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Hear More: Basic Ear Training for Musicians

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"I play by ear". How many times have you heard that? Personally, a lot. As musicians, we do speak a language which is, of course, music. But how well do you actually understand that language when you hear it? Today I'll break down the basic concept of ear training for you. 

1. Do I Really Need Ear Training? 

Yes, you do. Everyone needs it. Otherwise it's like pretending to learn a language without actually practicing it. We can all benefit from better listening skills. In my personal opinion, when it comes to music, we are all blind.

 What do I mean?

We hear music, but don't know the notes or even the intervals played. The good and bad thing about music is that you can still feel touched or thrilled by it without actually knowing what it's being played. That's awesome, but as musicians—the crafters of music—we need to take a closer look to what's going on, like a scientist does when using a microscope. 

Why is that important? 

  • Whenever you play with someone, one of two things will happen: they'll give you a chart to read, or expect you to compose your own part. Either way, having good ear is definitely handy.
  • Notes have a melodic value that every composer should understand when composing.
  • The more you develop your ear, the better you will understand the music you listen to. 

2. How Do I Develop My Ear? 

So, how do we start? I said earlier that when it comes to music we are blind. So unless you have perfect pitch, you need to start by setting reference point in your brain that will help you hear music in a more detailed way. 

The first thing you need to learn are intervals: how two notes interact with each other and, most important, the color of that interaction. 

Imagine you walk into a room when I'm playing a song on my guitar. That song has a center, a key, a home. Every note or chord I play will relate to that key center in a certain way. So the first thing you need to do is: 

Recognize the center of the song.

You don't have to know the name of the note, just be able to sing it, whether I'm playing that exact note or not. 

Listen to this melody. The first note and the last note represent home. See if you can sing that note over the others.


It's very important that no matter what is being played, you keep the home note of the key stored in your brain. 

3. Learn to Recognize Intervals

How do you recognize every note in a melody? The answer is intervals.

Intervals are units of music, the simple bricks you use to build your house. A melody that goes from the root to a major third will always have the same color, no matter which key we're in. (Though, of course, some keys sounds better than others for certain melodies, depending on the range of the instrument you're playing.)

In order to become super-confident with intervals, there are two simple steps: 

  • Start singing intervals. Whether you play guitar, piano or flute, you should always practice your scale or arpeggio by singing the note right before playing it. To begin with, I suggest you to start with a major triad arpeggio. 
  • But just being able to sing an interval won't give any further information. It's like recognizing someone's face without knowing their name. To create the connection, learn to relate every possible interval to a song you know well. 

Here's a list of popular songs I use to remember specific intervals. (While you're learning them, you might like to print this PDF.)

  • Major second:  Happy Birthday, Silent Night 
  • Major third:  The number of the Beast, Oh When the Saints 
  • Perfect fourth:  Here Comes the Bride, Amazing Grace 
  • Perfect fifth:  Star Wars Theme, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star 
  • Major sixth:  Soul Man (guitar intro), Two of Us (by The Beatles) 
  • Major seventh:  Für Elise, Superman Theme 
  • Octave: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Immigrants Song 

Since the interval is played right at the beginning of the song, it's really easy to remember. For example every time I hear a melody that moves from the root to a perfect fifth, I hear the Star Wars Theme (0:09 - 0:10).


I only listed ascending major intervals because I feel that the more you work on the basics, the faster you will learn all the others minor and non-diatonic intervals. 

Also, these are just my own preferences. Use whichever songs you know well. Just figure out the interval played, and you're set.

4. How to Practice

I'd like to be more specific on how to practice ear training. If you don't want to feel discouraged after the first few times, I suggest you practise just five or ten minutes per day. Start gradually, without overloading your brain. 

Here's a list of exercises and tip you can follow: 

1. Sing Intervals that Move Away from the Root

Start by just singing intervals that move constantly further from the root. Here's an audio sample you can use to practice: 


2. Use Ear Training Software

Buy ear training software. I personally use Ear Master Pro, and find it complete and easy to use. You could also download an app for your phone. You just need something that will throw all the possible interval combinations at you, and give you the chance to recognize them.

3. Sing Major Arpeggios

Specifically, sing chord tones: root, third, fifth. The better you learn those three intervals, the more solid your ear skills will be. These are the "bones intervals" you need to have fixed in your mind in order to fill the empty spaces between with other notes. 

Here's another sample you can use to practice: root, major third, fifth and back, in the key of C: 


4. Learn to Anticipate

Whenever you practice, try to anticipate the note you think will come next. 

5. Sing Seventh Arpeggios

Once you feel comfortable with triad chord tones, start singing seventh arpeggios. The structure is becoming more refined, since you have four notes out of seven memorized. 

Here an example of descending and ascending seventh arpeggio: 


5. Fill in the Gaps

What about the other intervals? Learning chord tones is good training, but how do we fill the gaps? Having that song lists is great, but sometimes it takes too long to convert the memory of a song into the recognition of intervals. 

There's another philosophical approach to ear training that is worth mentioning. Even if you prefer to stick to the song list idea, I recommend you read it through, since it can be very beneficial for your composition skills. 

Understand where a note wants to move to. 

It seems so simple, but not everyone thinks about it. 

Almost every note in a scale has an unstable, unresolved sound. Think about a major seventh interval:


It definitely wants to push towards the root. This is an extreme example, and in fact it's called the "leading tone". 

Consider a major second interval. It also wants to move back to the root, the center of the melody. Listen to this example in the key of C: 


When you hear the second note (D), listen and ask yourself, "Where does this note want to move? Up or down?" You definitely hear the resolution when it moves down, back to the key center.

Be careful. I'm not saying that every time you hear a melody with a second, it has to go back to the root. I'm saying that the interval wants to resolve to the root. This means you hear a second as a whole step up from the root. 

The same idea can be applied for a major sixth interval. You can hear it as a whole step above the fifth. Here's an example in the key of C, where I play root-sixth-fifth-root: 


In the end: 

  • The root and fifth are the more stable sounds in in a scale. The third is not as stable, but it's a chord tone, and the first interval you need to work on. 
  • You can hear a second as a whole step above the root, just a short distance from home.
  • A fourth has a really particular sound. It's a tricky interval—especially in major melodies—but it's also used often. You can hear it as whole step below the fifth.
  • A major sixth can be heard as whole step above the fifth.
  • A minor seventh pushes towards the root, even if it's not as unstable as a major seventh which it has to resolved. 

Conclusion

Ear training doesn't get enough attention. It deserves to be studied, no matter what instrument you play. 

In my humble opinion, playing without listening is really pointless. As with everything we do in life, we need to educate ourselves in our craft, in order to get better at it. Enjoy! 

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