Learning Tunes by Ear Using Transcribe

Michael Eskin, headshot photo

I often hear newer and even some experienced players say "Learning tunes is hard!" or "I can't learn tunes by ear."

"Learning tunes is hard!"

"I can't learn tunes by ear."

I realized long ago that a surprisingly very few music teachers actually teach students how to learn tunes. Most students have no idea what to do other than just "practice a lot" thinking that will help them remember the tunes. Maybe they read the tunes over and over out of a music book, and yet they struggle with playing the tunes from memory in a session without the black dots.

"What if learning tunes could be effortless?"

Many years ago, I developed a simple process that I've used to learn hundreds of tunes entirely by ear.

It is a purely mechanical and repeatable process that I have found takes the struggle out of learning tunes by ear. I just do the process and in a few days I can learn any tune and then be able play it by ear in a session.

I happen to use a Windows system, but a similar procedure would work for Mac since all the software I use is cross-platform.

I use "Transcribe" by Seventh String Software as my primary tune learning tool. It is available for PC, Mac, and Linux at:


Price is about $50, and its the best $50 you'll ever spend. It is able to slow down tunes without changing pitch, or change pitch without changing speed all at very high quality. The user interface shows a waveform of the tune. You can select sections of the tune with the mouse, and drop markers using the keyboard while the tune is playing to help with isolation of A/B/C sections.

While I have standardized on Transcribe, in recent years other similar tools like "Amazing Slower Downer" have become available on a variety of platforms. If you decide not to use Transcribe, find an music tool that at a minimum allows you to make region selections, slow down the playback of the music without changing the pitch, and ideally can change the pitch without changing the speed (for dealing with out-of-tune or transposed recordings).

Step 1: Find a recording of the version of the tune you want to learn either on CD, online recording, YouTube video, or on iTunes. The goal here is to end up with a .mp3 file of the tune.

Best case scenario is you find a version in a non-protected .mp3 or .wav file.

To download .mp3 audio tracks directly from YouTube, I use a tool called "4K Video Downloader":


Step 2: Launch Transcribe and load the .mp3 or .wav file

Step 3: If the tune isn't in concert pitch (i.e. Eb flute or flat concertina or pipes), use Transcribe's transposition feature to adjust the coarse pitch and fine tuning to match your practice instrument.

Step 4: Play the tune in Transcribe, and while it is playing, use the "S" key to drop section markers at the beginnings of each of the parts of the tune.

Step 5: Now that you have adjusted the tuning and set markers, save the Transcribe settings for the tune using the "Save" option on the "File" menu.

Step 6: Set the playback speed to 50% (or 70%) by clicking on the preset tempo buttons at the top of the Transcribe window. Enable looping by clicking the loop button at the top of the window.

Step 7: Click on one of the markers you previously set, the display will scroll to the marker. Click in the waveform at the marker position and drag to the next marker and release. You have now highlighted one section of the tune.

Step 8: Click "Play". The section of tune between the markers will play and repeat forever. Adjust the speed as required. If your mouse has a scroll wheel, you can hover over the speed display at the top of the window and change the speed by moving the wheel.

Step 9: Repeat steps 7-8 for each of the sections of the tune. You can also select through multiple sections of the tune or repeat the whole tune if you're doing well.

Step 10: After doing this for as long as you can tolerate, I'd suggest a minimum of 10-15 minutes, save your settings and go do something else for a while.

Step 11: Come back after a few hours, and try to play the tune without the recording. If you're like me, you will probably not have a clue how it starts at first.

This step may feel uncomfortable, but is crucial to the process. I'm convinced that this is where the actual transfer of the tune from short-term to long term storage in the brain starts taking place. Just know to expect it as part of the process.

Stay in your chair and keep trying to start the tune. Keep at it for at least 5 minutes before giving up and going back to using the recording. Once you can get the tune started, probably 50% of the tune will come back to you.

Step 12: Repeat steps 7-8 for each of the sections of the tune for another 10-15 minutes, then go away for a few hours or overnight.

At this point, keep periodically reinforcing the tune by practicing the tune from ear daily until it becomes second nature.

When you're out for a walk or just doing chores around the house, humming or lilting the tunes you are learning will also help reinforce your owning the tune.

I've had great success using this method for learning tunes over the years, hope you'll give it a try.

Here is a video I made many years ago showing Transcribe in action:

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Michael Eskin