Ear training in depth

Ear Training In Depth

By Mattie O'Boyle

Table of Contents

Who is ear training for?

Anyone learning to sing or play an instrument should be actively listening to music and trying to repeat what they hear. However, it´s best to start with very simple melodies, rhythms, chords, and arpeggios and then slowly build up layers of complexity. That´s how any good ear training tool should be designed, allowing each musician to practice exactly what they need at each moment of their musical learning journey.

Anyone learning to sing or play an instrument should be actively listening to music and trying to repeat what they hear.

Is it possible?

Making music, like most skills, requires the acquisition of a repertoire of complex skills and behaviors that emerge from competence in subsets of simpler skills and behaviorism.

Furthermore, like in most skills, each learner has different base line capabilities when they start. A few people will have perfect pitch, while the great majority of learners will use relative pitch. Also, some people will be born hearing music in a more detailed way than others, but research has consistently shown that these natural differences can be equalized through training. In other words, anyone who makes a continuous, consistent effort to train their musical ear can do it.

Ear training software can be the keystone to that learning process, and, when well designed, can vastly accelerate that learning journey. It can shorten and deepen practice sessions, removing the typical obstacles that frustrate, hinder, and even stall, many learners.

How long does it take?

The time required to train your ear depends on a variety of factors. The first factor is your starting point. How “good is your ear already? The second factor is what your musical goal is. A person who wants to learn to play easy, rock and roll melodies doesn´t have as far to go as someone who is determined to become a studio musician. In any case, remember that 10-20 minutes of ear training everyday produces faster results that longer, but more infrequent sessions. Your building a skill and that takes a certain amount of dedication and tenacity.

10-20 minutes of ear training everyday produces faster results that longer, but more infrequent sessions

What works best for beginners?

The most important advice we can give beginners is: Learn to walk, before you run. In other words, do simple dictations slowly, and only add complexity when you are getting perfect results from yourself. Download our free ear training guide for beginners here.

Are there different methods of ear training?

Primarily there are three methods of ear training. The first is to do nothing. And of course doing nothing doesn´t help you improve at all.

The second method of ear training, is the one found extensively through the Western European/North American Conservatory system and, by extension, in grade schools, high schools and university level music programs. This methodology is characterized by:

• Notation based exercises – you learn to write what you hear

• If there is any musical output, the method usually limits it to singing what is heard, regardless of the instrument the learner plays

• Taught in the larger context of musical analysis and musical notation; therefore to progress in this method, the learner needs to assimilate large quantities of abstract musical theory.

• The training material is most often presented as a text book with some accompanying prerecorded exercises. In class, the professor may, or may not, add additional material that they have prepared. Self study learners usually only get limited, prerecorded exercises.

•Students have to follow a ridged learning schedule and curriculum. This always leads to some students being bored with the initial material because it is too easy for their base line starting point, while other students get left behind in the more advanced material, because they didn´t have the chance to consolidate some of the previous work.

This conservatory training methodology treats the learner as if they never had had previous contact with the music; as if a student´s first contact takes place in the conservatory classroom, ignoring the large body of studies that clearly demonstrate the development of musical competence in areas of rhythm, melody, harmony, and timbre that happen naturally as humans are exposed to music during their infancy and childhood. Most non musicians can perform well above random on aural tests concerning the cognitive processing of these musical skills (See Levitin DJ (2012) What does it mean to be musical? Neuron 73: 635–637. if your interested in starting to learn more)

This Conservatory methodology is common in two musical fields, Western European classical music and jazz. Both these styles rely heavily on written notation as well as complex musical theories. Since classical music enjoys high levels of perceived prestige in the musical world, this methodology has become standard for musical training, and is imitated in the few web apps and web sites devoted to ear training but targeting a wider audience beyond the classical and jazz world.

The Conservatory method may well serve the needs of students who need to develop deep skills in reading music and music theory. However, it is far too cumbersome as an ear training methodology for people interested in styles of music that typically don´t require abstract theory or sight reading, like modern popular styles of music or folk music.

The third method or Ear Training is the ageless method of Call and Response – imitating the sounds that you hear. If you learning learning Rock, Pop, Soul, Gospel, Funk, Blues, Metal, Hip Hop, Country, Bluegrass, etc… or almost any traditional style of folk music from around the world, Call and Response connects your ear directly to the music.

In call and response dictations, a learner listens to a musical phrase and simply sings it back, or repeats it back on their instrument. There is little emphasis placed on sight reading and theory. Ideally, the musical phrases are progressive in difficulty and are geared towards the needs and interests of each individual student. This kind of training can be done with melodies, chords and arpeggios.

The advantages to this system are:

• Does not require a lot of abstract theory to be effective

• Especially suitable for students who want to progress quickly on actively playing their specific instrument

• Can be easily adapted to each students needs, interests and instrument

The disadvantages are:

• Students do not necessarily learn to read music

• If a student uses a software to generate random melodies, arpeggios or chord progressions, they may need to be more self directive in their approach to ear training than if they follow a closed curriculum at a school

Here at reelear.com, we design all our apps as Call and Response Ear Training Tools. Have you tried our free trial yet? If you have the right tools, you can go further, faster.

What are active and passive music skills?

Following the lead of linguistics studies, we can divide musical behavior into two broad categories: Active and Passive. Active would be listening to music and singing it or playing it. Passive would be reading music (sheet music and tablature) as well as writing it down. Classical musicians need to be competent in both Active and Passive musical skills. However, most other musicians will spend vastly more amounts of time exercising their Active musical skills, so if you play Rock, Pop, Soul, Gospel, Funk, Blues, Metal, Hip Hop, Country, Bluegrass, etc… or almost any traditional style of folk music from around the world, why not focus your ear training there?

Do I need a teacher?

Often times teachers teach and students don´t learn. 

At reelear.com, we follow a student centered educational focus. In essence, we view the role of the teacher as creating optimal learning conditions, and then allowing the student to go forward.

So if your teacher is helping you learn, by all means take advantage of that. Wise teachers can really help you accelerate your learning. However, also remember that it is you that learns, which means that you need to put forth persistent effort to accomplish your goals.

Do I need to sing?

There is an old cliché in music that says if you can sing it you can play it. In our experience at reelear.com, we found that it is true – but more importantly, we find that students who just try to sing a phrase of music get closer than those who don´t. So like all things in life, give it a try and then judge the results for yourself.

How much theory do I need?

Music theory is very helpful when musicians want to talk about music. However, most musicians in traditional and popular styles of music have had very little music theory and have totally rocked us.

At reelear.com, we stress playing music more that talking about it. However, to use our apps, it´s helpful to know about octaves, and of course to use the Harmony app and the Arpeggio app, knowing some basics about chords is also useful. Beyond that, let your ear by your text book.

Can ear training help me improvise?

Any methodology of ear training will help you improvise, because you are internalizing music vocabulary. However, a well designed ear training app lights up your improvisational skills, because you are playing musical phrases in context, instead of as abstract exercises. Also, if the app adds a random element to you variable choices, you will be exposed to many new ideas that your own habits and tendencies would not have discovered without that little push.