You’ve no doubt heard it plenty of times: ear training is really important. Whether it’s from friends, band mates, teachers or world-class guitarists. But why exactly is ear training important? For years, I couldn’t really answer this question. And even though I did many of the ear training exercises, I was never really sure what goal I was working towards.
In this article, I want to give you a clear picture of how exactly ear training will make you a better musician. We’ll look into three super useful skills that training your ears helps you develop. As we’ll see, there’s a lot more to learn than most ear training apps are designed to test us on.
Skill #1: Hearing in greater detail
Put on a song you like and ask yourself these questions. How many instruments do you hear? Can you hear exactly what each instrument is playing? Can you pick out the bass line? Experienced musicians can hear exactly what’s going on in a recording, down to the smallest detail. When you train your ears you can also transform your listening experience from something like watching a a low-quality video from the early days of youtube to viewing a High-Definition 1080p video.
You can practice this skill anytime you’re listening to music. When you really focus and try to hear all the different things that are going on in a recording, you’re training your ears to hear in more and more detail. But perhaps the best way to practice this skill, is to figure out songs by ear. This not only train you to hear in greater and greater detail, but also to match a note you hear on a recording to a note on your instrument. Which is great practice for the next skill: playing by ear.
Skill #2: Playing by ear
Think of when you’re talking to a friend. It feels completely normal, but it’s actually quite amazing when you consider what’s going on. Your friend says something, you instantly have all sorts of thoughts about it, and those thoughts turn into words that your mouth produces almost effortlessly.
Playing by ear is the musical equivalent of saying whatever comes to mind. It’s the ability to play anything you hear – both the music in your mind and music on a record or rehearsal room. It’s an incredibly rewarding skill to learn. It will provide an awesome sense of freedom when you’re playing.
As you might imagine, the ability to play by ear is super important for improvisation, which involves nothing more than playing the musical ideas that your musical imagination comes up with. Just like when you’re responding to something your friend just said, when we improvise music, we listen to the music around us, and respond to that. This makes improvisation an important way to play better guitar solos too. Even if you’ve memorised an entire solo beforehand, the ability to improvise allows you to adapt your solo in subtle ways to fit the music better. It tends to make solos sound more natural.
There are several ways to practice playing by ear. But it all starts with figuring out songs by ear. When you learn a song by ear, it trains you to not only listen closely to a recording (the first skill we discussed), but also to ‘record’ a sound in your head and find that note, melody or chord on your instrument.
Skill #3: Recognizing musical elements (and analyzing music)
Most ear training apps are designed to test you on this third skill. These apps tend to play us a sound clip and have us recognize things like intervals, chord types or scales. In other words, this third skill involves music theory.
When budding musicians first learn about music theory, they often think of it as a set of ‘rules’ that need to be followed. However, that’s not what music theory is about. There is only one rule: if it sounds good, it is good. Anything is allowed.
But if music theory isn’t there to tell us what we should or shouldn’t do, what is it for? First and foremost, music theory helps us to describe what we’re hearing. Music theory gives names to things like the distance between two notes (interval), certain groups of notes that sound together (chord types) or a collection of notes that a song is based on (scales).
Now, you might be wondering. Why is this a useful skill? I like to think of it as a painter who knows the names for shapes like squares, triangles and pentagons. She can recognize colours such as blue, red and purple, but also more specific shades like indigo, lime green and lilac. Many of those things might sound a bit obvious: anyone can recognize a red square, right? And that’s the point. When it comes to visual information, we’re all very well trained and know exactly what things are called. But the same isn’t true for sound, for music, which makes it hard to talk or even think about music.
When we start to learn the labels for musical elements, we can start to recognize patterns. We can start to make sense of why the music sounds the way it does. One early example of this is when you learn that minor chords usually sound quite sad. Once you know that, it will make sense that a melancholic song uses plenty of minor chords. When you want to write a gloomy song yourself, you’ll know that minor chords are probably a safe bet. You can also say things like ‘let’s change that one chord into a minor chord’ to other musicians. In short, learning to recognize musical elements helps you make sense of music as well as talk about it with other musicians.
So, how do you practice this? Of course there are all the apps, but they tend to miss out the most effective way of getting better at this: singing. When can you sing, hum or whistle something, recognizing it becomes much easier. It’s harder work than many of the apps, but the results are also a lot better.
Hopefully, this article has given you a clearer idea of how ear training can turn you into the musician you aspire to be. As with any musical skill, there is only one way to get better: practice. If you want to learn more about how to practice these skills, check out my Ultimate Guide to Ear Training here. It explains nine different ways to train your ears and to develop these three skills.