the tune. Transitions start with the chord right after the tonic. Think of it like throwing a ball up in the air - you could throw it north, south, east, west... anyplace you'd like. You can toss it near you, or hurl it far away. But eventually.... the ball comes down.

When you put a chord after the tonic, you're hurling that musical ball, and you can literally toss it anywhere you'd like. But eventually it comes back down, and it comes back down to the tonic.

Next confusion: secondary dominants - these are temporary changes to a new key. If a song goes C-D7-G7-C, the D7 is a secondary dominant; it's not in the key of C, because of the F# note in it. In order for it to be a secondary dominant, it must be an 'accidental chord' - one that can't be written using only notes from the key. At least one note must be altered from the original key by a sharp or flat.

A IIm7 isn't an accidental chord - in the key of C, that would be D-F-A-C, all notes inside the key. The same is true of IIIm7, and of VIm7 - they're all 'native' chords.

Dominant chords like C7 create tension by having a dissonant interval inside them: for C7, that's the tritone between E and Bb. If you turn that into a m7 chord by lowering the E, it's no longer a dissonant interval... m7 chords are considered consonant.

Passing chords are outside the key, but in most cases they're not part of the chord progression. That's something that confuses many guitarists. The chord progression is the underlying harmony of a song, and you can add decorations to it without really changing the structure. In many cases, IV-#IV-V is simply a decoration.

But in some cases it's not... and now we've got to look at the confusing role of that #IVº. In the key of C, F#º is made up of the notes F#-A-C-Eb. Those are the exact same notes that make up the Aº, Cº, and Ebº chords. So it's possible the progression isn't IV-#IV-V, but IV-I-V (much more familiar, motion by fourth): F-Cº-G.

The most common progression of chords is around the circle of fifths. You can go in either direction - by fourths (Am-Dm) or by fifths (Am-Em). Either one sounds like a natural progression, because fourths and fifths are inversions of each other - D is the fourth of A, but A is the fifth of D.

Slash chords are often inversions - chords without 'extra' notes, but the notes are in a different order. Identifying the bass note in these cases doesn't give you the root of a chord... but it does give you a tone inside the chord. So if you have F# in the bass and know it isn't an F# root, the chord could be D, Ebm (the note would be properly named Gb in that case), B, Cº, Gmaj7.... lots of possibilities. Listen for the type of chord - major, minor, dominant - and narrow it down.

For figuring out leads, they're not really random notes. Leads are based on scales, and the scales chosen will have some relationship to the chord progression. For rock tunes, that usually means the minor or major pentatonic in your key.

Don't worry about getting too theoretical. We can handle it here :)

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL

Prominent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 973

I'd just like to add a 'note' on how lead, riffs, melodies, etc relate to the underlying music. As NoteBoat said, they're not random. In fact, the phrase "random but pleasant sounding" is a contradiction in terms, almost all of the time.
In theory, every note of a solo, riff or any type of melodc phrase bears a relationship to:

1. The underlying chords.
The note will either be a chord tone or a non-chord tone. If it's a chord tone it will blend harmoniously with the chord. If it's not a chord tone, and it has a long enough duration, it will harmonise with the chord according to its pitch relationship with the chord tones. Apart from flavouring the overall sound of the chord, it may also assume a tendency to rise or fall in a certain way (resolve). This is not a real tendency, it's just our expectation based on our common experience, which is where the "rules" of theory come from. The rules are just observations of common practice, and deviations from common practice are considered "rule breaking". It's a somewhat misleading term as "rule breaking" by gifted individuals is an absolutely essential practice, without which music would never have evolved.

2. The key
Apart from relating to the underlying chord tones, the note (again if its duration is long enough) will relate to the tonal centre (key note) of the music, to some degree. Depending on the interval it forms, it may strengthen the tonal centre or weaken it, (or neither).

3. The preceding and following notes
Melody notes don't exist in isolation. They combine linearly to form melodic phrases, the strength and/or beauty of which depend to a great extent on their shape, i.e., whether the notes rise, fall, repeat, move by step or leap and their relative durations.

Movement by step is more common than movement by leap and both are more common than repeating notes, which have to be handled with care to avoid sounding, well, repetitive. Vocal melodies can get away with repeated notes much more easily as they have lyrics to hold the listeners interest.

These common theory facts were confirmed for me on a practical level by insights I gained from writing a computer program many years ago that 'composed' melodies using random selection with built in "rule following" procedures to produce hopefully musical results.

The greater the random element - the more chaotic and unpleasant the result (as you would expect)
The more "rule following" that is introduced, the more predictable and boring the result.
There were occasions, though, where a happy medium was reached, and some interesting music was produced, at least, I thought so, anyway :lol:

Famed Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 2736

I always 'slight read' such theory discussions.

Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 6348

I like reading these kinds of posts. they help me undersand in words things I have been doing of years.
theory can make my eyes glaze over , but you guys that post theory make it easier here.

Illustrious Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 8184

i actually find it easier to play single note riffs than figure out complicated chord progressions. notes sound directional to me... up, down, big skip, small skip, etc... while chords sound more like moods or colors to me.

Estimable Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 144

I like reading these kinds of posts. they help me undersand in words things I have been doing of years.
theory can make my eyes glaze over , but you guys that post theory make it easier here.

I like reading them too, although most of the time I don't completely understand them.

Music is the universal language.