One of the single best exercises I’ve engaged in as a musician has been learning by ear. Whether it’s a chord progression, a rhythm, a song, an improvised solo, or a cool riff, the act of figuring something out by ear causes you learn and understand at a much deeper level.
Musicians who have developed great “ears” have transcribed a ton of music. They may not have physically written it all down on paper, but they have gone through the process of listening and discovering for themselves what is going on.
I want to encourage you to make this a habit in your own life. Try this…
The next time you hear something beautiful, fun, moving, or clever. Stop and figure it out. Figure out what chords they’re using. Figure out how they got that amazing tone. Figure out how they actually got you listen to a Bieber song. Figure out how Sting made such a beautiful pop song in 5/4. Figure out how Wes was able to captivate you for a full 6min guitar solo.
Figure it out. And then steal some of it! Find ways to imitate what you’ve learned in your own way. Sneak it into your own playing, composing, and arranging.