What do I look for when finding the first pop and rock songs to teach by ear? I find that the best songs to use first:
- are in an easy key that students already know: C, G, F, and D major are great to start.
- have a clear form with an easy-to-identify intro, verse, and chorus.
- use a repetitive melody made up of mainly steps.
- use a limited number of chords.
- are familiar classics that students have heard before.
So, without further ado, here are my 3 favorite pop and rock songs to teach by ear first! These songs will help students get the hang of identifying form, following the melody and bass line, and harmonizing a melody with simple chords.
"Lean on Me" by Bill Withers
My top choice for a first pop/rock song to learn by ear is "Lean on Me" by Bill Withers. It is in the key of C major and has a repetitive melody made up of mostly steps. Best of all, you can easily harmonize the opening of this song by playing chords in the left hand that match the melody notes--creating a big sound.
"Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Students are surprised to learn that this well-known rock song only has 3 chords! Written in the key of G major, the foundation of this song is the steady D-C-G chord progression. Have students find these three bass notes first, then create a steady groove by playing each bass note twice followed by the matching root position blocked chord. The melody is also quite easy to play by ear, using mostly the notes F#, E, D, and the B below.
"Best Day of My Life" by American Authors
This song is the most recent of the ones on the list and another favorite to teach by ear. It is in the key of D major, but the melody only uses the five notes from the D major pentatonic scale: D-E-F#-A-B. The chorus can be harmonized easily using just two chords: D major and G major.
What do you think? Do you have a favorite pop or rock song to teach by ear? Please share in the comments!