If there’s one thing most musicians yearn for, it’s natural musicality: being able to play exactly what they want. It’s that element that distinguishes a music student from a musician. Believe it or not, everyone can develop this natural musicality. The secret to unlocking it lies in the practice of ear training.
Ear training provides musicians with a deeper understanding of the compositions they are playing than traditional teaching does, and should be at the core of every musician’s learning journey. It is the tangible way of achieving that elusive goal of being able to play whatever you want, effortlessly and instinctively.
So, what exactly is ear training, and how can it be learned?
Let’s start with the basics.
Note: This is a guest post by Christopher Sutton, founder over at Musical U. Be sure to check out their free guide on learning intervals, more details later in the article.
What Is Ear Training?
Some people make the mistake of thinking that ear training is a purely theoretical concept that is used for studying abstract music theory and is best left to music academics.
Ear training is one of the most practical musical skills you can learn!
In a nutshell, ear training is the art of training your ears to serve your inner “natural” musician. It is how we connect concepts such as intervals, chords, scales, and melodies to the music we are actually listening to. This affords musicians countless benefits – including helping you play and sing in tune, improve your sense of rhythm, improvise, write your own music, and more.
The best part is, it doesn’t even have to be a formal process. You can learn ear training simply by listening more.
Why Learn Ear Training?
Generally, there are two kinds of musicians – those who teach themselves to play by ear, and those who learn to play through formal lessons. In the long run, it will benefit you to learn to play by ear first – before beginning any other kind of musical training.
Ear training is not a standalone skill. It is closely tied to learning improvisation, playing and singing in tune, staying on time, and even writing your own music. Developing your ears in this way will naturally lead to more instinctual, effortless playing, without you having to rely on sheet music or tablature.
Besides the obvious performance-related benefits, here are five more reasons every musician should learn ear training:
1. You’ll learn faster.
Those who have learned to play by ear have already taught themselves things that traditional lessons do not – how to anticipate song melodies and spot patterns in music. These students are going in with a solid knowledge of how keys and notes correspond to each other and are already able to play their instrument, at least a little. This is an immediate advantage when starting music lessons, and will result in faster progress!
2. The more you listen, the more musically you will play.
There are subtleties and nuances in music that present themselves if you listen closely, namely elements such as dynamic changes, harmonies, pauses, and tempo changes.
These are not necessarily things that you can read off sheet music; you can, however, listen for them and understand how they fit with the notes themselves.
The “natural musicianship” that countless musicians seek doesn’t come from relentlessly practicing the same passage over and over, aiming to get it perfect! It comes from taking the time to understand the subtleties by really listening to the music and understanding how the melodies, chords, intervals, and dynamics work together to form the song, then applying these concepts in composition and performance.
3. Learning to play by ear first saves you money.
There is a lot you can learn on your own before you decide to sign up for music lessons. As mentioned previously, spending time familiarizing yourself with your instrument, understanding where the notes and intervals are, and teaching yourself to play a few of your favourite songs by ear gives you an advantage that people who proceed directly to traditional music lessons do not have.
Not only do people with ear training have a better grasp of their instrument before they even begin lessons, but they are also better at anticipating their own needs and goals in music lessons, and can seek out a teacher that is a perfect fit.
Beginning with ear training rather than with traditional music lessons will save you money in three ways:
- You will save money on books and sheet music.
- You will already have prior knowledge of your instrument, and will therefore advance faster than those without ear training.
- You will have a better idea of what you’re looking for in a teacher, so you won’t waste money on lessons that don’t work for you.
4. You’ll have more incentive to keep playing.
When you resolve to learn to play music that interests you by ear, you are setting a goal. And when you accomplish that goal and manage to play even a few bars of your favourite song by ear, with it comes a sense of confidence and the knowledge that you can do this for any piece of music you want.
This excitement and sense of accomplishment compels musicians to stick with what they’re doing – visible progress is an excellent motivator!
Though many get frustrated with the process of learning ear training, and may find it initially tedious and difficult, ear training is in fact a shortcut – it will get you playing the music that you want to play faster, help you understand the structure behind your favourite songs, and save you money in the long run, should you decide to take music lessons.
5. You’ll understand music better.
Taking this a step further, ear training will help you really understand what’s going on in a song. You will start to recognize relationships between notes – you will be able to determine what key a song is in, what chords it’s using, and what the chord progressions look like.
Best of all, you will also be able to better write your own music by honing in on the intervals and chord progressions that you like, and using them when writing songs! With enough practice, this skill can even be applied to improvisation.
How Can I Learn Ear Training?
Taught or learned traditionally, it can be frustrating and difficult for musicians to start learning ear training. Beginner musicians fall into traps that render ear training dry, repetitive, and unengaging. But it doesn’t have to be. The trick is to relate your learning to things you love; in this case, your favourite music!
So gather a playlist of some songs you just can’t stop listening to, and let’s look at two of the ways you can learn ear training.
Interval Ear Training
Intervals are essentially the building blocks of music. By definition, an interval is the distance in pitch from one note to another.
For example: the interval from middle C to the G above it is called a perfect fifth.
Relative pitch is the ability to identify a note by comparing it to a reference note and determining the interval between the two notes. People with relative pitch are essentially able to recognize the relationships between the notes in a song and so play by ear, improvise, and write their own music.
Therefore, intervals are the building blocks of relative pitch. By being able to identify intervals, you can quantify how high or how low a note is compared to another. This listening skill is, in turn, extremely helpful in ear training! Learn about the many ways of learning intervals in our free guide.
Solfa (aka solfege, solfeggio) is essentially a musical language built to help you easily recognize pitches and translate what you hear into written music. It involves using the well-known syllables Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Ti to help you closely associate each syllable with its corresponding note in the scale.
Once you are able to recognize, for example, Do followed by Mi, you can immediately identify the interval as a major third. You can make this work for all keys simply by associating Do with the tonic of the key.
Similar to interval ear training, the solfa method focusses on the relationships between the notes. So, you’ll be able to accurately transcribe the solfa syllables simply by listening to the music, and even transpose what you have written into any key you like!
Which Ear Training Method Should I Use?
That’s up to you; the best ear training method is the one that works for you. Solfa and interval ear training are just two methods of learning relative pitch with ear training. The system that will work best for you depends on what kind of learning style suits you best and what your musical goals are.
For example, if you find that verbal associations help you learn best, use the solfa method. If you find it easiest to associate the gaps in the pitches you hear with popular songs that you already know, give interval ear training a try. If your true goal is to strum chords on guitar by ear, you may like to jump straight into chord progression ear training. Or, if you’re focused on recording and production then there is ear training you can do for frequency bands (EQ) and audio effects.
You’re a Natural!
So, there you have it: the answer to that desire for natural musicality – the ability to play like a pro, improvise, and write the music you hear in your head – is ear training!
Besides being an invaluable tool in theoretical music knowledge, learning ear training will provide you with a deeper understanding of the music that you are playing, serving to make you a more creative, versatile, and confident musician. It will even save you precious time and money in the long run.
Itching to get started? Explore the various topics of ear training available and start training your ear to provide the natural musicality you’ve always wanted!
Christopher Sutton is the founder of Musical U, where musicians can discover and develop their natural musicality. Born and raised in London, England, he lives with his wife, daughter, and far too many instruments.