Essential Music Therapist Skills: Playing a Song by Ear

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I was applying for internship. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the skills to transfer my classical music training to a more popular music setting. During one of my interviews, I was asked to play “Happy Birthday” by ear in any key...and I couldn’t do it. It took quite a bit of learning and practicing, but I’m finally at the place where I can play most songs by ear. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way so my internship interview experience doesn’t happen to you!

1. What key is the song in?

This is one of the first things you should do when you’re listening to a song. Once you know the key, then you’ll know what notes are in the key, and then you can determine the chords that will fit in that song. Usually, a melody will begin in the root note of the key, but in more complex songs you’ll just need to hear when the song sounds most “at rest”.


2. Listen to the bass

The bass of the song can be crucial to learning a song’s chord progression. The bass is typically the root note of the chord above it, so it will show you what the chord progression is.


3. Most common chords in a song

Figuring out a chord progression can be overwhelming because it seems that there are so many combinations and possibilities to use. Knowing the most common chords that are seen in songs can help you organize and make it all seem less intimidating.

In a major key:

I-IV-V will most likely be in any song that you listen to.

ii-vi will be the second most common chords seen in a song.

iii-vii may pop up occasionally.


Here are some common chord progressions that you’ll see throughout your music therapy career. It’s impossible to go through every single possible chord progression, but most popular songs are a variation of one of these basic progressions.


3 Chord Progression (I-IV-V)

This is a classic progression in pop, rock, and kids songs. Some songs that you can see this (or a variation of this) are:

Down by the Bay

You Are My Sunshine by Johnny Cash

Come Together by the Beatles: this is a minor variation of the three-chord progression.


4 Chord Progression (I-V-vi-IV)

If you’re trying to play any popular song there’s a high likelihood that they use this progression or a variation of this progression. So many songs utilize this throughout all genres. Some examples include:

Let It Be by the Beatles

I’m Yours by Jason Mraz

Country Roads by John Denver


12 Bar Blues (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I)

The twelve-bar blues progression is actually a variation of the I-IV-V progression. However, this is a really important progression to know in music therapy because it lends itself well to songwriting and jams. Some common songs using this progression include:

Hound Dog by Elvis Presley

Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers (a minor variation)



Once again, it’s impossible to go through every single possible chord progression. However, these three basic progressions will give you a good idea of what to listen for.


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