Playing known melodies by ear with Chord Melody

I started with the IFR For Video Course a couple of years ago in my early 50’s but didn’t continue. I had zero musical background and it was all overwhelming. I was just beginning to learn guitar and the feeling of having to “achieve the ability to play something soon” drove me on to learning to play some songs with basic chords. Now that I have a little experience with half a dozen basic chords using fingerstyle, and intellectually understand some basic music theory such as the major scale and chord construction, I wanted to explore learning to play by ear again.

But this time, I’m starting with the Chord Melody Guitar 1. It seems closer to my current goals of figuring out how to play songs in chord-melody style by ear. The idea of improvising / dynamic composing still feels overwhelming. My grand plan :grin: is to first develop the ability to play any melody I can hum and then eventually add the base note somehow for the chord.

Chord Melody Guitar 1 starts off with using only a 4-fret region for a G major scale. Although I’m still at the very beginning of the course, it seems a lot less overwhelming to me than the unlimited fretboard available with IFR.

As my first step, I’m able to (via some trial-and-error) figure out how to play a few melodies I can hum. These are simple melodies (e.g. twinkle twinkle little star). With some repeated practice, I’m able to play the melody on the higher octave or the lower octave. I also started Sing the Numbers 1 for about a week now.

Some questions:

  • Is there a more optimal way to develop the ability to play known melodies by ear within the IFR framework (not improvise)? Maybe the question itself is weird since IFR is about improvising, but I’m trying to achieve the “side effect” of playing any melody I can imagine first rather than worry about improvising.

  • As I get better at a particular melody, I’m not really sure any longer if I’m really playing by ear or if I’m playing from muscle memory? Any ideas on how to tell? Obviously I want this exercise to help develop my ear, not inadvertently memorize tunes.

Thanks much for these wonderful courses.

1 Like


I’m not a native speaker - I’ll try my best to explain what I do when playing chord melody by ear:

When you’re singing along to your playing basic chords (nearly ) every note you sing is part of the chord you are playing. Thats why it sounds “right”.

So when you play e.g. a a-minor chord, you sing either an a, a c, an e or a g. Or in IFR terms: When you are playing a 6 chord, your chordtones are always 6 1 3 and 5.
So when guessing which note is actually played your choice is limited to around 4 possibilities (I’m talking easy songs, not modern jazz…)

You base note (your root) is always automatically under your thumb if you are fingerpicking standard chords.

“All you havbe to do” (;-)) is to play the root note under your thumb and figure out which of the four chord notes (which are already under your fingers on the melody strings) is the right one.

For me this worked like a house on fire: At first it took me ages to figure out every single note but now I “just feel” the notes,

Hope I could explain it understandably.

1 Like

Welcome to the Forum @rcguitar1 :slight_smile:

I’m a very long way from doing this myself (I’m also at the Twinkle Twinkle & Happy Birthday To You stage; my high point was that I recently worked out Over the Rainbow) and for me improvising is more an aim than deducing existing melodies so I’m probably not the best person to answer, but I figure that the more answers the better…

‘Optimal’ is a very hard thing to assess. A problem is that we are all different, perhaps especially so when it comes to music? So just about the only answer that applies to everyone is that we each need to find what works for us!

The only other “applies to all” thing I can think of is “The more you try to do it, the easier it becomes”. It’s certain that when I started trying to do this I could not even work out Mary Had a Little Lamb, let alone Over the Rainbow. :slight_smile:

How do I tell? I tell because when I go back to a tune I haven’t played in a while it may be my fingers that set of to play the notes, but it’s my ear that knows if what they are doing is right or not (or perhaps it’s more correct to say that my ears know when the fingers get it wrong?).

I hope that is some sort of help?

1 Like

Congrats on all your musical success so far. To ad a couple of little thoughts.

To play melodies by ear you need to hear them in your head first. Then I’d say optimally sing them and then translate to your instrument. That requires become familiar with the notes in their context, ie melodybin harmony. All of us here are hoping IFR is the “optimal” method for this. In fact just singing the numbers while removing from a head injury has made a huge difference to my ability to hear and sing. I’m Woking on the translation to bass.

