Learning songs by ear is a great passion of mine and is a skill that I have worked on for many years. It's one of those things that people assume only especially 'gifted' musicians can do. But the truth is you can learn this skill. With the right tools and a bit of patience, you can develop this ability.
When I heard the song 'New York', released by St Vincent off her 2017 album 'Fear The Future' and I fell in love. Truth be told, I learned this song as soon as I had a piano (long story, but I've been without one for a while and got myself a brand spanking new 'board' only a couple days after this song came out!) but it's taken me a while to to get around to filming it.
So below is the performance of me covering the song 'New York' by St Vincent. Have a look, and read on to find out exactly how I went about learning it, without sheet music.
If you've never heard the original song, I suggest you listen to it as well before we begin.
And just because I'm not one to waste a whole film setup on one video, I did actually do a piano tutorial on the song here! So watch that now, or read on for the abridged version.
So here is the run-through of exactly what I did to learn this song on the piano from scratch.
BEFORE YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT IT
... you need to have a thorough knowledge of the song. So before you go anywhere near the piano, familiarise yourself with the song. I mean active listening. Active listening is when you are not just taking in the vibe of the song like it's a holiday, you are purposefully picking out the elements of the song. You need to notice a few things and familiarise yourself with
- The structure of the song.
- The melody.
- The instrumental arrangement.
- The groove.
- The lyrical content.
You should be able to hum along with most of the song, definitely be able to sing along to the chorus, you should know when the bridge is coming and when/if they hit that big climax note at the end... you get me, get very acquainted. Then you graduate to Step 1.
STEP 1 - GOOGLE THE CHORDS
There are two things you are after here: the lyrics and the names of the chords set above those lyrics at approximately the word each chord falls on.
The search results will come up with a whole bunch of guitar tab websites, any of them will do. You may develop a preference for different sites, for instance, I prefer sites that don't use too much tab for guitar (a whole lot of lines and numbers that pianists do NOT need to know about) but just have the lyrics with the chord names.
ISN'T THAT CHEATING?
This method of 'learning songs by ear' cheats a little by searching the chords first. So you're getting a little bit of a head-start, but you are still going to use your own ear to figure out whether the chords stated are actually RIGHT (sometimes they are ludicrously wrong or just a bit off, or in my case, correct but in the wrong key).
You'll also use your ear to determine how to play the melody and what rhythms to play with those chords. So don't worry, you'll still be doing plenty of ear-work!
In order to use this method you need to have a working knowledge of chords. How much you need to know about chords depends on how complicated the song - in this case, this is a very simple song that mainly uses major and minor chords which I've thrown in the occasional 7th in for added perk.
If you are new to piano playing, or new to chords, you can learn all about major and minor chords and a whole lot of other cool piano playing fundamentals in my beginner course 'Super Basics'. Sign up now!
Once you have the lyrics with the chord names, also known as a 'leadsheet' then we can progress to Step Two.
STEP TWO: CHECK & PLAY THE CHORDS
Play the chords along to the song. Become familiar with where the chord changes are –and working one section at a time– check that the chords you have on your leadsheet are correct. Do they sound right with the recording or is something off? If it clashes at one point then you need to investigate to see if it's a wrong chord, or just a wrong note within the chord.
Does the whole thing sound off? You might have a leadsheet that has been transposed for the guitar. This is common and is exactly what happened to me while figuring out this song. What do you do in this instance? Well, you need to identify which key the song is in. I can't tell you how to do that in this blog, but essentially you need to find the '1' or 'Home' chord. In most cases this will be the first or last chord of the verse, or the chorus and it will feel like it's namesake = home. In the case of the song 'New York' the 1 chord is the very first chord that is played (Bb major). So the key is Bb major.
Once you've checked all the chords are correct and replaced any necessary ones (write down your corrections) and you have played the full song through with the changes in the correct places, now it's time to add the rhythm.
STEP THREE: ADD RHYTHM
If the song has a reasonably constant rhythm like this one does, you have an easier job on your hands. Sometimes I will simplify a rhythm in order to learn it quicker, you can choose to do this too but be careful and use your judgement: sometimes the rhythm is what makes a song recognisable, if so, it needs to be learned unchanged.
The rhythm applied to the chords of the verse in 'New York' occurs over two chords and is repeated throughout the whole verse, every verse. Nice and easy!
STEP FOUR: ADD MELODY
This is the part where it can get tricky. Some sheet music you buy for piano songs with vocals in them will integrate the full melody into the song as well as the complete rhythm. But this can be very tricky to get the hang of and in my opinion, not always necessary. What we can do here is alternate between incorporating melody and keeping up the groove.
It's a good idea if you are playing chords and melody in the same hand to keep the melody at the top and try to play a bit louder (or the chords quieter). So you play the chords in such a way that you can play them lower then the melody. This means that you are often playing the melody in the little finger and ring finger on your right hand, and playing the chords with the other three fingers.
The reason we play the chords quieter is so the melody can be recognised over the rest of the notes that you are playing. The melody is #1. Harmony (chords) are #2.
STEP FIVE: PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
You've got the chords all sorted. You can play the main grooves comfortably. And now you've worked in the melody where you can. Now it's time to put it all together and add some extra tricks to the mix!
The way I normally arrange things is that I play the chords with rhythm faithful to the original song the first verse and chorus (ie, the way the piano plays it in the song, or the way the guitar plays it, roughly). For the second verse and chorus I will bring in the melody to reinforce what I'm singing. It's good to have a slight change on the second time through otherwise you're just repeating the exact same thing and it's a bit of a snoozefest.
After that we sometimes have a bridge to mix things up, but in this case St Vincent hits us with a final chorus and refrain to end. So I created my own 'bridge' by playing the final chorus with some extra zazz. This gives the song a bit of pianistic flair and for me, it makes it more interesting to play and puts a bit of DRAMA into it!
STEP SIX: ADD SEASONING
This is the beauty of doing covers is that because you didn't have to do all the hard work of writing the song, you can spend your time and energy in making your own creative changes to it. Go with your own instincts as to how far you go - some people like to hear the original with a few twists, others love a full genre-bending arrangement! You do you!
In this case, my choices were to go with a ripple effect for the final chorus chords, this is called a 'glissando' in musical terms. I also added some 'ritardando' (slowing down) and 'crescendo' (getting louder) to the final notes of the chorus which I chose to play as octaves and to 'accent'.
You can hear how these choices went in the performance video above.
The idea here is that you explore how you would like to interpret the song, what feels natural to you, or where you want to take it that's completely different. This is what I love about learning covers, you can put all your energy into making your version unique to your tastes and specialties!
So that's how I taught myself 'New York' by St Vincent. This is how I teach myself any song that I want to learn by ear. For a more detailed breakdown on the actual chords of the song watch the tutorial video above!