Have you ever envied someone who has the ability to listen to a piece of music once and then instantly replicate the tune on the guitar? Have you ever marveled at someone who can play just about any song requested of them without benefit of musical notation? Have you ever wished to be able to jot down a tune that pops into your head while you're riding on a bus or waiting to meet someone in a restaurant? If you struggle with things like improvising and songwriting, take heart. Chances are your problems are not due to a lack of creativity, but rather an undeveloped ear.
As a musician, your ears are the most important part of your anatomy. The ability to "play by ear" is one of the most highly prized of all musical skills. Despite the popular misconception that you have to be born "gifted" to play intuitively, playing guitar by ear is a musical skill that can be learned if you are a good listener.
Music is an aural or hearing art. As such, the ear acts as the intermediary between your musical ideas and the execution of these ideas. Playing music without having a trained ear is like trying to speak a foreign language without understanding the words. Granted, you could learn by rote. It is indeed possible to learn how to press the right frets on the right strings in the right sequence simply by repetition, but if you don't understand the actual "words"—the notes, intervals and harmonies—you're merely exercising your fingers. Your fingers are learning, but not your ears. This "muscle memory," as it is known, is infamously unreliable too, especially when it comes to performing. With anxiety running high, there's a good chance that you'll blank out right when you most need your memory. Without aural skills, you'll have no ears to fall back on.
Ear training is all about learning to recognize sounds using your ears and fortifying the connection between your head and your fingers. It is the skill by which we learn to identify pitches, intervals, melody, chords, rhythms, and other basic elements of music solely by hearing. A well-trained ear allows the music that you hear in your head to come out through your fingertips. It gives you the sensitivity and ability to play what you hear and feel without having to rely on seeing a note and then pressing the corresponding place on the fretboard, and doing this note by note by note, which can give your playing a somewhat mechanical sound. Without "big ears," even the most adept player is merely a technician. With them, however, that player truly becomes an artist.
Your aim then is to learn to "hear" with your eyes and "see" with your ears. Your fingers must be guided at all times by your inner ear. You shouldn't hear because you play, rather you play because you hear. In other words, you don't hear a note simply because you happen to have struck the right string, you strike the right string because you hear the right note in your mind's ear. This is the essence of getting the mind ahead of the fingers, and this is the ultimate goal of ear training. But how exactly do you practice ear training? Let's begin by taking a look at some key concepts of aural development.
Intervals are the building blocks of melody and harmony. They measure the distance between any two pitches. Interval training is a great way to develop your sense of relative pitch, which allows you to improvise freely, play songs by ear, and write your own music. It can help you learn to recognize and reproduce intervals, and connect the characteristic sounds with their corresponding names. You can improve interval recognition by doing specific interval ear training exercises where you practice hearing the difference between one type of interval and another. Interval training will help you to appreciate and understand harmonies, hear how melodies are constructed, play by ear using a heightened sense of pitch distances, sight-sing by using intervals to understand the sheet music, and distinguish mistakes or inaccuracies in pitch and tuning. Interval training should be central to your ear training practice.
Chords are how musicians tend to think about harmony in music: multiple notes played at once. Different combinations of notes will have different characteristic sounds based on the relative pitch relationships between their notes. Chord ear training exercises teach you to identify what makes these combinations distinctive. You need to understand the structures and functions of chords and learn to feel the quality of them. Chord recognition is not only useful for playing by ear and for writing music, but it also allows you to hear more detail in the music you listen to and play more effectively with other musicians during a performance.
A chord progression is a series of chords in music. This is another relative pitch listening skill, as you recognize the sequence of chords based on the relationship between each chord and the next, or each chord and the key's tonic. You listen for the interval between each tonic note. If you're trying to work out how to play the accompaniment of a song by ear, chord progression ear training is the key.
A scale is simply the palette of notes you draw on in a particular musical context. Connect the theory of scales with their actual sound through ear training and scales can become a powerful tool in your musical arsenal. Just like with chords and intervals, there are different types of scales, and scale ear training lets you learn to recognize these by ear. At first you will learn to recognize the scale when played up and down in sequence from the tonic, but as you improve your scale recognition skills, you can learn to recognize scales when they're used in melody and harmony too. Use scale training to build on your familiarity with major and minor scales by introducing more advanced scale types and more versatile scale recognition.