My bet is the best way to tell you know a song is to sing the melody or bassline or notes of a chord. That and play in all 12 keys, perhaps using the Circle of fiths or a random generator to pick the next key.

Personally I’m finding sing melodies as I learn them a challenge, but my hope is that means I really know them.

1 Like

Hello @rcguitar1 and welcome to the forum.

Sounds like you are making great progress, just take it slow and the skills will grow.

My answer would be IFR is the optimal way, using the resources like Sing the Numbers and the Jam Tracks, you will pick up these ear skills.

But, don’t be intimidated by the term “improvising”. It doesn’t mean some advanced practice, or special technique, or performance. It just means messing around on your instrument, noddling, playing with the sounds, finding what sounds nice and what doesn’t. It’s a personal practice, for you to discover all these lovely sounds.


@Stringsurfer Thanks for the response!
Using the chord to figure out the possible melody tones is a very interesting approach!
I haven’t tried figuring out chord progressions by ear yet.

1 Like

@DavidW Thanks for the response!
Agree that a universally “optimal” approach probably doesn’t exist. Everyone has to figure out their own way.

Also, with regard to distinguishing whether I’m playing by ear or “muscle memory”, I guess I might be over-analyzing this.

1 Like

@steve Thanks for the response!
I definitely agree on the value of singing/humming the melody. For a song I wasn’t familiar with, I had to listen to the verse over a dozen times first to know it well enough before I was able to figure out the melody on the guitar. Still some trial and error, but it’s relatively less than without knowing the tune well. Of course, some tunes are easier than others.

1 Like

@mem Thanks for the response!
Agree I’ll need to try noodling around more on the guitar. When I’ve done that in the past, it just felt somewhat “mechanical” rather than “musical” deliberately trying to play a sequence of random notes as I didn’t really have an idea first in my head of what I wanted the sounds to be. Even if I imagined the sounds in advance, I couldn’t map it to the instrument. I guess, with enough IFR-style practice, I’d eventually develop this ability.


Yes you will, but don’t think of it as an ability you haven’t got yet. The whole ethos of IFR is to learn by playing/noodling around (which is improvising and practicing). To get familiar with the sounds in a very personal way.

1 Like

I’m a big fan of multiple listens to fully absorb a tune so it feels like wearing an old coat.

First, just listening, perhaps in background. Then active listening to really dig in (listen with questions in mind as MusicalU say).

Just done with Watermelon man (1962) and it’s such fun and realy rewarding. So much skill and love goes into music.

Yes, I identify with that (on bass) and Yes IFR unblocked me! Keep going! The rewards are many.

Oops, this platform doesn’t seem to handle conversation threads well :frowning:

Hi @rcguitar1, welcome to our forum! I’m sorry I couldn’t add anything until now. We just finished a huge workshop that was taking up all of my time. But you’re asking very thoughtful questions and I wanted to share some ideas.

First let me express my thanks to everyone who has contributed to this thread. All of these perspectives are valuable, and the advice is sound. So I’ll just focus on something else that hasn’t been said yet.

From your first message, I think that the biggest threat to your musical success and enjoyment is the feeling of overwhelm. So we should be smart and design your music practice in a way that doesn’t generate these feelings of overwhelm.

With respect to understanding melodies by ear, there are a couple of principles that are very important to understand:

  1. Almost every melodic phrase you have ever heard in your life can be made with just the seven notes of the major scale. Even when songs employ key changes or use “outside notes” (meaning notes outside the key of the music), within any one particular melodic phrase, all of the notes almost always come from just a single major scale. What this means is that learning to recognize the seven notes of the major scale by ear is like having musical super powers. It literally cannot be overstated how empowering this is. To our thinking, this personal knowledge of the sounds of our musical system is the very definition of what it means to “understand music”. And this is what makes the two activities you mentioned (improvising vs. playing melodies by ear) collapse into a SINGLE ACTIVITY. When we are improvising, we are first hearing sounds in our mind and we are able to express these sounds on our instrument. This experience of “thinking in sounds” is one of the most beautiful experiences you could ever know, and this is really the whole reason why IFR exists. We don’t really care about cranking out “better soloists” or any other objective measure of ability. What we care about is helping musicians discover and connect with their own musical imagination, and learn to express the sounds they imagine directly on their instrument. Learning to recognize the seven notes of the major scale by ear is the foundation of this ability, and it’s a necessary first layer.

