Getting Into Ear Training

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ChristophEarChristophEar Frets: 46
edited August 2013 in Theory
First things first: "Ear Training" is a horrible phrase. 

So as you read this, feel free to substitute "improving your musical ear", "developing your musical instinct" or just "getting better at hearing stuff in music"...

A bit of background

I spent my teenage years learning electric guitar - and although I got pretty good, all I could play was the riffs I had learned and the songs I had memorised. I was okay at sight reading new stuff, and I could noodle up and down the pentatonic scale and call it "improvisation". But when I saw someone playing a song by ear or leading with a killer solo they'd just made up I was pretty jealous.

I figured they were "natural" musicians and I just had to play whatever music other people had written.

Long story short, I eventually found out just how totally untrue that is!

I don't want to over-sell it, but spending time actively developing my ear for music was the best thing I've ever done in music, and it made me realise that you don't need to be born "gifted" to have that kind of casual musical freedom. It's all made up of learnable skills - just like learning the technique of playing an instrument.

So if you've come across the term "ear training" and figured it was:
  • Part of music theory,
  • Something for expert musicians only,
  • Not relevant outside of classical music,
... or if you've done some ear training exercises before and found them boring and too abstract...

Stick with me! I promise it will pay off.

Forget the classical music syllabus.

Forget the dry music theory textbooks. 

"Ear training" is anything you do to improve your ear for music. 

Simple as that.

So working out a song by ear, bit by bit? That's ear training.

Trading riffs with your mate and each trying to repeat back what the other played? That's ear training too.

And tweaking knobs on your pedals and DAW to find your perfect tone? You guessed it: ear training!
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  • ChristophEarChristophEar Frets: 46
    edited August 2013

    Why ear training matters

    Musical listening skills are at the heart of being a good musician. Because some people are naturally more capable than others, and because these skills develop somewhat in the background as you learn music, many musicians don't give the subject much thought.

    But actively spending time working on your listening skills can really accelerate your progress as a musician, and help you feel more musically free and confident when you play.

    I like to think of musicianship as being a trifecta of:
    1. Playing Skills
    2. Music Theory
    3. Listening Skills
    Nobody needs to explain #1. Teaching your fingers to do what they're meant to, when they're meant to do it is what everyone thinks of when you talk about learning an instrument.

    #2, music theory, is widely disliked - mostly because it's generally taught in a boring, confusing way. But the fact is if you understand the theory behind the music you're playing, it opens up the music in a whole different way. That musical understanding is awesome, and if you've wrapped your head around any particular area of theory (e.g. chord progressions) you know how empowering it can be to "get it" rather than just playing the notes you're told to.

    That leaves #3, listening skills. And what's awesome about listening skills is that they connect up the other two. They bring the theory skills to life, musically, and provide the instinctive understanding that goes with the playing skills.

    Example: You know how to play a pentatonic scale. You can study the theory of what a pentatonic scale is, and how to work out its notes. But then you can practice your listening skills to connect the theory of the scale with the sound it has as you play it. This can let you choose which notes to play in a totally different (and more expressive) way than just memorising the fretboard pattern does.

    So doing ear training to develop your musical listening skills provides the "glue" to bind theory with playing. And that leads to being a confident, capable, well-rounded musician.


    But nobody ever set out to be a "well-rounded musician". 

    The more important point is that ear training gives you an understanding of why you're playing what you're playing, and what all the "theoretical" elements are going to sound like in use.

    TL;DR: improving your musical ear gives you more power, control and freedom on your instrument.

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  • Ear Training is (not) boring

    I spend a lot of time talking to musicians about ear training and one of the big issues I hear all the time is that people come across the idea of ear training, give it a try... and find it dull and repetitive - so they give up and wander off.

    Totally understandable! But it doesn't have to be that way.

    • It's true that a certain amount of repetition is required - just like learning any skill. But it doesn't need to feel repetitive.

    • It's true that there's some theory involved - but you can choose to study in a way that connects with your other music practice so it doesn't just seem theoretical and abstract.

    • It's true that it will take a while to master any specific listening skill - but if you plan your training right you can have clear achievable milestones along the way so you know you're making progress.

    If you approach ear training the right way it can be fun, easy and musically rewarding, and that makes it easy to maintain in the long term as part of your regular music learning.

    Quick Example: Traditionally, musicians begin ear training by learning to recognise intervals - the distance in pitch between a pair of notes.

    Done wrong, this means endless hours of sitting and listening to examples of each interval type and hoping your brain will eventually learn to hear the differences... It's abstract, boring, and it's hard to see the point of it all.

    But as a guitar player, you could instead study intervals from the perspective of scale degrees. These connect immediately with your playing, by letting you hear (and know in advance) what each note in your scale pattern sounds like. You can use an interactive app to learn to hear the distinctive sound of each degree of the scale, testing yourself along the way so that you know you're making progress.

    From day one you can practice this on your guitar and use it in your improvisation. 

    Clear goal, clear milestones, and immediately useful.

