Success for Learning to Play Music by Ear

If you want to play traditional music, especially in bluegrass picking circles, one of the first skills that we encourage you to develop is playing by ear. You might think this is a skill for professionals, but anyone can do it. By following these steps for learning to play music by ear, you will be able to play together with groups of pickers who play the many instruments found at

  1. Find the Song’s Key. With many traditional songs, it’s easy to find the key it in a songbook. But your goal here is to start to recognize different chords and song structures, so the first step is to find the song’s key, or the base chord that the rest of the song builds from. This is often called the root, tonic, or I chord. When you listen to a recording, your first instinct should be to match the first chord of the song and call that your key. Many more songs come to a finish, or rest, on their root chord. If you can’t find the root chord in a music book, try to figure it out on your own by playing chords until you find it.
  2. Fill the Remaining Chords. This is where music theory comes in. Don’t let that idea scare you; it’s easier than you think. If your root chord is a G, knowing many songs follow a 1-4-5 pattern will let you know that your next chord is a C, the fourth chord up from G. The next chord? The fifth chord in this case is D. This small amount of music theory will take you a long way.
  3. Write it Down. When learning to play music by ear, it’s important to write down your discoveries. This helps in two ways. First, you won’t forget what you have learned. Second, you will start to have your own songbook of songs that you enjoy. You will know the song by ear, and have a reference to check later.

Playing by ear is a skill. You can learn it and become proficient at playing the music you love.  And that just makes life better!

For more on Americana music and instruments, be sure to visit us online at, or stop by the store and pick with us.  We’re always looking for an excuse to stop work and do some pickin’!