  2. Learning to recognize the seven notes of the major scale by ear is something everyone can do, but for most people it doesn’t happen overnight. Some are able to clarify these sounds almost immediately just by going through one of our courses. But others will develop their familiarity and confidence much more slowly over time. Is one situation better than the other? NO. That’s an important point. For your musical and spiritual happiness, it literally makes no difference how clever you are, how quickly you learn things, or what absolute level of musical ability you have in any given moment. There is nothing preventing any one of us from enjoying the full benefits of a beautiful, joyful and enriching music practice. We know this when we look at children. When we see any group of children immersed in learning something, we see so clearly that every one of them is beautiful, and we just want all of them to be happy. The first step to having a great creative music practice in your life is to treat yourself with this same kindness. I couldn’t care less how long it takes you to learn to recognize melodies by ear or play them on your guitar. What I care about is helping you find a way that you can really enjoy working on that project. If you can wake up every day and be excited to pick up your guitar, then the truth is that you’ve already won.

If a person really understands these two points, then everything we do in IFR becomes obvious and automatic. Of course we should study the sounds of the major scale with curiosity and fascination! And of course we should prioritize our own enjoyment over the speed of our results.

*As a side note, this isn’t just true of music. Any field that is sufficiently vast offers increasing rewards the longer you study it. So you figure out very early in this process that you’ll be more successful in the long run if you find a way to really enjoy the work. Forcing yourself to endure exercises that you don’t enjoy might feel like a noble sacrifice in the moment, but this motivation fizzles out quickly. You’ll go much farther if you find things to practice that give you so much enjoyment that you can’t wait to pick up your guitar again.

All of that being said, now we need to figure out what that ideal set of activities looks like for you. If you’re able to enjoy the improvising that we do in my video course on Chord Melody Guitar, then that’s a wonderful practice that can absolutely be a road into understanding the seven notes of our musical system and recognizing melodies by ear. But chord melody technique can be physically demanding, so I would love for you to have other practices in your music life that allow you to flow and express yourself more easily. I think your idea to learn some songs and simple strumming chords was actually brilliant. The physical learning curve with any instrument is unavoidable. So if you can find some fun things to do that make this learning curve more palatable, that’s a great way to get a head start on those physical skills, which will then make any future music studies vastly easier and more enjoyable.

And so the other complementary activity that I would encourage you to explore is improvising melodically over backing tracks. I understand your feelings of overwhelm at the prospect of playing all across the fretboard, and you certainly don’t need to learn that skill right now. All you need is some way to visualize the notes of a single major scale on your fretboard, and you can already begin improvising with those sounds over a backing track in that key. You don’t need to put on a show, and you don’t need to play a “good” solo. You can just put on one of our meditative backing tracks and RELAX, playing each note just to hear its unique beauty. You might not realize it in the moment, but this is all improvising is. Even the most advanced improvisers in the world are doing exactly this. They just have more experience and personal familiarity with the sounds, and this is precisely what you’ll be gaining from this practice.

There is one last thing I should tell you about, but I don’t want it to sound like a sales pitch. Truly you have everything you need with just the practice I’m describing above. But there is also a workshop coming up that is designed for exactly your situation. It’s called Ear Training for Musical Creativity, and I think it could be a wonderful, life changing experience for you if you’re able to participate. This page describes what we’ll be doing:

If you have any questions about any of this, don’t hesitate to post more in this forum. I really appreciate the questions you’re raising. This is exactly the kind of conversation that we want to be hosting here, and everyone’s comments have been super helpful.


