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What is Ear Training? Understanding this Essential Musical Skill

In the realm of music education, there exists a fundamental skill that serves as the bedrock for all musical endeavours: ear training.

But what exactly is ear training, and why is it so essential for musicians? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the depths of ear training, exploring its definition, techniques, benefits, and practical applications.

What is Ear Training?

Ear training is the process of connecting music theory (notes, intervals, chords, scales, melodies, etc.) with the sounds that we hear. It is the ability to recognize and reproduce musical sounds without the aid of an instrument or written notation, using only our hearing.

Ear training involves building mental connections between sound, notation, musical terms, our voices, and our musical instrument. With ear training, we learn to:

  • Recognize pitches, scales, keys, and chords
  • Reproduce sounds and music we hear in our head
  • Identify intervals, melodies, and harmonies
  • Analyze and understand music composition

This skill is essential for musicians, as it allows them to better understand and analyze music, anticipate musical structures, and communicate with other musicians using the language of music.

The Elements of Ear Training

The Elements of Ear Training

Elements of ear training include, but are not limited to:

  1. Recognizing Pitches:
    At the core of ear training lies the ability to distinguish between different pitches. This involves recognizing individual notes as well as the distances between them (known as intervals).
  2. Identifying Intervals:
    As mentioned above, intervals are the distances between two pitches. Ear training exercises focus on identifying intervals by their unique sonic characteristics. With practice, musicians can discern intervals by ear alone, which helps facilitate improvisation, transcription, and composition.
  3. Hearing Chord Changes:
    Hearing when chords change in a song and understanding the chord progressions used is essential for comprehending the harmonic structure of music. Ear training exercises train musicians to listen for and identify common chord progressions, enabling them to anticipate harmonic shifts and improvise with fluency.
  4. Transcribing Rhythms:
    Rhythm is the heartbeat of music. Ear training involves the ability to accurately transcribe rhythmic patterns, including note durations, accents, and syncopations. This skill enhances musicians’ sense of timing and groove, vital for ensemble playing and performance.
  5. Transcribing Melodies:
    Melodies are the soulful lines that define a piece of music. Ear training facilitates the transcription of melodies by ear, enabling musicians to play or sing them back accurately.
The Benefits of Ear Training | Resound School of Music

The Benefits of Ear Training

Ear training is not merely a supplementary skill in a musician’s toolkit; it is a foundational pillar upon which musical proficiency is built.

Whether you’re a beginner embarking on your musical journey or a seasoned professional refining your craft, here are some compelling reasons why you should prioritize practicing ear training:

  1. Enhancing Musical Perception
    Practicing ear training sharpens your ability to hear musical elements, enabling you to understand and appreciate music on a deeper level.
  2. Improving Musical Memory
    Ear training strengthens your ability to retain musical information in memory. Musical memory is an invaluable skill for performing and collaborating with others.
  3. Increasing Musical Fluency
    Ear training fosters fluency in the language of music, enabling you to interact more effectively with fellow musicians.
  4. Opening Musical Creativity
    Ear training liberates you from the constraints of written notation, empowering you to explore music more intuitively and spontaneously.
  5. Elevating Performance Skills
    Practicing ear training enhances your performance skills, equipping you with the tools needed to excel in live performance settings.
How to Practice Ear Training - Resound School of Music

How to Practice Ear Training

Now that we’ve made a case for the importance of ear training, you might wonder how to go about practicing ear training.

Mastering the art of ear training is a discipline that takes years to develop and is beyond the scope of this particular article. However, we can give you an introduction to get you started on the right path.

So with that said, find a quiet place and try out some of these targeted exercises below:

Exercise #1: Recognizing Pitches

I want you to begin your ear training practice by simply listening to some pitches and replaying them in your mind.

Below is a recording of 8 notes played on the piano. Each note will be followed by a brief pause before moving onto the next one.

After each piano note is played, can you still hear it in your head?

