Practice Log

Learning By Ear: Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Lesson #365

Video lesson

Editor’s notes

Hey friends! In this video I want to show the process of learning a song by ear, using the classic “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” as performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. This video is inspired by this question from Patreon supporter Arnold:

“I have been playing about 15 years, but I can’t play by heart. I need to know a method to learn a song by listening and understanding why to use a certain chord progression or tone.”

With this question in mind, I thought it would helpful to dive right in using this one song as an example. Although every song is different, there are a few common steps you’ll generally want to take when learning a song by ear (which I demonstrate). These include:

  1. Figuring out the time signature of a song (e.g. 4/4 time, 3/4 time, 6/8 time, etc)
  2. Figuring out what key the song is in (e.g. Key of G)
  3. Once you know the key, figuring out the chords being used (e.g. G C Em D)
  4. Figuring out the strumming
  5. etc

In this video, I walk through most of these steps as they pertain to this particular song. It’s my hope to continue this series with other songs, periodically – selecting tunes from various styles / difficulty levels / etc, to help pass along tricks I’ve learned in my 20 years of playing. I hope you enjoy!

The Nitty Gritty Dirty Band’s version of this song

This is the recording that I’m using in my video, if you want to hear it for context:

If you dig this lesson, check out the one I did for Souvenirs by John Prine – where I figure out the exact Travis Picking fingerstyle tab for the entire verse sequence:

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