Rhythm is the basis of all music. Counting beats is an essential part of being able to read and play music. Playing out of time is the one thing that listeners will not forgive. And if you want to play with others in a band, rhythm is imperative to staying in sync. A good musical ear demands that you develop an equally good understanding of rhythmic variation. Rhythm dictation, rhythm reading, rhythm imitation, and rhythm correction are some of the exercises you want to work on. The goal is to understand, identify, and reproduce rhythmic patterns.
One of the main goals of ear training is to strengthen your powers of visualization—being able to hear a phrase and immediately visualize how it will look and feel when played on your instrument. Melodic dictation is closely tied to visualization, and is a skill that most experienced improvisers and composers have developed to a high degree. To begin building this important skill, start with very short fragments (three or four notes) of a simple melody. Try to sing the phrase and convert the tones of the melody to scale numbers. Visualize how the melody will look and feel on your guitar. Soon you will be ready to move on to longer, more complex phrases. Notice how the longer phrases are often made up of shorter melodic patterns that you already know. As your ability increases, you will eventually be able to mentally practice and compose music away from your instrument.
There are exercises for interval, chord, chord progression, scales, rhythm, and melody training all over the internet, including here on the Guitar Tricks site. Be sure to check them out and give them a go. Your ear will thank you.
Here are some additional tips to help you incorporate aural training into your daily practice session:
Listen and identify what is playing around you
One of the best ways to exercise your ears is to listen to the music that is playing around you during the day. Whether it's a song on the radio or a jingle on television, you're surrounded by music that can teach you. Start asking yourself questions. Can you pick out the key the song is written in? Is that key a major or minor key? What is the tempo of the song, and where and when (if ever) does the tempo change? Can you identify the intervals between the notes in the melody? What are the chords? What chord does the song start on and where does the harmony go from there? Once you get comfortable with listening to music in this way, grab your guitar and start interacting with what you hear by playing along.
Sing what you play
This will help to get your ear in sync with the sounds your fingers are creating. For example, you can play a C major scale (C D E F G A B) in any position and sing each note of the scale as you play it, being very careful to sing on pitch as accurately as possible. Start with one note: play the note, sing it, and then play and sing the note simultaneously. Then go to two notes. Once you feel comfortable, take a little piece of that scale, say, the notes C, D, E and F, and create a very simple melody with these notes for you to sing simultaneously, à la jazz guitarist George Benson.
Play along with songs
Start off by choosing a simple song (nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, easy popular songs, etc.) and play along, note for note. This method will help you with your rhythm and allow you to clearly hear your mistakes.
Actively listen to some of your favorite guitarists
Active listening involves full engagement with the music. This is not the kind of listening you do when you're driving down the road with your window down and the radio blasting. Use a good pair of headphones or good speakers and limit your distractions. Listen for things like dynamics, articulation, how the players respond to each other, textures, rhythms, tone, etc. And don't limit yourself to only the genres, players, and instruments you like. Branch out.
Learn to tune your guitar by ear
Tuning a guitar by ear teaches you to hear intervals between strings and notes. The ability to tune by ear is also mighty convenient when a tuning aid isn't available.
Another great way to train yourself to really hear what you're playing is to practice transcribing music. When you do this, you are depending entirely on your ears to guide you through a song. First, pick a song. Again, choose a simple song to start with, like "Happy Birthday," as you already know exactly how it should sound. The simplicity of a song improves your chances of being able to play it by ear. Sit down with your guitar, and start by playing a random note and then work your way through the rest of the melody from there. Keep playing the song until you've mastered it. Once that happens, try to figure out the melody again, starting from another random note. Take the time to identify what the names of the intervals are that make up the melody, listening to each specific interval as you work through the melody. Try to do this with a couple songs every day. When you're comfortable working through the melodies, start trying to figure out what chords would go with that melody. After you've conquered familiar songs, start transcribing guitar solos by ear. Keep challenging yourself with more difficult material.
Training your ear to hear music is critical to your development as a musician. It is just as important as learning to read music. There are many ways to sharpen your aural skills. These are just some of the basics that will help you to begin to open up your ears. Use these concepts and tips as a springboard to further explore ear training.
Remember, your ear needs constant practice just like your hands do. Honing your ear takes time, so set some aside each day that is dedicated solely to focusing on ear training. Persevere and be patient with yourself as you work to develop your ear. Expect progress to be slow but steady, just like your physical guitar playing, but the unparalleled freedom to play what you hear and feel as well as a deeper appreciation for and enjoyment of music that comes from your efforts will be so worth it.