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Exploring the Power of Informal Learning: A Guide to Learning by Ear

Informal Learning

Informal learning is described as, essentially, learning methods that are used outside of a formal school setting and usually involves:

· Self-teaching.

· Copying recorded music.

· Regular composing, improvising, and listening practice throughout the learning process.

· Learning new skills based on interest rather than using a particular method.

It's how music has been transmitted and learned since it was first made by the first cavemen around a fire since the beginning of time. Something else that is important to note is that relying on European Staff Notation is not expected and not necessarily needed to be successful in the rock and popular music scenes. Standardized staff notation was only developed due to the lack of audio recording equipment before the 1900s. Some forms of notation have become standard in the popular music world like tablature and the Nashville Number System.

There are a number of specific skills that musicians in popular music genres require and learn through informal means. Many of my friends and fellow musicians who have primarily learned their craft informally can demonstrate the following:

1) The ability to learn a song quickly, just from listening to it. This skill also includes the ability to play in any key, knowledge and recognition of common chord progressions or patterns such as 12 bar blues.

2) Knowledge of what fits in and around the beat even if they are not able to put it into words. This is often referred to as feel and sometimes called fitting into the groove.

3) Knowledge of roles of instruments in particular styles. For example, the function of a bass and drums part in reggae would be much different than the interplay between bass and drums in heavy metal.

4) The ability to reproduce any sound effect as closely as possible and use live and recording sound equipment.

5) The ability to read different forms of notation such as tablature, chord charts, and occasionally, staff notation. It is important to note that notation plays a very different role in informal learning. It is used more as supplemental material or a way to help the performer remember a part. It is not a major learning resource as in traditional conservatory music education. 6) The ability to improvise and compose in any key with fluency. Improvising, composing, and copying are practiced throughout the learning process and are not compartmentalized into separate specialties. They become the true sense of being a musician—a performer, composer, improviser, and imitator.[i]

Exploring the Power of Informal Learning: A Guide to Learning by Ear
A Guide to Learning by Ear


Listening is a fundamental skill in all types of music but when learning rock and popular music it is emphasized due to the fact that, in this genre, music is transmitted primarily through audio recordings. There are two kinds of listening that informal learners engage with to learn a song that are worth considering when working through a with your groups:

1) Active Listening: This is when a group listens to a song with the active goal of learning it. Forms of active listening include ghosting (playing along without making a sound), listening for a specific instrument, trying to learn a part or any listening involved in actively learning a song.

2) Passive Listening: This is the homework that I primarily assign to my groups. I ask them to listen to a song a number of times or have it on repeat on their phones or at the very least, include the song in their playlists. They learn the song the same way any person can memorize the lyrics of their favourite tunes without actively learning them.

By-ear-learning and good ears develop much quicker in rock and popular music musicians due to their constant listening, copying, and improvising. Their ears do not necessarily develop to be any better than a classically trained musician but they definitely get better sooner.


When asked whether he could read music, jazz great Louis Armstrong is said to have replied, “Yes, but not enough to hurt my playing.”[ii] Learning by ear is a skill learned through doing it in context and informal learning presents multiple opportunities for this contextual learning. Although playing by ear and reading music are often separated, playing by ear may be the most foundational of musical skills; it helps everything else. Think about it: playing by ear is like being able to copy a language just by hearing it. If you don’t know the language, or can’t remember or recognize enough of it, most people wouldn’t even be able to copy back vows for their wedding. Much like learning a language, a pre-existing, ear-based fluency helps a musician understand written notation more easily. You never teach a baby to read before it learns to speak. How does a baby learn to speak, you ask? By copying, and experimenting. Once they understand the language and can speak it, they learn to read it and understand its notation. Check out this blog post on how to teach the skill of ear learning to a group of beginners.

From my own experience in bands working with other popular music practitioners and my own by-ear-learning experiences, musicians with more by-ear-learning practice tend to employ these four strategies when learning a new song:

1) Listen for specific instrument sounds, recognizable timbres, or idiomatics: An example of this would be recognizing an open bass string or a guitar chord based on the voicing of the strings. An open D chord will always have the third on the top and has a very distinctive sound. A very common and instantly recognizable extension on guitar is going from a D to Dsus4 and back again. One particular song that jumps out as containing this extension is in the opening of Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive.” As well, many rock musicians can recognize a blues pattern right away which develops with years of by-ear-learning, drastically cutting down the learning time.

2) Listen for the bass part: Musicians often listen to the bass part and try to learn the patterns being played. From there, they try chords based on those pitches. This is where I started when learning new songs. I suggest you begin with this too, if you are new to the process.

3) Listen for the melody: This involves using bits of the melody to figure out what chords are next. For example, if a melody changes chords on the second scale degree, a musician might use a dominant chord to see if it fits.

4) Listen for chord tones: If there is a particular chord tone that is jumping out to you, find it and form a chord around it. I have used this strategy myself and it can be very effective for some more obscure voicings.

For more on this, take a look at an article written by KG Johansson called “What Chord was That? A Study of Strategies Among Ear Players in Rock Music.”[iii] Some of these ways of learning by ear are mentioned in Johansson’s article. There is also a 2010 study by Dr. Lucy Green discussing the ways in which students approach learning by ear called “Musical ‘Learning Styles’ and ‘Learning Strategies’ in the Instrumental Lesson: Some Emergent Findings from a Pilot Study.”[iv]

Do you have any specific ways that you learn by ear? I would love to hear about it. Let me know.

i. Lucy Green. How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Forward for Music Education.(England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002) ii. Woody, 83. iii. KG Johansson. "What Chord was That? A Study of Strategies Among Ear Players in Rock Music." In Music, Education and Innovatoin, edited by Cecelia Ferm Thorgersen and Karlsen Sidsel, 17–28. Pitea: Lulea University of Technology Press (2010). iv. Lucy Green. "Musical "Learning Styles" and "Learning Strategies" in the Instrumental Lesson: Some Emergent Findings From a Pilot Study." Psychology of Music November (2010): 42–65.


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