[Editors Note: This article was written by Chelsea G Ira.]
Let’s talk about your ear. Your ability to hear properly is perhaps the sole thing that allows you to create, write, and perform music – and your most valuable asset as a musician. And yet, many musicians don’t take the time to develop their ear, instead relying more on technical proficiency, knowledge, and gear. There’s nothing wrong with utilizing those things, but you’ll feel a lot more confident if you don’t have to rely on them.
What is Ear Training?
First thing’s first, what is ear training? When you train your ear, you’re learning how to more accurately (and objectively) identify musical elements.
There are a lot of different ways to train your ear, and what you focus on will depend on who you are as a musician and what you want to achieve…
For a composer, it may be worth practicing transcription to the point where you can hear a melody and write it down in musical notation. For a musician in a band, it may be better to focus on quickly identifying the key of a song so you can jump in with a melody or a solo. A songwriter may benefit from training her ear to hear chords in order to quickly and easy get chord progressions down.
It’s important to note that ear training is not the same thing as perfect pitch (though some musicians are able to develop it through extensive ear training). Instead, you will be developing relative pitch. You’ll learn how to hear the difference in pitch (higher or lower) as well as the quality (major, minor, etc.) between two or more notes. Ear training can also help you discern subtle differences in elements of a mix.
Ear training and music theory go hand in hand. And being able to hear and name what you’re listening to can help you identify what is happening in the songs you hear on the radio and on popular playlists. Check out this free ebook: Inside the Hits – The Music Theory Techniques Behind 10 Hit Songs and see how music theory is used in crafting some of the biggest hits.
The Benefits of Training Your Ear
Now that we know what ear training is, why is it so important to develop your ear?
To start, ear training allows you to translate the ideas in your head into a tangible song, score, or lead sheet. You’ll also be able to communicate those ideas to other musicians and get your ideas across. As a songwriter this will save you so much time and frustration and help you realize your ideas a whole lot faster.
Ear training can also help you pick things up quicker and jump into any musical situation. Have you ever been hanging out with your bandmates or jamming with other musicians when everyone starts riffing on a song you don’t know? It’s frustrating not to be able to jump in like everyone else. But, if you train your ear, you’ll more likely be able to quickly tell what key everyone is playing in, what the chord changes are, and what the melody is doing without relying on tab or a lead sheet.
In a production, mixing, or mastering setting, a trained ear will allow you to identify dips in energy in the mix and small elements that distract from the overall momentum of a song. You’ll be able to hear much better and more objectively how small changes you make in a mix affect the track as a whole.
And last, but not least, a solid foundation in ear training helps build your confidence. You won’t need to rely on lead sheets or gear, and can instead place your trust in your ear to help you figure out musical situations.
Ear Training Exercises
Okay, now let’s go through a few easy exercises you can do to train your ear. You can do these exercises on your own, with your instrument or a keyboard, or with a friend.
With all of these exercises, it’s important to remember that ear training – like anything else in music – takes consistent practice. You don’t need to spend hours and hours going through ear training exercises every day. But you will need to make a small commitment each day and stick with it if you want to see improvement.
Single intervals are probably the easiest place to start if you don’t have any ear training experience. An interval is just the space between two notes. So for example, C to E is an interval of a Major 3rd. C to E♭ is an interval of a Minor 3rd.
Begin by playing a C, and then play a D one step above (ascending intervals tend to be easier to hear starting out). This is an interval of a 2nd. Play that interval a few times until your ear becomes familiar with how a 2nd sounds.
Now move on to a 3rd. Play the C, and then play an E above the C. Again, play that interval a few times until you’re familiar with how it sounds. Now play a 2nd followed by a 3rd. Can you hear the difference and differentiate the two intervals from each other?
Keep going like this until you have gone through to an interval of an 8th, or an octave.
Once you’re familiar with these intervals, start testing your ear. Have a friend play an interval for you and try to identify which interval it is. Another option is to listen to your favorite song and pick out intervals from the melody. Listen and try to identify what kind of interval you are hearing and use your instrument or keyboard to check yourself.
Identifying Root Notes
Now let’s move on to chords. The easiest way to start training your ear to hear chords is to start simple and work your way up. For this exercise we’re going to try to identify just one note in a chord – the root note.
In music theory, the root note gives the chord it’s name and is the note from which all the other notes in the chord are built off. In a C Major chord, C is the root note.
To start, play a few chords on your instrument or a keyboard. As you play the chord really emphasize the root note so your ear can pick it out easier. Listen to how it sounds and become familiar with it.
Get a friend to play a simple chord progression and using your instrument or keyboard, try to identify the root notes in the chords your friend is playing. Another option is to pull up a song with a basic chord progression and try to find the root notes. It also helps to sing the note names as you go to really ingrain the sounds into your memory.
Identifying Chord Quality
Once you begin getting comfortable with identifying root notes, you can start trying to work out the chord’s quality. Major and minor are both chord qualities, as are diminished, minor 7, and augmented. But for this exercise, it’s best to start with identifying simple major/minor triads and working your way up to more complex seventh-chords.
Play a C Major chord and listen to how it sounds. Now play a C Minor chord and really hear the difference. Repeat this exercise with a few different chords to get your ear accustomed to the sound of major and minor.
Next, pull up a song you like or get a friend to play a simple chord progression and try to identify the chord qualities. Does the chord you’re hearing sound like a Major chord (happy), or a Minor chord (dark or sad)?
Being an active listener as you write, play, and listen to music throughout the day can be a great way to help improve your ear.
Chelsea G. Ira is the Director of Marketing for The New Artist Model.