When learning a new instrument, it’s easy to get so caught up in the “doing” that we sometimes forget to stay tied to the most essential element in playing, which is listening! There is nothing more important that a musician can do than to continually develop listening skills. Not only will you learn to “play by ear” as you improve your listening, you will also tighten up your rhythm and heighten your ability play with more expression.
Begin by learning to accurately match your voice to random pitches. It is ideal to use a constant pitch instrument, such as a piano, when practicing ear training, but you can certainly use your guitar, especially for simple tone matching. Strike a note that you feel is within your vocal range and sing that note. If you don’t feel that you are singing the note correctly, continue holding the note on your instrument and slide your voice up or down until it locks in to the pitch that you are playing. If you are not absolutely certain that you are matching tones, ask your teacher or a musically savvy friend to check you. Alternately, you can record your practice and listen back to check yourself.
Practice this often. When you are certain that you are consistently and accurately matching pitches, begin playing notes that are not in the comfort range of your voice and practice matching them. Although you may not like the quality of your voice in certain ranges, keep in mind that ear training is not about singing beautifully, it is about developing pitch awareness!
The next step in the process is to match two and then three tones played in a row. Take your time and be certain that you are singing the notes accurately. Analyze the intervals you are singing in terms of direction and distance. (Up or down? Skip or step? Big skip or little skip?) If you are using your guitar for this exercise, be sure it is in tune!
Your final listening exercise for this lesson will be to sing tonic (scale degree “1”) in any song or logical sequence of notes that you hear. Tonic is the note that sounds like home. If you sing up and down the scale, you will arrive at one note feels more stable than the others. That note is tonic.
You can practice finding tonic by playing a short portion of a song, stopping the recording and immediately singing the first note that comes into your head. Alternately, you can have a friend or teacher play a series of notes within a given key and stop suddenly. It is essential to sing the note immediately, before your brain gets to work on it. The harder you work to hear tonic, the more likely you are to experience frustration, so don’t try – just sing!
There is a pretty good chance that the note you sing when the music stops is tonic, but you may need to practice a bit before you are able to consistently find it. If you have someone who is working with you, that person can verify that the note you are singing is tonic. If you don’t have help, you can verify it yourself by playing the scale of the note you have chosen and confirming that every note of that scale works with the passage that you were using. It’s much easier to practice this with a teacher or a musically educated friend, but if you don’t have help, don’t let that stop you. The key to success lies in your willingness to relax and experiment.
The most common mistake people make when they begin practicing this exercise is to sing scale degree 5, rather than 1. If you are doing this, simply sing down or up until you reach 1 or 8. In other words, sing the note you have determined to be “5” and go down (“5, 4, 3, 2, 1”) or up (“5, 6, 7, 8”).
This exercise is in A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training, so you have it (or if you subscribe to the digital library), you can practice and receive immediate feedback with the aid of the recording. You will find that it doesn’t take long to develop a sense of tonic and once you gain that sense, you won’t lose it.