Playing Pop Tunes by Ear

It’s autumn and football season is in full gear in Ohio.  Ever since The Ohio State University Marching Band started playing the 1965 #1 hit, “Hang On Sloopy” by The McCoys (an Ohio based band), it’s been synonymous with OSU football.  No Buckeye game experience is complete without it and fans go berserk whenever the band pulls it out.

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This song has become such a regional phenomenon that in 1985, the General Assembly voted to adapt it as the official rock song of the state of Ohio.  Now that it is practically illegal NOT to play this tune around here, most of the local middle and high school bands also include it in their ritualized football repertory.

SloopySo when I came across a clarinet part fluttering in the wind in the school parking lot, I naturally snatched it up, took it home and stuck it on my studio wall.  Since students often comment on it (some regard it as a sacred object), I decided to use it to teach a couple of them how to play a pop song by ear.


Here is a recent run-through by a capable student.  While still in progress (have to work on the left dropped wrist for one), it demonstrates his understanding of the process of learning a pop song by ear.

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How we did it:

  1. Identify the bass line – First, we listened to the above online video rendition.  Since the clarinet is a Bb instrument, we transposed what we heard to match the revered part on my wall.
  2. Identify the chords – Since the bass lines in pop tunes almost always stem from root position chords, it was easy to confirm that like many songs in the 60’s, the three primary (I, IV, and V) chords as the basis for this tune.
  3. Put them together – Playing the bass line and mid-range chords together in both hands enabled him to get the famed groove going for the intro.
  4. Work out the melody – At first, he had to drop the chords, playing just the melody and the bass line.  To add the harmony back in, I explained how to “hang” chords down off of melody notes using right hand inversions.
  5. Fill in the melodic gaps – Lastly, I showed him how to take advantage of pauses in the melody to grab a few chords from the basic groove between phrases.

My formula for learning or teaching pop tunes by ear is:
Work from the bottom up (bass line>chords>melody) and then fill it out wherever you can.

Is that how you do it?  Tell us about your approach to teaching tunes by ear.

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey,






Bradley Sowash

PS – For more tips about how to play by ear, download my free handout, “The Mystery of Playing by Ear.”

2 thoughts on “Playing Pop Tunes by Ear

  1. Debbie Denke
    Professional Pianist, Teacher, Author and Composer

    Clever blog, Bradley! The clarinet part floating down was a sure sign to do the tune ;D.

    I often use Christmas/Holiday tunes for ear training, since most people hear so much of them and can sing them in the shower at least, plus they often use simple harmonies.

    My approach is:

    1. Decide your key first (don’t randomly peck around on the keys to find Jingle Bells)
    2. Play the key center chord (say student decides to do JB in C major)
    3. Find out if the melody begins on the root, third, or fifth
    4. Pick out the rest of the melody by ear keeping in mind the key signature
    5. Figure out the rest of the main chords I (C) IV (F) or V (G). Know it will end on “I”
    6. Find any extra chords, and make a fun arrangement once you know the basic tune

  2. I like your approach for learning pop songs by ear. One can’t go wrong with starting with the bass line and then finding the chords that go with the bass line, and then fitting the melody on top. I do think, though, that once one become adept in doing it that way, it is also beneficial to start with figuring out the melody first, then the bass line, and then the chords that provide the appropriate harmony to the bass line and melody. It doesn’t really matter how we get there as long as we do get there.

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