• The Key To Learning New Songs… QUICKLY!

    in Piano,Playing By Ear,Playing songs,Scales,Theory

    Let’s not kid ourselves.

    The whole point of learning all these theories, principles, and shortcuts isn’t because we’re in love with this stuff (well, some of us are). But for most, learning this stuff is a means to an end.

    And without a doubt, the ultimate “end” (at our website at least) is to hear a song and in a matter of minutes, be able to play it.

    There’s a lot that goes into it, don’t get me wrong. But here, I want to give you a really concise blueprint… a series of steps that, if followed, can produce you results very quickly.

    I call it the “GO-TO CHORDS” principle.

    These are chords you can always rely on when you’re on certain tones of the scale. Many of you know them as diatonic chords.

    In this post, I’m going to show you how they fit into my quick system.

    But first, let me give you all the steps to playing a song or pattern quickly.

    GOAL #1 – Be able to find the key quickly

    When you’re an ear-player, everything starts here.

    You don’t have sheet music in front of you.
    You have no grand staff with a key signature telling you the key.

    You must rely on your ear.

    Luckily, I’ve done a 30-minute free video lesson on this topic that has helped tens of thousands. And if you’re really serious, you’ll invest a few bucks in the 80-minute audio course I put together on this same subject.

    GOAL #2 – Know your scales & numbers

    Finding your key puts you on the right planet.

    Now you must speak the language of the planet you’re on.

    The major scale (and minor for that matter) is the language. Not only must you know your scales but you must know them as numbers.

    C major: C D E F G A B C.

    C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, F is 4, G is 5, A is 6, B is 7.

    Luckily, I made a free guide that helps you with this as well. Click here to check it out.

    GOAL #3 – Master the “go-to chords”

    Once you know your scales as numbers, there are certain chords that happen naturally on certain numbers. If you’re on the 1st tone of the scale, there’s a “GO-TO chord” you can almost always rely on. Same with every other tone of the scale.

    Here’s a quick list of them but check out this free guide I created on chords. It will break all of this down in all 12 keys.

    1st tone = Major Chord
    2nd tone = Minor Chord
    3rd tone = Minor Chord
    4th tone = Major Chord
    5th tone = Major Chord
    6th tone = Minor Chord
    7th tone = Diminished Chord

    Goal #4 – Learn to pick out bass notes

    Once you come into a world (by determining the key in step #1), you automatically have 7 notes before you that will occur most often.

    When you’re trying to pick out bass notes, you’re not being random. You’re relying on what you know about the major scale to guide you. Those 7 notes are key.

    And to take it just a step further — even within those 7 notes are keys that occur most often. The first, fourth, and fifth tones are what we call “primary.” Out of the 7 notes that make up the scale, look for these 3 to occur most often. The others (aka “secondary”) support the primary ones.

    Newbies: When I say bass notes, I mean the root of the chords. Most likely, you’ll be listening to a band playing. The bass player is holding down the root note while everyone else is playing chords, melodies, licks, and patterns. You’re really trying to key in on what the bass player is doing.

    Having bass boost headphones can help. Turning up the bass may also help.

    But from experience, it’s not really ONLY what the bass is doing but when you get good, you can just hear overall what’s going on. Your excuse will never be “the bass isn’t loud” because even if you can’t hear the bass itself, you can hear everything else and that should still hint you in the right direction.

    Say you hear these 5 bass notes in the key of C major:

    C >>> A >>> D >>> G >>> C

    Good job, you picked them out!

    Now all you gotta do is put this system all together:

    Goal #5 – Put it all together

    If you’ve picked out these notes in the bass:

    C >>> A >>> D >>> G >>> C

    …all you do now is backtrack.

    You’ve already used step 1 to tell you the key (hopefully).

    If you’ve listened to me, you’ve also used step 2 to key in on the major scale and limit your choices to the 7 notes of the scale (which will occur majority of the time; outside notes can occur too but they are not the norm).

