What is ‘Ear Training’ and why is it important? As musicians we spend a lot of time practicing our instruments, learning how to read, developing effective technique, understanding theory, etc. But how is it that some musicians are able to hear a melody, be it a simple folk song or a complex jazz riff, and then can play it back on their instruments without reading any music?
The short answer is that they have good ears. And no I’m not talking about the good-looking Brad Pitt kind. What I mean is that they have spent a lot of time developing their ability to hear different qualities of chords (i.e. Major vs. Minor) or to identify the type of scales being used (i.e. Major, Minor, Whole Tone etc.).
While some musicians are born with the ability to accurately identify the pitches they hear, known as ‘Perfect or Absolute Pitch’ (i.e. without reference, they can ID the first note of a song as beginning on a middle C), most musicians develop something called ‘Relative Pitch’. Having good Relative Pitch means the musician can hear the distance or ‘Interval’ between any two notes. So if a trained musician with good Relative Pitch hears a melody, with knowing the key or starting pitch in advance, she would be able to play back the melody accurately.
What are the benefits of developing good Relative Pitch?
Developing a good ear frees you up from always being dependent on reading music. We all know the stories about self-taught musicians who couldn’t read a note rising to fame in their lives. At the same time there are concert pianists who rely exclusively on reading music. It’s not that one system is better than the other, just that if you can access both then you will be a very well-rounded musician!
If you are able to figure out melodies as well as hear chord qualities just by listening to a song, then you will be able to pick up your favourite tunes more quickly. You might even find that you don’t need music to learn a pop song. Similarly, if you understand chord progressions and are able to hear how the chords move between one another, then it’s much easier to join a group of musicians and jam with them. Folk music is a great place to start because many popular tunes only use three chords. If you’ve spent some time working on your ear, you will have a good sense of which chord the group is on at any given moment.
Ear training also has its benefits when learning Classical Music. If you have a good sense of pitch, it is much easier to hear and to remember a melody in the Mozart Sonata that you are learning. Similarly, you will know when Mozart is moving to a certain chord because you can hear where the music is going. Having a good aural awareness helps when performing and memorizing pieces. If you get into a jam, you can use your ears to help get back on track.
Oh, and if you are a strong Sight-Singer, you will be highly coveted in a choir! (By Sight-Singer, I mean, someone who can look at a score and sing it without the aid of an instrument because they have a good sense of Relative Pitch)
So how does one build a strong musical ear?
I had the privilege while studying music in my undergrad years at Wilfrid Laurier University of taking a course called Musical Skills entirely dedicated to improving musicianship through Ear Training and comprehensive work on rhythm. This course took place over three years! I have to admit it was one of the most helpful courses I took during my time there.
In their busy lives, most people don’t have the same amount of time to dedicate to building their musical ear as we did in university. That being said, I routinely build in Ear Training into lessons. Students learn common chord progressions, listening to how the chords move between one another. Students also learn how to identify chords using their ear. They repeat melodies that I play on the piano. They also develop skills to identify Intervals, by associating songs with each Interval. For example, the main theme to Star Wars is a rising perfect 5th (in a C scale, that is the distance between a C and a G, or 5 notes).
Like learning an instrument, developing one’s musical ear ultimately takes a great deal of private practice. Below I’ve listed some websites that I recommend to my students when they want to practice Ear Training on their own.
All of the websites are free. They are all similar, but designed slightly differently. Click on the title to be directed to the respective website. I’ve included a description of each one below.
Enjoy! Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!
This website is fairly straight-forward. I like it because you can do intervals and chords right on the same screen. It’s just for practicing, so when you push “play” it will give you the answer with the notes on the staff. I would just close my eyes and say the answer to myself and then check on the screen. “Sequence Type” means playing something broken (melodic) or blocked (harmonic).
Musictheory.net has a lot of useful tools which you can explore. If you scroll down to Ear Training you will see options to practice intervals, scales, and chords. I like this site because you can customize the elements you want to practise.
I like this site because it moves you through systematically. You can start at lesson 1 and complete it before moving on to number 2. You can also start anywhere you like at any difficulty. You can also use the on-screen keyboard to assist you in figuring out the chord or interval being played. The down side is you can’t customize which chords you want to drill.
I’ll throw this one in too for variety. This website is also quite comprehensive. The layout is confusing at first so don’t sweat over it if it seems overwhelming. You can customize to some degree what you’d like to hear.