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  • ChristophEarChristophEar Frets: 46
    edited August 2013

    Types of Ear Training for Guitar Players

    Ear training is useful for any musician, and there are a vast number of areas you can study. It's not just intervals, chords and scales, as some textbooks would have you believe...

    Every musician is different, so you'll want to pick the types of ear training to do based on what you play and what improvements you want to see in your musical ear.

    Here are a few particular listening skills which can be useful for guitar players:

    Chord Types

    Pretty much every guitarist starts out by learning some major and minor chords. Depending on the kind of music you play, you might then branch out to power chords, barre chords, seventh chords, and so on.

    If you're learning to play these different types of chord, and memorising their fingerings, it makes sense to spend a bit of time practising listening for them too. You'll probably already have some natural ability - for example, any intermediate guitar player should be able to tell a major chord from a minor one. But beyond that it gets trickier.

    You generally at least know by ear when you've played a wrong chord. But some ear training for chord types can let you do things like:
    • Know when you can substitute an altered chord for musical effect
    • Use chord notes as the basis for improvising solos
    • Write more interesting songs
    • Play songs by ear, by watching the bass player and figuring out what chords to play over his root notes

    Chord Progressions

    For a rhythm guitar player, chord progressions ear training is the core of learning to play by ear. If you've ever seen a guitarist who can just strum through a song having heard it once, that's what we're talking about.

    You do need a bit of theory to understand how progressions work (otherwise there's just too many chords and keys to juggle in your head) but once you've got the general idea, it's easy to learn to hear the chords which are most often used.

    Have you heard of the "3 chord trick", or come across books of "3 chord songs" and "4 chord songs"? If not, this video will give you the idea pretty quick - or @monquixote has written a great intro article.

    The point is you can play an enormous number of songs by ear with just 3 or 4 chords. A little bit of chord progressions ear training will let you know which of those chords to play when and let you play a load of pop and rock songs completely by ear.

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  • ChristophEarChristophEar Frets: 46
    edited August 2013


    Whether you mainly play rhythm or lead guitar, having an accurate ear for the timing of notes is essential if you want to sound like a pro. Sloppy timing is something that can make a performance come across amateurish even to a casual listener...

    So it's worth tuning up your ear to detect small changes in tempo and timing, synchronise well with a drummer or backing track, and hear when things go awry.

    Rhythm ear training is partly about this precision - but there's another dimension to it too. Because rhythm is a big part of what makes a certain style or genre of music, exploring the rhythms used in a wide range of genres can really expand your musical vocabulary.

    Learning to recognise and reproduce the rhythms of different genres lets you alter your playing to sound different (like doing a funk cover of a rock track) or make sure your playing suits the band you're playing with.


    Nothing causes more GAS than trying to get the perfect guitar sound. Whether it's your signature tone or trying to get the right mix of FX for a certain song, tweaking dials is far more rewarding when you've trained your ear to really hear and understand the changes you're making.

    Example: you can set up a delay effect by trial and error. But you get there much faster if you've learned to hear, for example, the difference between slapback, doubling and echo effects. You can even learn to estimate delay times by ear (to the nearest 10ms anyway!)

    The basics of tone/timbre ear training covers things like learning to hear the different frequency bands in sound (in it's simplest form, that means bass vs. treble), and the different types of effect (e.g. distortion, modulation, delays etc.)

    Again, this is probably going to be an area where you've already picked up the basic listening skills just through playing. But you can take your skills a lot further with some ear training.

    Scale Degrees

    This is the example from earlier on. It's one thing to wander up and down a scale pattern and call it a solo. It's another to really have an instinctive knowledge of what each note of that pattern is going to sound like in the context you're playing in.

    If you wonder how the greats know which notes to jump to in a solo, or why their improvisations are somehow more compelling, more moving, more musically powerful than your own... a big part of it is this understanding of the musical "role" of each note of the scale.

    You can think of scale degrees as numbers (e.g. the root is "1", the next note "2" etc. ) or use a naming system like solfege ("do", "re", "mi" etc.) but the main thing is to get away from the specifics of the key you're in - you don't want to be thinking in terms of "C", "D", "E" and then have to start from scratch when you play in A major rather than C major.

    This scale degree ear training ties in nicely with progressions training too - learning to hear how the root note moves during a progression comes right back to scale degrees. A "one, four, five" progression is moving through the chords for the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale.

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  • ChristophEarChristophEar Frets: 46
    edited August 2013


    I hope that helps explain why ear training may be worth a look - or a second look if you've had a bad experience of it in the past!

    Whether you notice it or not, you're relying on your ears every time you play, so giving them an upgrade really pays off. 

    Any questions - give a shout, I'll be around. Happy to write more about any of the topics above if there's interest!

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  • DavidReesDavidRees Frets: 299
    excellent stuff, thank you. interesting you mention the listening to recognise rhythm patterns thing - so essential for what we do a players if we are going to play with other people and add to what is going on without getting in the way/stepping on toes ...
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