My name is Scott Edwards, and I’m the founder of EarTrainingHQ.com. I’ve written this article to explain the important concepts and exercises that make up the foundation of ear training. At EarTrainingHQ.com, we’re hoping to spread the word that ear training is achievable for everyone with the right approach, so I hope that with this article, I can get that message to you!
Why Train Your Ears?
There’s no point in learning how to do something, if you don’t see any reason to do it.. So let’s start out with the benefits that you’ll get from training your ears.
My philosophy of ear training focuses on the development of one skill:
Learning how to recognise which notes are being played when you hear music.
This skill is invaluable for any musician. If you can recognise the notes of any music you hear, you’ll be able to either write down, or play any music you hear. The uses of this skill are endless. You’ll be able to:
- Memorise music quickly and effortlessly, because you can play anything you can sing or hum. Meaning all the music you already know how to sing/hum, will instantly become a part of your repertoire.
- Improvise and compose music naturally, entirely by ear, by simply playing/writing down the melodies/chords that appear in your head.
- Play/transcribe the music you hear from other musicians/recordings, by just writing down or playing along with them as you hear them.
Once you’ve trained your ears, you’ll never play music in the same way again – you’ll become a natural and musical player, and you’ll be able to easily play any music that pops into your head. This is a huge change that I absolutely guarantee will revolutionise your experience with music, and you’ll never look back.
The Tonic is The Boss
The tonic is the first scale degree of the diatonic scale of a piece (for example, in C major, it’s C, in F# major it’s F#). If you learned solfege in school, the tonic is do. It’s the note in any piece of music (other than atonal music, but that’s for another time) that everything else revolves around and eventually resolves to. Because of this, it’s the one that sticks out the most, so it’s the best reference point, and it’s your starting point. Before you try to work on any other part of ear training, you need to learn to sing and identify the tonic in a piece of music. From there, you can start adding all the other notes to it.
Outline a tonal Centre
Always start any ear training exercise by outlining a tonal centre. This puts the sound of the tonic in your ear, so everything you hear after it is heard in relation to it, allowing you to hear the relationships those notes create with the tonic.
A simple and effective way to outline the tonal centre is to play a perfect cadence (I – (IV )- V – I).
Use a System to Label Every Note Based on its relationship to the tonic
Use a system to label every note based on its relationship to the tonic. This gives you an easy label that you can attach to any note, based on the relationship that you’ll learn to recognise. The two most common systems are solfege and scale degrees.
As you may have learned in school (or from the movie: sound of music), solfege gives a syllable to each note, based on it’s scale degree. The tonic is ‘do’, the second scale degree is ‘re’ etc. This system is great, especially for singers, because it allows you to easily sing any note after any other, because the syllables all work together.
The downside of solfege is the extra time involved in learning the system, especially because the syllables have been chosen based on their sounds, rather than on their relationship to the tonic. This creates a barrier to getting started with the system, because it takes some time to get used to it.
Labelling by scale degree is a simpler system if you haven’t already learned solfege. Each note is labelled by a number that correlates to it’s position in the diatonic scale of a piece. The tonic is 1, the second scale degree is 2 etc. Chromatically altered scale degrees are labelled with sharps and flats. This is the system that we use at Ear Training HQ, because it requires no time to learn. This makes it instantly accessible for everyone.
Internalise the sound of Each Individual Note Based on this relationship
Once you’ve outlined a tonal centre, and you’ve chosen which system suits you best, you’re ready to get started with the ear training.
The aim of the game is to listen to and sing each note, until you start to create a solid memory of the way that it sounds. You’re creating an internal memory or representation of the sound, that you’ll use to recognise the note whenever you hear it again. At Ear Training HQ we refer to this process as internalisation.
To internalise the sound of each note, try the following:
Outline a tonal centre on your instrument, then play the note that you’re aiming to internalise (we’ll call this the target scale degree). Listen to the note, and sing it. Also sing the tonic, to get used to the interval between the two. If you need to re-outline the tonic, feel free to do so. Spend a few minutes doing this – listening to and singing the target scale degree in relation to the tonic chord.
This exercise sounds deceptively simple, but it achieves exactly what we’re aiming to do – you’re exposing yourself to the sound of the target scale degree, in relation to the tonic. If you spend a few minutes on this exercise every day for a few days, you’ll start to feel familiar with the tonic. Once you feel this, you can move on to the next scale degree and repeat the process.
Continue this until you’ve completed it with all seven diatonic scale degrees. (I recommend leaving the chromatically altered scale degrees for later, once you’ve had some success with the diatonic ones).
Once you’ve internalised the individual scale degrees, it’s simply a matter of grouping them together – into short melodies and chords.
You can repeat the exercise outlined above, but instead of internalising individual scale degrees, play two – one after the other. Get used to recognising the two quickly. This is important for when the melody speeds up. Do it with two, three and then four scale degrees. This will develop your ability to hear a fast melody, and recognise the notes in melodic groupings, so you can keep up.
And finally, do the same with chords. Outline the tonal centre, then alternate between the tonic chord and a ‘target chord’: for example, the IV chord (In C major, the F major chord). When you hear the target chord, find the root note of the chord (you may have to practice playing a single major/minor chord, and singing the root note, to get used to the way that it sounds), and then identify the scale degree of that note. This will allow you to quickly identify any chord in a tonal piece of music, with a very fast and accurate two step approach.
As you’re working through this process, add sight singing exercises to the mix. Take simple melodies and try to sing them using your internal representations of the scale degrees. Feel free to outline the tonal centre first, but try not to cheat. If you can’t get a certain note, go back to it and keep working at internalising it better!
Practice, Practice, Practice!
This is essentially the process for ear training. It’s much simpler than you would think. Try it for a few weeks, and as you start progressing, I guarantee you’ll get hooked. Then just keep working on it and you’ll be coming along in leaps and bounds, and it’s simply a matter of practice until you can play and transcribe whatever you like by ear!
Turbo Charging the Process
I truly believe the process I’ve just explained is the most effective way to go about training your ears. This is the method that we’ve based the Progressive Ear Training Course on, but there is a difference between what I’ve explained here and the course itself.
In the course, the exercises have all been recorded for you. There’s a whopping 20 CDs of audio exercises that start with the tonic (of course!) and work up to 16 bar tunes for you to transcribe. By using the course, you can take advantage of the exercises, which will allow you to work on these exercises anywhere (in the car, on the train, in bed, wherever!). They’re also set out in sequence, so you’ll always know exactly where to go next, and on top of this, as a member you’ll get direct access to me, so I can help you out if you run into any problems. So if you are interesting in some serious Ear Training, I highly recommend you drop by EarTrainingHQ.com to check it out.
I hope you enjoyed the lesson!