If so, then I want you to try the following:

Replay the recording, and during each pause, reproduce the note you hear with your voice. You can either hum or sing it back, but I want you to actually use your voice.

The next step will be to reproduce the pitches on your musical instrument. Have a seat at your piano or grab your guitar (or your instrument of choice) and try the following:

Replay the same recording, but this time during each pause, try to find the note on your instrument. Use your ear to guide you. This might be more difficult than doing it with your voice, so feel free to pause the recording as needed.

By practicing this type of exercise, you are training your ear to hear the correct pitch in your head and your musical memory to recall the sound of each note.

Exercise #2: Identifying Intervals

Next, we are going to try identifying intervals.

While you don’t need to be a music theory wiz to do this, it does help to know a little bit of Solfege.

Solfege is a system of using syllables to represent different musical pitches. For example, “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do” which you’ve probably heard before.

The following recording goes through 8 notes of the C major scale. Try listening to it while singing the corresponding Solfege syllable for each note:

“Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do”

Now you know that music doesn’t typically use every single Solfege note in sequential order like this. Music will often hop from one note to another using both smaller and larger intervals.

Below are a few examples of different intervals, followed by a brief pause between each:

“Do-Re” “Do-Mi” “Do-Fa” “Do-So” etc.

Try singing each pair of notes using Solfege. Can you hear the unique sound of each interval?

If we use the former example with the C major scale, we would encounter the following types of intervals (starting from “Do”):

  • Major 2nd: “Do-Re”
  • Major 3rd: “Do-Mi”
  • Perfect 4th: “Do-Fa”
  • Perfect 5th: “Do-Sol”
  • Major 6th: “Do-La”
  • Major 7th: “Do-Ti”
  • Perfect Octave: “Do-Do”

Don’t worry tabout the specific names of the intervals for now. You’ll understand them better when you study music theory.

For now, simply developing an ear for different types of intervals will help you to better understand the building blocks for both melody and harmony (chords).

Exercise #3: Dictating Rhythms

Before working on any rhythmic ear training exercises, we want to make sure you develop a good sense for the pulse underlying a piece of music.

Think of the pulse as the heartbeat of a piece of music; providing the underlying framework for the rhythm. Below is an example:

Now that you can the hear pulse in this example, let’s group them into beats. I want you to try the following exercise:

Listen to the recording above and clap a beat along to each pulse. Do it in groups of 4, and count each beat aloud like “1-2-3-4”. Once you get to beat 4, start again at beat 1 and repeat.

One… two… three… four… etc.

Next, we will introduce a simple rhythm that takes this 4-beat pattern and adds a few in-between beats to make it more interesting:

One… two & three… four &

Practice clapping this new beat along to along to the recording, while counting the beats aloud like you did you in the previous example. Once this becomes easy for you, try tapping your foot to the steady pulse while you clap out this new beat.

To dictate this rhythm, it helps to know how to write music notation. If you don’t, you can simply write out the beats as numbers like I did above. However, with music notation, it would look something like this:

How might this rhythm sound if we assigned a note to each beat? Below is an example:

Now that you know how to listen for and dictate music rhythms, you can slowly progress on to more complex rhythms.

Try doing this with some of your favourite songs. Practice clapping or tapping along with recordings to internalize the rhythmic feel, then see if you can write out the beats as they sound to you.

Exercise #4: Transcribing Melodies

Transcribing melodies is where you combine your work on pitch and interval recognition with your rhythm dictation.

Below is a recording of a very simple melody which you might recognize:

Using the skills you have developed in exercises 1-3, see if you can do the following:

1. Listen to the recording above and try to find all the notes of the melody by ear on your instrument of choice. Feel free to pause the recording at any time.

2. Sing along with the notes of this melody using the correct Solfege syllables (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do). Figure out if the melody is moving up or down the C major scale. Hint: the first note of this melody starts with “Mi”.

