This is How to Learn Harmonica by Ear

Luke Listening Intently to the Music

The secret of learning by ear? Transcribing. :wink:

When you can do this you’ll unlock levels to your harmonica game you didn’t even know existed. Let me backup here for a second…

Learning a song “by ear” simply means that you learn to play it without the aid of a lesson or written music or tabs.

The word “transcribing” is generally used interchangeably with “learning by ear”.

Although sometimes people use the word transcribing to mean actually writing music down, many of us simply “transcribe to memory” without writing things down. :person_shrugging:

The benefits of learning music by transcribing is that it forces us to engage with the song and artist we want to emulate in the deepest possible way.

Why? Because there’s only ONE WAY to transcribe and that is:

:point_right: One. Note. At. A. Time. :point_left:

We are focusing on a SMALL portion of the music. Just one note maybe, or just a few notes, and then figuring out how to make that sound on our harmonica.

This :mag_right: ZOOMING IN brings us in touch with ALL THE DETAILS :mag: of how the note is played (beside just which hole number on the harmonica):

:arrow_right: The rhythm of how it is played (including details like rushed vs behind the beat)

:arrow_right: Changes in tone (it may start bright and get darker, or vice versa)

:arrow_right: Changes in dynamics (the note gets louder, or dies out)

:arrow_right: Perhaps a subtle bending of the note

:arrow_right: Vibrato vs a pure note sound

:arrow_right: The intensity of the note

:arrow_right: Hand wah

:arrow_right: etc…

These details (that tabs have no way of communicating) become clear to us as we break down our favorite harmonica parts and repeatedly look at tiny sections of them under a microscope.

But also, the trial and error process of figuring out how and where we can replicate that sound with our own harmonica leads us into a more intimate relationship with our instrument than just reading tabs ever could.

OK, but Luke. How can I do it???

First of all, hear me loud and clear: YOU CAN DO IT! :facepunch:t3:

You can transcribe with

:one: determination

:two: patience

:three: and a tool to slow down your audio.

I’ve already written about my recommended software for this task (Desktop: Transcribe! or The Amazing Slow Downer).

I decided to take a lesson with Carlos Del Junco to get better at using Transcribe! And boy am I glad that I did! I got to reap the benefits of his having worked with this software for over a decade.

:arrow_right: Methodology - how he uses the software for maximum efficiency

:arrow_right: Preferences - we actually screenshared so he could get me all set up

:arrow_right: Key Commands - he has created his own custom commands, helped me to import them, and gave me a cheat sheet to refer to them

All this equates to me spending LESS time paying attention to technology, MORE time paying attention to the MUSIC. :notes:

For intermediate players who have some degree of computer knowledge, investing $65/hr in one or two lessons with Carlos on this subject should yield huge dividends and help get you down the road toward being able to learn music by ear!

You can go here for lessons, and you’ll notice it’s $85 :canada: CANADIAN dollars (which is less than $65 :us: USD right now). As you know, I don’t do paid promotions. Just letting you know about what’s going on in the world of harmonica…


Hello @Luke,
I now love to transcribe!
There are songs where there are simply no tabs or free notes. Nevertheless, I want to learn and play it.
So I listen to the song second by second. Again and again, back and forth. Find the right tones on the harp and keyboard, the rhythm and the BPM. At the end I test which key of the harp I choose. Everything notated properly, either as tabs if the song is very familiar to me or as sheet music for new songs.

When I started with the harp and your BTB in the fall of 2021, I had no prior knowledge of the whole thing! I learned an awful lot in just under two years and I can say to all beginners: It’s really worth it!

Greetings from Astrid :woman_in_lotus_position: :slightly_smiling_face:


I have been doing this for a while and it’s great. I print out the lyrics as a place holder and double-space so I can write the tab numbers above. The funny thing is, I play so much better if I can just play intuitively and not look at the numbers. If you REALLY want a challenge, try transcribing an instrumental!!!


A word of caution here. I’ve seen many posts of early stage players, and they seem to have one thing in common, they’re playing notes, and parts and they are focused and intense but they left out the most important part…the music…learn the music and not just the notes, then you can play it in any key and any style you choose. Think of it like this, we learn to talk before we can read, then we learn the alphabet etc but we don’t talk. like. this. but. too. many. of. us. play. like. this. at first. Yes, learn the notes, learn the scales and the exercises, it’s a necessity to practice all of that, but remember it’s about how it sounds. Record your practices. Make music instead of playing notes. “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” ― Ludwig van Beethoven