How to Use Pop Tunes to Improve Your Ear

Admit it. You listen to pop tunes. You probably even like them. But hold on a second, aren’t you’re supposed to be a serious musician? It’s OK, everyone listens to pop tunes. Just because you turn on the radio and check out the top 40 every now and then it doesn’t make you less of a musician.

Traditionally the repertoire of the improvising musician has been comprised of popular songs: All of Me, How High the Moon, All the Things You Are…and today you hear Radiohead tunes and Dilla beats. Everyone from Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis to Michael Brecker, Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper have incorporated pop elements into their musical conception.

The beauty of jazz is that it’s naturally inclusive of any style of music and influence. All the way from the diverse musical melting pot of New Orleans to the infusion of Latin music or Hip Hop today, improvisers have been including a wide array of musical influence in their approach.

Anything is fair game for an inspired improviser and pop tunes are no exception. Remember, at one time jazz was the pop music of it’s day.

The “standards” that we spend time learning today are essentially the pop tunes of a bygone era. Part of being an improvising artist is absorbing and commenting on your current surroundings. Today, even though we don’t exactly have Irving Berlin or Richard Rogers churning out tunes anymore, we can still use pop tunes to our advantage.


If you turn on the radio and listen for an extended period of time you’re going to hear the same 5 songs over and over again. Pretty soon you’ll start to hear these same tunes on TV and while you’re shopping. Without even realizing it, these songs become a fixture in your subconscious.

Pop tunes are popular for a reason. Everyone can tap into them at some level, a simple pleasing melody and a hypnotic beat that repeats and repeats (130 BPM, a Major key, a produced sound). These songs are manufactured to play to our emotions, catch our ear and get stuck in our heads after one casual listen. They’re easy to listen to, make you feel good and can even be addicting.

To the average mind popular music would mean compositions vulgarly conceived and commonplace in their treatment. That is absolutely false.~John Philip Sousa

Among “serious musicians” popular music has the connotation of being cheap and uncreative, a musical sell-out. In some cases this is true and in others, not so much. Some pop tunes are formulated to sell records and others are crafted with an artistic vision in mind. What is considered popular today changes frequently and includes a number of different musical styles.

Whichever type of pop music that may you listen to can serve to improve your ears if approached in the right way.

The benefit of listening with intent

For the musician, all listening is not created equal.

In fact the way that most people listen to music puts the sound in the background, a soundtrack to daily activities like driving, working out, or reading. This is fine for entertainment and distraction, however for the aspiring improviser, a little focused listening and attention can make a world of difference.

As you listen, the majority of all tunes that you’ll encounter will be composed of 3 parts: a melody, a bass line and a chord progression. If you can easily identify each of these three elements you’ll be much more versatile not only as a musician, but also as an improviser.

So how do you improve your ability to identify these three components? The process begins with some very specific exercises:

With some essential ear training skills, the task of figuring out any tune will become much easier. The nice thing about pop tunes is that you can usually figure out the melody in your head by singing it a few times. These melodies are simple enough and have enough repeated material that a few listens will be plenty to get it stuck in your ear.

These tunes are also a good way to test yourself on identifying intervals, root movement, chord progressions and short melodic phrases. A little focused attention during your next time through the radio dial can sharpen your ears more than you might think.

Two ways to train your ears

Ear training is beneficial no matter where you do it. Remember, your ears are only as sharp as the amount of time that you spend working on them, lay off ear training for a few months and you’ll see what I mean.

1) Outside of the practice room

As a musician you’ll often find yourself outside of the practice room and away from your instrument – this is just a fact of life. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to give up on improving during your off time. If you have access to music, you can improve your ear.

You could be in the car, commuting on the train, at a restaurant, in the waiting room, or watching TV. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that you come into contact with music everywhere you go

These can all be opportunities for some impromptu ear training. (Seriously though, if you’re in public you might want to consider singing inside of your head)

Interval Ear training exercise for pop tunes:

* Sing the melody along with the recording a few times

* Stop the recording and sing the melody by yourself slowly in your head and out loud

* Identify each interval one by one

* Listen for chord tones or the melody in relation the chordal accompaniment

This exercise doesn’t require any special tools or even an instrument, simply sing the melody along with the recording and slowly parse the intervalic content of the melody.

Try it quickly with the song below:

This is something that you can do in the car or walking around town, basically anywhere you may be that you’re listening to music, and it all revolves around your ability to identify intervals.

2) Inside the practice room

If a particular pop tune catches your ear and you want to test your ears even more, take it into the practice room to figure out the chord progression.

Take another listen to the video above and this time through listen for the chords and bass line.

Start by listening for and identifying Major, minor or dominant chords. As you listen, also try to identify the tonic chord of the tune.

Now try figuring out the bass line. Focus your ears on the root movement and work out each interval one by one. Keep in mind that you can always use a piano or keyboard as a reference tool when learning by ear.

Once you have the bass line down you’ll have a foundation on which you can determine the rest of the chord and progression.

Musical examples

Here we’ll take two pop tunes and using the processes above, figure out the melody for one and the chord progression for the other.

Melodic Ear Training:

Let’s start by figuring out the melody to a pop tune by ear.

Take a listen to the tune Clarity by Zedd:

After one listen, you should have the melody in your ear. Without the recording, sing the first phrase slowly:

Focus on the first interval and repeat it a few times. You should be hearing a descending minor 3rd. Then move on the next interval continuing until you’ve finished the phrase and identified all the intervals.

Next try the second phrase using the same process:

Items to identify along the way:

  • What scale degree does the melody start on?

  • Which note is the root?

  • What is the first interval?

  • Are there any scale fragments or scalar motion in the melody?

Chord Progression Ear Training:

Now let’s take another tune and focus on the chord progression.

Safe and Sound by Capital Cities:

As you begin to analyze the chord progression, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does the chord sound major, minor or dominant?

  • Can you hear which chord is the tonic?
  • What is the motion of the bass line?

Based on your conclusions above, you should be able to figure out the chord progression:


Just because a pop tune has a mundane chord progression, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. A great exercise is to take a pop melody and change the chordal accompaniment.

Take a pop tune and try to reharmonize the melody by exploring different harmonic backgrounds.

For example take a listen to Adele’s Rolling in the Deep:

Now check out the reharmonization by Dirty Loops:

It’s the same melody, but different chords and orchestration. This reharmonization process is similar to the one used by the musicians of the bebop era. Even though you’re using popular music, this exercise will be very beneficial for your ear as well as your musical creativity.

It’s all ear training

As an improviser you need to be able to hear a tune and immediately identify some key components: the meter, the intervallic motion of the melody, the chord qualities, the chord progressions and the root or bass movement.

The more you develop these skills in and out of the practice room, the more adept you’ll be at adapting to any harmonic situation. You want to be able to walk into a jam session and immediately pick up this musical information by ear and this process starts with ear training.

Ear training is a musical skill that needs to be developed and maintained over time, your ears aren’t going to automatically improve without any practice.

Make it a goal to keep your ears in top form. Remember that ear training can happen anywhere. It’s great practice to incorporate ear training exercises with the music you’re surrounded by all day, regardless of style.

You don’t have to study these pop tunes in-depth for hours, but as long as you’re listening you might as well be improving your ears. Simply turning on your mind and opening up your ears can make a world of difference musically.

Give it a try the next time you turn on the radio, put your ears to the test.