    Now you’ll use step 2 to also make sure you know your numbers for these bass notes:

    C is 1
    A is 6
    D is 2
    G is 5
    C is 1

    Now that you have the numbers, you can use the “go-to chords” in step 3.

    I’m not saying these will always be your final chords. But they should always be your “GO-TO CHORDS.” The only exception to this rule is when you’ve developed your ears so well that you know without a doubt what chords are occurring.

    If not, start with your go-to chords. And at least, if one or two don’t work, you can try other chords on those tones (like if one tone usually has a minor chord, try a major chord).

    If your go-to chords sound right, then you focus on finding the right voicings or inversions.

    Sure, you may be correct in knowing that C major is played off the 1st tone of the scale. But which C major?

    C + E + G (root position)?

    E + G + C (first inversion)?

    G + C + E (second inversion)?

    And if you’ve gotten the right inversion, have you got the right voicing?

    Maybe the composer put two “E’s” in the chord (e.g. – E + G + C + E). It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a C major chord but it definitely accentuates the E’s (aka – “3rd tone”)… which sounds very good by the way when playing major 7 chords (E + G + B + E over “C” bass).

    That’s basically the system.

    Find key >>> identify major scale and numbers >>> determine bass >>> put correct go-to chords on each bass tone >>> tweak.

    It seems long but each step is pretty short. And you get better and better over time.

    For me, this all happens in about 20 seconds after turning a song off. For a beginner, it may take several hours. That’s ok. It’s better than sheet music because you’re FREE and liberated with this method. And as you get better and better, you’ll add stuff to the song. As Paula Abdul on American Idol used to say, “you’ll make it your own.”

    Well, I’m done for today. This lesson has quite a few gems in it. Save it, print it, read and re-read it. Tack it up on your wall.

    This is it right here. Follow it, hone it, and you’ll do really well.

    Until next time.

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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


    { 11 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Chris Johnson

    Well you’ve done it again Jermaine. You know how close I am to my goals! I pretty much do all of this already but I still struggle at times and I always struggle with the bass.

    I have all of these skills under my belt except for picking out those darn bass notes!

    I think I’m still trying to do it all in 10 minutes… Trying to do it too fast ya know.

    When I get home tonight, I’ll pick a song and really bare down on the bass because I know this is where I get lost.

    Example: I’ll pick a few out and then I’ll get lost somewhere along the line and that’s usually the end of my personal training as far as understand a song in full. :)

    But I just gotta stick with it like I did with everything else. I’m so close… so close….. But I’ll get there.. You know I’m not giving up, not at this point…..


    2 Jermaine Griggs

    Thanks for your comment Chris.

    The cool thing about it is the more you pick out songs, the bigger repertoire of patterns you build. The same patterns are going on over and over.

    It’s not a random picking of bass notes. Once you’ve found your key, you’re down to 7 notes that will most likely occur. That’s not to say others won’t because we use bass notes outside the scale to take us to various places. If a chord outside the scale is present, you’ll hear it… like the b7 or the b6. Those are borrowed chords.

    Also don’t forget about the circle of fifths. Majority of movements will be to next door neighbors on that chart. Search for “circle of fifths” in the search bar above for more pointers. If you remember this order, you’ll find more often than not, your bass moving in this direction (there are exceptions as there are with anything in life):

    C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb B E A D G C

    And if the bass isn’t moving like that, it’s moving relatively close… from one tone of the scale to the next tone of the scale up or down… maybe leaping over a note or two at most.

    Use your ear to hear up or down. Ask it one question first:

    “EAR, did the bass go up or down.” Answer that question internally, then remember what I’ve said about:

    -circle of fifths movement
    -next door “scale tone” movement
    -very close movements (at most, usually 2 notes of scale)

    And you’ll be golden. Perfect practice makes perfect. Repetition is the mother of skill. Just keep at it. And retain what you learn because it will most certainly come up again. All songs draw from the same pool of patterns.

