Guitar tricks blog

Posted: September 24, 2017

Practical Applications of Music Theory

Written by Christopher Schlegel.

(Free for commercial use image from Pixabay.)

Aural skills are a crucial part of any musician's skill set. Aural means to be related to the sense of hearing or the anatomy and physiology of the ear. So, aural training is sometimes called ear training, an imporant foundation when learning music theory. Aural skills training is the process by which musicians identify and mentally organize the sounds that happen in music.

From Wikipedia: "Ear training or aural skills is a skill by which musicians learn to identify, solely by hearing, pitches, intervals, melody, chords, rhythms, and other basic elements of music. The application of this skill is analogous to taking dictation in written/spoken language. As a process, ear training is, in essence, the inverse of sight-singing, the latter being analogous to reading a written text aloud without prior opportunity to review the material. Ear training is typically a component of formal musical training."

Often, guitarists acquire aural skills as a secondary skill, without explicitly identifying it or realizing what it is. But, of course, clearly identifying and having an intention plan always helps you learn a skill more effectively.

Depending on your current skill level, I strongly encourage all Guitar Tricks learners to work through the GT fundamental courses.  After that, (or if you've already progressed beyond that) pick a style course that best suits your goals. Links to all those courses are on this page.

And of course, you should be learning songs! Once you learn the basic building blocks of music, you need to apply them to hear how they work. So once you've acquired the skills and knowledge in the Fundamentals courses, the best way to improve your aural skills is to learn songs. Practice and listen!

Listen to a lot of pop music. Blues, rock, country, jazz, radio pop. Everything. Listen for bass motion and try to pick out the bass notes. Then add the rest of the chord to discover it's chord quality: major, minor, dominant, extended harmony, etc. Then start to pick out the melody notes, usually the vocal line in pop music. Or even the licks and solos! Do that for a lot of songs until it becomes second nature.

The best way to train your mind and ear (aural training or ear training) is the ability to recognize intervals and chord progressions by automatic memory recall. Learn basic scales and their degrees like this.

Then practice these basic scales :

Practicing Scales for Beginners

Basic Blues Licks

And use them to play lots of little melodies & licks like these:

More Simple Melodies

The Most Important Notes 

Then mentally identify the notes of those melodies as scale degrees, then you will be on your way to developing your ear correctly. Consider that once you understand that these major scale degrees ...


... form the sound of the melody to "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." When you hear the notes in your mind before you pick up a guitar and play it, and when you can visualize this on the fretboard, that's when you know you've started ear training correctly. :)

I know this is a very simple example, but that's the entire process described in a nutshell. That is the exact same thing I do, and every musician does, to recognize, and play melodies, riffs, licks, and chord progressions.

We recognize that certain patterns of notes and scales on the guitar will result in very specific sounds every time. For example, when I hear this lick:

Bread & Butter 1 Intro

It doesn't matter if it's a rock song, blues song, or the type of guitar or amp or key you're in. When I hear any guitarist play those notes I know right away before picking up the guitar. This is because I know they are scale degrees 5-5-1-5-1 (with some bending).

I explain the scale degrees of that specific song in the next lesson:

Tricky Picking and Bending

Next, you want to play various groups of chord progressions like I-IV-V so you are building a similar folder of chord progressions in your memory banks. You want to play things like this A-D-E progression with the idea in mind that it is a progression:

A (I chord)

D (IV chord)

A (I chord)

 E (V chord)

Practicing Switching Chords 1: A, D, and E

And this group of chords is the exact same progression but in C instead of A.

C (I chord)

F (IV chord)

C (I chord)

G (V chord)

Practicing Switch Chords 2: C, F, and G

Eventually, you need to work at realizing that those are the same sounds anytime you encounter them. So, when you hear Buddy Holly playing It's So Easy, you'll know right away that he's playing an A, D and E major chord in different orders.



Or when you hear "La Bamba," you'll recognize that it's a variation of a I-IV-V chord progressions but C major!  And "Twist & Shout" is another variation, but in D major!

Every song is built from the basic materials of notes, scales & chords. These patterns repeat over and again in pop, rock, country, blues music. So, the trick is to get your mind & ear to memorize & understand what those patterns are. Almost every blues song you hear is built from a I-IV-V progression. After practicing playing & learning to identify these chord progressions, I can hear them immediately when I hear a new song.

Outside of Guitar Tricks, one of my favorite sites to recommend is this one that has a lot of great tools to help you with aural skills training.

Sites like this can help you develop your aural skills when you are away from your guitar. Or be an addition to your guitar learning. But in my experience, the best way by far to improve your ear training (aural skills) is to do it with a musical instrument in your hands. Learning the basics: chords, scales, rhythm, harmony, basic sight reading. Then listening to songs, figuring out bass notes, chord progressions & melodies.

Hope this helps! Best of success developing your aural skills!