3. Listen for the pulse and tap your foot along to the beat. Next, try clapping along to the notes of this melody in the same way you did for Exercise #3. Can you write out the beats in this melodic phrase? See if you can, using just your ear!

Of course, most music doesn’t comprise of just a single note melody like in this exercise. Transcribing melodies gets more difficult once there are more instruments layered on top of one another.

For example, below you can hear how a very simple melody like the one above can sound rich and full when combined with other instrumentation:

See if you can try transcribing melodies in other songs you know and enjoy. Experiment with simpler songs and work your way to more and more challenging pieces.

Exercise #5: Hearing Chord Changes

Chords are the building blocks of harmony in music. However, because chords are made up of multiple stacked notes and often sit the background, it can sometimes be a quite difficult to distinguish one chord from the next.

Below is the same melody from our last exercise, but accompanied by a piano playing the chords:

  1. Focus on the Bass:
    The bass notes often provide a strong foundation and can give you clues about the chord being used. Pay close attention to the movement of the bass line.
  2. Listen for Repeats:
    Not all chords played will be different from the previous one. Listen for not just the chord attack and the number of beats it occupies, but also the quality of the chord being played. Make note of chords that sound the same.
  3. Identify the Quality:
    Listen to the overall sound of each chord. Is it major, minor, or some other type of chord? Major chords tend to sound bright and happier, while minor chords sound darker and sadder.

Final exercise: Write down 8 bars of music on a piece of paper, with 4 beats in each bar. Listen to the track above and mark which beats you heard chords being played. For each chord, I want you to identify whether you think the chord sounds major or minor. Do this all by ear, without the aid of a piano.

Don’t worry about whether or not your answers are correct; the important part is to do exercises like this without an instrument to help you. This will train your ear over time to identify different characteristics in individually chords, and eventually in different types of chord progressions.

Try this out with songs that you’re familiar with. It’s often easier to train your ear on a piece you already know well, as you’ll have a sense of what to expect. Once you feel comfortable identifying chord changes in a familiar song, challenge yourself with new songs or musical styles to further develop your ear training skills.

Bonus Tips

Bonus Tips

  1. Utilize Technology and Resources
    Take advantage of ear training apps, software programs, and online resources to supplement your practice routine. Many apps like Tenuto offer interactive exercises designed to improve your ear training skills in a fun and engaging way. Additionally, you will find many YouTube videos with ear training exercises that you can access for free.
  2. Learn to Read Music
    Music notation provides a visual representation of musical elements such as pitch, rhythm, and dynamics. By learning to read notation, you can see how these elements are written, which can help reinforce your understanding of how they sound.
  3. Learn Solfege and Sight Singing
    As mentioned before, Solfege is a system of syllables used to represent musical pitches. Practice singing using Solfege syllables to internalize the relationship between pitches and their corresponding Solfege names. Once you are familiar with reading music and Solfege, you can advance to sight-singing, the practice of singing music notes directly off of sheet music.
  4. Study Music Theory
    Learning music theory is essential for ear training because it provides a systematic understanding of the principles and structures underlying music. This knowledge serves as a framework for ear training, enabling you to understand these elements by ear more effectively.

Conclusion

In summary, practicing ear training requires dedication, discipline, and patience. By incorporating a variety of exercises and techniques into your practice routine, you can strengthen your ability to hear musical elements, and ultimately become a more skilled and adaptable musician.

In essence, ear training allows you to hear music beyond the surface and deepen your musical understanding. Whether you’re composing a symphony, improvising a jazz solo, or writing a pop song, ear training provides you with the tools to realize your musical vision with confidence and conviction.

So, tune in, listen closely, and take your musicianship to the next level through the art of ear training.

Phil Barrow

Phil Barrow

Phil is a guitarist and Director of Resound School of Music, a music school specializing in at-home music lessons. Phil's passion is helping others to discover their lifelong love of music, and he writes about a variety of topics aimed at helping you to become a better musician.

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