    After learning a couple dozen songs across different genres (or probably way less), you’ll probably have every chord and progression you’ll ever need.

    Keep up the great work Chris,


    3 Chris Johnson

    Hey thanks Jermaine. This should help push me further along. By constantly reading your tips, it certainly seems as if the primary chords are even more important than I think.

    Even after I pick out the key and know what planet I’m on, I do go into ‘random’ mode. :) I start searching for things that probably aren’t there. I understand musicians throw curve balls in there but like you said that’s the exception and I need to keep in mind that the primary and secondary chords are key.

    I’ll get it though. Thank you for ‘circle of fifths’ tip. I think we tend to forget about using that when trying to figure things out. I know I get caught up in it all but once I get through just one song completely, I I’ll be on my way.

    Bout to get to work!


    4 Allan

    Instead of using trial and error to search for the bass notes to harmonize with the melodic notes, try this to nearly eliminate all guessing!

    1) Visually identify the melodic note you are about to play on the main down beats of the song and immediately locate & simultaneously play the bass note at 1, 3 or 5 intervals BELOW the melodic note.

    2) Form chords from notes at 1-5-8-10 intervals ABOVE each bass note.


    5 Richard

    Dear Jermaine,

    This Video, just brought me out of my seat. I always felt than my hearing was damaged, by my work in Explosive Ordanance. Not so. Today, using your approach to finding the
    key to a song, I was able to identifiy 4 out of 5 Song’s. Thank you for sharing this with me, you are really a Great man. May God Bless you and your entire Family. A Friend in Newville, Pa. Dick Blocher


    6 Fervanus

    Hi jermaine,
    I’m from St. Lucia a caribbean island. I’ve been following for quite a while now. Your teachings Inspires and motivates me not only for music purpose but life itself. Anyways, I could “hear but not play”. I began playing guitar by ear and decided to switch to keyboard. Its been a year now and I’m not satisfied with my progress. I could make out the chords for songs but my fingers don’t follow. I need some tips to move my hands as quickly as i hear or close enough and i find my self getting nothing after hours of practicing. (I would play the song but not comfortable enough and i have to go through the same thing if i were to transposed). Also i need tips on voicings, fillings and licks.



    7 Allan

    Try applying these two steps to play a song on the piano by ear.

    1) Play a simple song by using the note C to play the last note of the song.

    2) Visually identify the melodic note you are about to play on the main down beats of the song and immediately locate & simultaneously play the bass note at 1, 3 or 5 intervals BELOW the melodic note.

    3) Form chords from notes at 1-5-8-10 intervals ABOVE each bass note.


    8 Timothy

    You are the BEST bro! I’ll admit, I really don’t practice like I used to…BUT I will ALWAYS be a faithful member of GMTC!!! Even if you raised the price! You (JP too) have truly been a blessing to me. May God continue to bless you and you’re family.

    Look forward to seeing you and the fam on House Hunters…Buying that $1.5 Million home!


    9 Reginald Davis

    Hey Jermaine I got a silly question. I use piano tablature a lot when transcribing songs from midi files. What is officially the middle C on a 88 key instrument? The reason I’m asking is because I see it illustrated all the time as either C3 or C4.


    10 Jermaine Griggs

    Usually C4 on 88 keys.

    You may have seen C3 on a piano with less notes.

    4 is the fourth octave (from left).

    3 is the third octave (from left).


    11 Allan

    Once I was able to formulate these three simple steps I describe below, I was literally able to learn and play songs by ear instantly because its so easy to visually (not mentally) execute the last two steps while playing the piano. I think that if you share this with your viewers, they will be able to achieve success more quickly while minimizing frustration and confusion.

    1) Play a simple song containing a small range of notes and use the note C to play the last note of the song.

    2) Visually identify the melodic note you are about to play on the main down beats of the song and immediately locate & simultaneously play the bass note at 1, 3 or 5 intervals BELOW the melodic note.

    3) Form chords from notes at 1-5-8-10 intervals ABOVE each bass note.


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