Can anyone play by ear?
Are you one of the millions of musicians baffled by another musician’s ability to pick out notes, chords, and even entire songs apparently out of thin air? Does the phrase “play it by ear” make you slightly sweaty and a little anxious? Do you wish you had the seemingly magical ability to learn your favorite songs just by hearing them?
This superpower is called ear training and is a musical skill that you should practice just as much as you practice your technique, music theory and note reading, and repertoire. Your skills as a musician will increase by leaps and bounds once you begin to consciously train your ears.
At one time, I did not know the first thing about ear training. When I was a young music student, none of my teachers mentioned ear training. Consequently, my reading, technique, and theory skills were phenomenal by the age of 14, but I was missing a key ingredient.
When I arrived at music school, the first class was called Aural Skills. Aural Skills is a synonym for ear training. The professor walked in the door, sat down at the piano, asked everyone to take out a piece of staff paper, and notate the melodies that he would play on the piano.
Needless to say, I was caught off guard and failed the task miserably. I realized how much harder I would have to work to catch up with my peers who had somehow been exposed to ear training already. So I practiced and practiced and practiced some more.
What is ear training?
Ear training, or aural skills, is the practice of learning to identify pitches, rhythms, chords, and other music theory concepts by ear. Practicing ear training exercises will increase all aspects of your musicianship. You will become a better player, develop a deeper relationship to the music you study, the music you listen to, and sounds around you in general. Additionally, other musicians will enjoy playing with you more because you will be genuinely listening to them and just hearing them.
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How do I develop my ears?
Training your ears is not a terribly difficult task, but like all musical skills, takes dedication and consistent effort. There are many ways to go about developing excellent aural skills. The trick is to follow through.
Relative pitch versus absolute pitch
Have you ever met someone with perfect pitch? Perfect pitch is the ability to hear literally any sound and instantly recognize its pitch and tuning from the notes on a piano to the creak of a door, to the hum of an airplane. Most musicians do not have this ability and not all those who do ever use it for anything extraordinary.
For the rest of us, we work to develop our relative pitch. Relative pitch is the ability to hear pitches and chords in relation to one another. By building a foundation, you can relate all pitches to that foundation, and build an internal map of sounds for yourself. I teach my students to analogize pitches to color. You only know what the color red is because someone told you about red, or blue, or yellow, or any other color. Why don’t you know how to recognize middle C by ear? Or a major or minor triad?
How to develop relative pitch
The easiest way to develop relative pitch is to choose one note and memorize it. Sit relaxed at the piano and sing or hum the most comfortable and easy note for your voice. Don’t force it and don’t try to do anything in particular except make the most comfortable sound you can.
Now match this pitch on the piano. For me, this pitch is C3, the C one octave below middle C. I found I could reliably and comfortably sing this note at any time of day. It is my foundation pitch. Your pitch might be A3, middle C, or something else. The trick is to find this comfortable pitch and commit it to memory. Sing it as many times as you can every day and match yourself with the piano or with a chromatic tuner.
Expand beyond the foundation
The major scale
Once you find your foundational pitch, you can expand beyond and begin to build your internal pitch map. The first step is to learn how to sing the major scale. Don’t worry about how your voice sounds, singing is an excellent way to internalize pitches because they literally come out of your body. For more information on scales or if you need a quick review, check out this blog post from Skoove about scales.
Once you feel comfortable singing and have internalized the sound of the major scale, you should begin to practice interval identification. Interval identification involves listening to two notes and identifying the distance between them. Remember intervals are measured in semitones or half-steps and include a quality description such as major, minor, or perfect and a numerical description like first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc. For more information on this, check out this excellent blog post from Skoove all about intervals.
Chords and Chord Progressions
The next step after working with intervals is to begin to hear the differences between different chords and then how those chords work together in chord progressions. If you need a quick review of some basic chords on the piano, this informative post of Skoove will get you up to speed in no time.
