How to Play 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.  It's hard to explain to those who live outside our glorious state why Buckeyes get goose bumps, tears, and feelings akin to patriotism or religious fervor. Suffice it to say that fans go berserk whenever the band pulls it out and no game day is complete without it.

Hang on Sloopy.jpg

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.

So, when I came across a clarinet part of the popular Ohio tune fluttering in the wind under the stadium seats, 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's a run-through by a student who came to piano after learning Suzuki violin and enjoys playing by ear.  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.

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.  Then fill it out wherever you can.

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


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Play by earBradley Sowash