Approaching Ear Training
Ear training is important to any musician, but for a guitar player who wants to create their own music or who doesn’t want to be permanently tied to written music or music learned by rote, it is essential. The majority of guitar players learn how to play on their own at home or by studying with a private instructor. It is logistically difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate ear training into private guitar lessons or a program of self-study. If you have not had formal music schooling, the process and benefits of ear training can be a mystery. In this article I hope to shed some light on the study of ear training and give you some ways that you can improve on your own without purchasing an expensive course or enrolling in a college or university. You will need to invest some time and acquire a modest course (see A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training at the bottom of this page) to get started. With the information and experience you acquire, you will be able to continue your study and improve indefinitely.
The Purpose of Ear Training
Of course, we want to be able to play what we hear. In addition to being able to copy the sounds on a recording, we would all like to be able to play the sounds that we hear in our heads. When we’re playing in a group, we want to be able to musically interact with the other players in a spontaneous way. Creativity and improvisation are made possible by honing your ear training skills. Ear training will also improve your sight-reading and make it more meaningful and more fun. When you look at a piece of music, you will be able to tell what it sounds like. You will be able to sight sing it or play it (by ear!) from the music, avoiding what I refer to as the “typing phenomena”. (This is when your method of reading is similar to typing: see a symbol and press the appropriate place on the instrument. When this is the extent of the approach, the resulting sound is as mechanical as the method).
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to jot down a tune that comes into your head while you’re riding on a bus or waiting to meet someone in a restaurant? Imagine how efficient rehearsals or recording sessions could be if you were able to write out parts by ear. And, if you’re interested in teaching guitar, it’s wonderful to be able to write out a song for a student right on the spot!
As you progress in your ear training, your ability to speak the musical language (notation and theory) will expand greatly, as will your knowledge and use of the guitar fretboard. All in all, your level of musicianship will skyrocket.
Added Benefits of Ear Training
To be successful at ear training, a particular style of thinking must be cultivated. This is the same mode of relaxed concentration, balance between the two hemispheres of the brain and emotional detachment or lack of self-judgment that is required of a good guitar player. So, the study of ear training will give you practice in achieving and maintaining this mental state. I talk more about this style of thinking/being in my Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training course and give you suggestions as to how to cultivate it. For now, it would be helpful simply to give some thought to what those elements of balance might mean to you.
How Do You Do It?
As you might guess, there is a tried and true method. The usual approach is to begin with the recognition of simple intervals (a single note in relation to another single note), and work up to melodies. Rhythmic notation is taught. Recognition of chord qualities is mastered before moving on to chord progressions. The longer you study, the more discerning your ear will become, until you are able to handle sophisticated harmonies in changing tonal centers. However, if you never progress beyond the first stages of study, you will still receive enormous benefits.
Almost any ear-training course you choose to follow will be helpful, but only if you understand the principles and are able to make use of the exercises. In A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training, I teach the principles, explain the exercises and provide tips on how to boost your success from the very beginning. The course is also unique in that it is designed specifically for guitar players. That means that in addition to listening for specific notes and chords, you will learn to hear where on the guitar they are being played, as well as recognizing common chord voicings and determining whether a capo is being used or an open tuning employed. It also offers methods to cultivate the style of thinking which allows you to progress quickly and enjoy the process.
Your First Ear Training Lesson
My instructional video, Comprehensive Guitar Instruction, has a section on ear training, which is a great start. If you haven’t tried the exercises yet, begin now. The CD/workbook set (A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training) is designed to go much more deeply into the specifics and to provide you not only with exercises for practice, but instruction in approaching and utilizing them. (Contents are described below.) In any case, you can get started right away simply by singing a major scale. You know – that’s the do, re, mi thing, only you can sing it by scale degree numbers: do=1, re=2, mi=3, etc. Sing it all the way from 1 up to 8 and back down again. If you need to play the scale on a guitar or piano to keep your pitch true, by all means, do so.
When you’re comfortable with singing the scale by scale degree numbers, start to sing the intervals by interval names: 1-2, Major 2nd; 1-3, Major 3rd; 1-4, Perfect 4th; 1-5, Perfect 5th; 1-6, Major 6th; 1-7, Major 7th; 1-8, Perfect Octave. If you’re not familiar with interval names, this will help you get to know them and to connect them to their sound. (The ear training set includes definitions and explanations of the intervals and any other musical relationships you will study.) Again, use a well-tuned instrument to ensure true pitch.
An easy way to remember the names of the intervals is to use a mnemonic (memory) device. For example, the song “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” begins with the interval of a Major 3rd (1-3) and the first three notes are scale degrees 1-3-5. Here is a list of familiar songs that start with the major and perfect intervals. If you’re not familiar with these, find songs that you know very well to use as your personal mnemonic devices.
M2 Tennessee Waltz
M3 Oh, When the Saints . . .
P4 Here Comes the Bride
P5 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
M6 My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean
M7 Cast Your Fate to the Wind
P8 Somewhere Over the Rainbow
The next thing you can do on your own is to analyze a few of these or other simple songs and sing them by scale degree numbers. You don’t have to be a good singer to do this. Just do it! Be sure, though, that you know where “1” is, so that you are singing the correct scale degrees. For example, “Tennessee Waltz” starts on “1”, so the scale degrees would go: 1-2-3-5- 1-2-3-5, whereas on “Here Comes the Bride” from “here” to “bride” is a perfect 4th, but scale degree “1” is actually on the word “bride”. In other words, an interval name describes a distance from any one note to another, not always or necessarily beginning on “1”. If you’re not sure where “1” is, just sing through the whole song and the note you end on will probably be tonic, or scale degree 1.
Continue to expand and practice your ear training skills with the CD set and workbook in A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training. You will get a tremendous amount of instruction at a very reasonable price and I will give you tips on ways to continue your study indefinitely for little or no financial output. (It’s also a lot easier to learn from a CD than from words on a page!) Go at your own pace, but GO! It’s a lot of fun and you won’t believe how much it will free up your playing!
(Click here to look inside the book.)
A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training consists of a 42-page workbook/manual and over two hours of recorded exercises and instruction. Topics covered include: musical notation; rhythms; scales; sight singing; guitar-specific musical analysis; definitions, descriptions, guide to hearing and dictation for intervals, chords and melodies.
If you have no knowledge of the written musical language, here is your chance to learn it in a stress-free way at a very low cost. You will see how simple and useful this language can be when presented clearly and distilled to the core concepts. You will also see how a little bit of knowledge can enable you to expand indefinitely in your ability to play “by ear”.
If you are familiar with the musical language, A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training will provide new insight into the relevance of material you have studied in the past. Prepare to experience dramatic improvement in your ability to name and play what you hear.
Tuesday Ear Training Class
(Dylan, Aaron, Ian)
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