It is valuable to create as many associations as you can with scales, intervals, and chords. For example, how does a major chord sound to you? Can you attach three adjectives to a major triad? What about bright, upbeat, and happy? How does a minor chord? Does a minor chord sound more or less bright than a major chord? Does a minor chord sound more or less happy than a major chord? All of these sounds exist on a spectrum like visible light and the more you can position them in relation to each other, the more successful you will be!
After you can successfully identify the differences between major and minor chords, try attempting to identify them in the context of chord progressions. There are many common chord progressions in music and finding examples of these will help guide your practice. For example, this lesson from Skoove is all about the tonic-dominant relationship and the sound of the V chord resolving to the I chord.
Check it out:
There are many other common chord progressions such as I-IV-V, I-iv-ii-V, I-iv-IV-V, the Blues, etc. Of course, learning to hear the chords around the circle of fifths is another great way to practice identifying chord progressions. If you haven’t checked out this Skoove post all about the circle of fifths, you definitely should!
All of the websites and apps mentioned above have great sections on chord progressions as well and you should spend some of your practice time each day working with these tools to gain the maximum benefit.
Transcription and learning songs by ear
After you have spent a fair amount of time developing your foundational pitch, singing the major scale, and identifying intervals, chords, and chord progressions, it is time to try some transcription and to learn parts of songs or entire songs by ear. This is the ultimate practice for ear training as you will finally put all the skills you have been developing to a functional use.
There are many ways you can go about this type of practice. I primarily developed my transcription skills by learning jazz improvisations by ear from my favorite musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny. This is a traditional route in jazz playing and is an effective way to develop strong aural skills. You do not necessarily need to transcribe piano music. In fact, you will develop a more expansive ear if you learn to transcribe music played by instruments other than the piano. You can also transcribe drums beats if you wish.
After learning the music by ear, you can notate it on staff paper or in some computer notation software if you prefer and then do some theory analysis to further deepen your understanding, but that is not completely necessary.
Another fun way to practice this skill is to create a playlist of songs you enjoy, listen to the playlist on shuffle, and try to play along as best as you can with the music. Don’t stop and go back to properly learn parts. Just roll with the music and see how much you can pick up as it moves along.
This way you strengthen your spontaneous ear training skills, or the ability to learn and predict music on the spot. You can also practice this with the radio or a service like Pandora or a YouTube algorithmic mix, etc. Practicing like this is so much fun that I bet you will quickly lose track of the time!
Additionally, you can create a playlist of music you enjoy and simply listen to it consciously. Make some notes about what you hear. How does that chord change at 2:00 of your favorite Beatles song make you feel? What about the melody that enters at 1:05 in that Norah Jones song you love? How many chords are in the chorus of Cardi B’s newest hit? What about the bass line in the latest tune from Marshmello? How many notes does it have?
Ear training is an extremely useful and beneficial practice for your development as a successful musician. It is equally as important as any technique, repertoire, or theory practice. In fact, ear training is what ties technique, repertoire, and theory together into music. Without the ability to hear the concepts we learn in music theory as they play out in our repertoire which we play with the technique we develop, we lack a seriously fundamental aspect of music making. Making music without ear training is like watching a colorblind painter; there is a vital and crucial component that is missing.
There are many ways to develop strong aural skills. Developing your relative pitch skills by first building your foundational note is the first step. After that, learn to sing the pitches of the major scale from that foundational note. Once you are comfortable, begin to practice some interval identification. You can use any of the websites or apps in this post or you can meet up with a musician friend and quiz each other. Next, start to work with chords and chord progressions. You will soon begin to find that most of popular music is based on a small number of chord progressions with slight and subtle variations. Once you spend a fair amount of time working with these concepts, begin developing your transcription skills by learning the music you enjoy by ear.
If you dedicate a portion of your practice time each day to ear training, you develop strong aural skills in no time! And you will not be like me, who shows up to his first day of music school with no clue!
Author of this blog post
Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.