Ear Training: You Don't Know What You're Missing

1. Benefits of Ear Training


A friend of mine in town has a party once a month in which musicians come and jam. I call it a ‘party’ rather than a jam session because it’s not well-organized, which is not a criticism, just a clarification. The musicians do not discuss what song, chord progression, or even key to play in. They just grope around and noodle together. Sometimes it gels and sometimes it doesn’t, but the non-musicians at the party just dance, so they have no concern for organization, as long as the music grooves.

Imagine, though, that you could walk in to most pop/rock musical settings without knowing what song it was, or what the chords were, and you could pick up your instrument and immediately know how to jam along. Do you really think that it’s possible to learn that or do you think you have to be born with some kind of magical gift?

Or imagine that you’re in a supermarket and you’re listening to the song being played and you immediately know the chord progression and how to play it on the guitar (or piano).

Imagine that you can compose melodies effortlessly just by hearing them in your head: you can write them down directly onto paper without even checking the accuracy on an instrument, or you can go straight to your instrument and know how to where to find them (assuming you have some knowledge of the layout of notes and basic technique on your instrument.)

All of these scenarios are benefits of having a well-developed musical ear. Ear training is a commonly neglected subject among students and teachers alike, and students typically don’t know what they’re missing. Students bring in a song and sometimes I can write out the chords for them without my guitar and with only one listen, although typically I listen again for form/ arrangement notes I need to make. Is it magic? Yes! There is such a thing as magic, and you can have it, too. You just need to practice it.

I suppose the reason people don’t generally like to practice ear training is that it is a slow process and they can’t see an immediate reward. It’s not like practicing a lick that your friends and family can easily recognize. But over time, ear training is a wonderful thing to master. There are only 12 notes, and you can easily learn to recognize the intervals (distances between any 2 notes).

2. How to Practice Ear Training


I have made my own personal ear training course, meant for listening and practicing while driving. You can practice ear training anywhere (just don’t miss your exit). When I was a kid we used to practice on the chair-lift while skiing. In time, you can even learn to practice it while waiting in a doctor’s office, because you don’t need to sing the intervals out loud, you’ll be able to hear them internally. 

The system I use to teach ear training, which is a very common method, is to ascribe famous songs that use certain intervals and you learn the intervals by associating them with that particular song. A common example is the first 2 notes “some-where” in Over The Rainbow, which is an octave. There are many free resources online for this type of information, but you simply have to spend time with it.

Having an audio program to interact with is a lot easier than trying to do it yourself, unless you are able to discipline yourself to spend time at the piano or guitar just playing intervals for a certain amount of time each week. If you’re like most people, once you pick up that guitar, you’re going to want to play, not train your ear. So that is one suggestion is to practice with CDs or mp3s in your car.

Another great way is to use ear-training software. A program you buy and use will be well worth the investment, and there is plenty of free ear-training software online for free as well. Try one right now and test your ear. Chances are you’ll be more motivated to do it once you determine how good your ear may or may not be.


3. Implement into Your Every-Day Musical Life


Once you have started to train your ear, try to use what you learned as soon as possible. Some suggestions are:

a) Think of a simple tune or even nursery rhyme. Try to name the intervals in the melody.

b) Play recordings of easy pop tunes, and try to name the intervals of the roots of each chord in the progression.

c) Write a piece of music out in numbers only. For example if you’re in the key of D, the notes d – e – f# would be 1 - 2 - 3

These only just scratch the surface to a much larger and wonderful world of easy and fun music-making. Put in the effort and you will make everything so much easier in your playing and understanding of how music works. When you train your ear you’re engaging in delayed gratification on much bigger scale than you can imagine.

About the author: Dennis Winge is a professional guitarist living in New York with a passion for vegan food and bhakti yoga.  If you are interested in taking Guitar Lessons in Newfield, NY, then be sure to contact Dennis!