David @ImproviseForReal ,

I appreciate the detailed explanation and advice.

I admit the overwhelm is mostly from my own need to rush, push, and achieve “results”. At 53, and not having had any kind of musical background growing up, I feel the need to catch up somehow. Since I bought a guitar in late 2020, I’ve been learning guitar jumping through various online resources (and quitting and restarting guitar a couple of times along the way, and starting keyboard in between.). It’s all been some form of “read-tabs-and-play”, including the ones that claim to teach playing by ear. While I’ve burned some basic fingerstyle techniques and open chord shapes into muscle memory with these classes, other than a small feeling of accomplishment when I can play the tabs for a song, it doesn’t feel all that “musical” to me. Reading tabs and playing is analogous to typing out some given Spanish text (I don’t know Spanish) on a typewriter. It may be a decent reproduction but somewhat meaningless. Hence my attempt to grasp the IFR method. I will slow down and be less intense about it. :blush:

When playing known melodies, I can tell whether it sounds “right” or not (in a relative sense, ignoring the original key of the song). When attempting to improvise, I can’t tell for sure if I’m matching the note I imagined. I’ve see the term improvise mean several things along the lines of:

(1) Randomly picking notes from the major scale (and hope that it sounds good).

(2) A slight enhancement to (1) by targeting chord tones in the backing track.

(3) Regurgitating combinations of patterns (known to sound good in general or with specific chords) previously committed to muscle memory. This can sound pretty impressive if done well and from what I’ve gathered, some professional musicians do this as well.

(4) Playing a (random) major scale note to start, and then using that as a reference, and choosing consciously from moment to moment to play a note that is one or two scale degrees higher or lower, and continuing in the same manner from the last note that was played. (This is also the scheme I use somewhat for figuring out a known melody.)

(5) Truly playing the note one is imagining at each moment (which I think is the IFR approach/goal)

I’ve focused on playing known melodies as IFR seems to only be possible after one has attained some degree of ability/accuracy to map the major scale notes heard in one’s imagination to the instrument. Hence my struggle with and reluctance to improvise. I’m able to do (4) somewhat, which is also the approach I’ve been using to figure out some known melodies whose notes don’t jump around too far. Otherwise it becomes mostly trial and error. I think “Sing The Numbers 1”, which I’ve been using almost daily for the past month, has helped significantly with (4). But (5) seems a little elusive for me at the moment.

The other aspect of improvising I feel a little odd with is the use of backing tracks. Maybe it’s just a matter of getting used to it. It’s perhaps a little loss of concentration on my part listening to the backing track while also trying to imagine a note to play. And sometimes, I think the backing track sounds nice by itself, and I’m ruining it with my playing! :crazy_face:

Actually, I bought the “Ear Training for Musical Creativity” course a day before your response (and have binged through the first 5 fabulous lessons already but plan to go back through everything and the exercises multiple times slowly over time to let it all sink in). I’m going to look into the possibility of upgrading to the workshop relative to my work time commitments in the coming months. Thanks very much for your advice and suggestions.

Hi @rcguitar1, what a funny coincidence that you just got started with Ear Training for Musical Creativity so soon before I was finally able to write back to you. I’m sorry I didn’t respond sooner, but you made exactly the right choice. And it’s very positive to see that you’re enjoying that course. That course will get you on exactly the right track to improvising with approach 5 that you described, and you are right that this exactly what we do in IFR.

If you would like to do an intensive 10 weeks to get the most out of that course and really cement this connection between your ear, your imagination and your instrument, we allow everyone to upgrade from the video course to the workshop by simply paying the difference. So please know that this option is available to you. But if it doesn’t work out for timing reasons, then you can also be just as successful working through the video course on your own. It just requires more patience and self-direction, so it’s not as easy as the workshop where you can be guided every step of the way by teachers working with you personally.

But both options will work for you, so please don’t feel any pressure to join this workshop if it’s not convenient right now. And please feel free to continue posting questions or comments here and we’ll do everything we can to help you. Most of all, please don’t feel that you need to be in any rush because of your late start in music. The only thing you should be rushing toward is the most beautiful, sincere and joyful music practice you can imagine. Get that part right, and everything else will fall into place naturally.

1 Like

Your starting around 6 years ahead of when I did! :wink:

As I hope you are now coming to realise, or if not soon will, that’s not at all the case. One of the many beauties of the IFR aproach is that you can use it to Imprivose For Real right from the start, e.g. the very earliest exercises in the IFR book,

As Ialso hope you’ll come to realise, this is not a linear series of ‘tick box’ exercise. The process is more like taking small steps around a gradually growing circle, with each bit of progress allowing you to encompass more.
(5) is where may of us are aiming for, but even the most advanced probably feel they still have room for improvement?
I still only have moments of that. I’m no where near the sort of command I hope I might reach, but I’m way further forward than I was when I started and the journey is reward in itself. For me the prime way to reach for (5) is to be willing to pick up my instrument and just see(hear) what happens; I think of this as “Playing to Explore”, which has sort of become my “misson statement”.

You are not alone. I’m not a big user of backing tracks, even the beautifully designed IFR ones. The musical world is huge and has room for all sorts of approaches. The ones to choose are the ones that appeal to you. Have you tried using drones?

As I hope you now see, bingeing is rarely a sustainably useful apporach to developing deep understanding. That said, if it’s sometimes what you wish to do and it gives you joy in your music practice, by all means do it. :slight_smile:

Maybe we’ll meet in the upcoming workshop? I’ve been through the workshop before - more than once - but each time through is an fresh education and brings further insights and improvements. If you won’t be there & you have questions, we’ll still be here too. :slight_smile:

PS. To avoid this becoming an excuse for aimless noodling, I

  • a) Record myself
  • b) Set a timer. Typically 3 or 5 minutes.

I set the recorder going, then start the timer and tell myself that at least untill the timer goes off I will be making music. Silence is allowed, but only “musical silence” - space between notes can be as musical as audible tones.

The time isn’t a hard target. I use a timer that just beeps once when the time is up; if I then wish to continue I can.

I’m not recording “for posterity”. I’m not playing with any intention to entertain others. I don’t always listen to the recording; it’s just part of the exercise. It can however be intersting or even useful to listen back, either the same day, or maybe a week or two later, to see if you can learn from it, or maybe recall what you were thiking of at the time?

I’m not saying you should do this too. We each need to find our own ways. This is just an example of something that currently feels right for me. I wish you luck in finding your ways. :slight_smile:

Unfortunaley the 4MB file limit for uploads means that I.m restricted in providing an example - most of my recordings bigger than that even as mp3s, but here’s one that does fit. I recorded it a couple of days ago during the last week of the Deep Foundations course. In the last couple of weeks of the course we were looking at the 7th Harmonic Enviroment (i.e., I’d done a number of single note at a time explorartions of HE7 (sometimes with a root drone backing), but on this occasion I decided to make a point of trynig out combinations of chord tones.on my 10 string Chapman Stick.

N.B. THis is not intended to entertain or impress. It wasn’t recorded with a view to publication. It’s just an example of a thing that happened when I gave myself permission to explore.

1 Like

I’ve emailed Mireia already about upgrading to the workshop. Looking forward to it!

Thanks for thoughts and ideas!

I love the above explanation!

I listened to one and that has such a soothing sound… that might work for me to better in my attempts at improvisation.

I might be borrowing that mission statement for myself, too. :smile:

Bingeing/cramming for success has been my “approach” with school back in the day and some aspects of work even now. I quickly realized when I started learning guitar that this wasn’t going to work for music. The muscle memory / coordination development takes way more time than I thought (even when applying methods like “deliberate practice”). Grasping and audiating the major scale notes accurately is an equally slow process. But I’m glad I found IFR and didn’t waste too much time on the multitude of “interval training” based approaches.

1 Like