How to Develop a Good Ear

If you have the ear of Mozart or if you have perfect/absolute pitch, I’m envious! Be blessed and on your way. This isn’t for you. Unless, of course, you’re interested in how the rest of us mortals work to develop our musical ear.

I love theory and working on my guitar chops because I love to shred! BUT… without a doubt, the absolute most important thing to work on for any musician is your ear! Having the ability to recognize chords, chord progressions and melodic intervals really helps in all areas of musicianship – from improvising and composing to analyzing a piece of music.

“Sounds good (no pun intended),” you say. “Tell me how to develop these amazing aural recognition skills that will change my life!”

I’d love to!

The Most Effective Exercise for Developing A Good Ear

The most effective exercise I’ve found for developing a great ear is singing! I am no singer by any stretch of the imagination. So, what I mean by “singing” is as simple as humming or vocalizing a syllable like “la” to produce a pitch.

Why is vocalizing notes so effective? I’m not sure. Maybe because your head vibrates and that helps you internalize pitch better. I’m sure someone has investigated the science behind it, so feel free to search the internet for an explanation. I just know it works!

Start very simple and stay within a comfortable, relaxed range for your voice. Play one note on your instrument and match it with your voice. Don’t move on until you can vocalize the note exactly! Be strict with yourself. If you’re not in tune with the note, be patient and keep trying.

You can then move on to singing simple melodies or a Major scale, for example. Go slow and listen closely to make sure you’re perfectly in tune.

Arpeggios With A Twist

When that first exercise is a piece of cake, you can move on to one of my favourites: arpeggios! But with a bit of a twist.

Don’t play the arpeggio on your instrument. Just play the chord, letting it ring out as you try to sing the individual notes of the chord.

It can help to play the chord in close position (1 35) at first. Really try to focus your ear on each note even though they’re sounding all together.

Then try playing different chord voicings, but still sing the arpeggio (1 3 5 3 1). Don’t forget to do this with Major and Minor chords.

Transcribe Something Simple

Another very effective tried and true way to get Mozart’s ear – your own version of it, at least! – is to transcribe music. Figure chords and melodies out by ear.

When I first tried this, I wasn’t very bright! I tried transcribing some virtuoso shred guitar thing and just got frustrated. So, start simple! Starting with a basic melody is probably your best bet. Find a simple song (vocal or instrumental) and just start picking out notes.

At first it might be easiest to listen for the highest and lowest notes and figure those out. Then move on to finding the rest.

For chords it can be a bit more challenging. You must first be able to hear the quality or mood of a chord – Major or Minor. The previous singing exercise should help with this. It also helps to find the bass note as this will often be the root of the chord.

Harmony: The Real Challenge!

Now that you’re shredding your way through the previous exercises, it’s time to really challenge yourself. Harmonize! And I do mean with your voice.

Choose simple again. Start by trying to sing octaves above the note you play. Play the note, listen, then sing the octave. Your goal is to hit the note perfectly – don’t scoop or slide up to it. But, if scooping helps at first (as it did for me), then go for it!

Next, try to sing a fifth above the note. Play the note, listen, internalize, sing the fifth. If you need to play them melodically first a few times to get the harmony in your head, go for it.

After octaves and fifths, the other intervals are up to you. Fourths, of course, are probably a good one to try next, but go for it and learn them all.

What comes next? You guessed it… harmonizing below. Play a note, listen, internalize, sing the octave below, etc.

Wait, there’s more! Try this: Play two or three notes melodically and sing along an octave above, a fifth above, and the octave below, etc.

Phew! Man, your ears are shredding now!

Ear Training Without an Instrument

One more. What if you don’t have your instrument with you and the mood to train your ears hits you out of nowhere?

We don’t LISTEN to music like we used to. Remember when we used to buy the record, tape or CD, take it home, open it carefully, insert it into the stereo system, hit play, stare at the artwork and listen intently to the album over and over again? Ahh, those were awesome days!

Please, start doing this again!!! I’ll bet you have your smartphone with you! Open iTunes or Spotify, stick in your earbuds (not too loud), find your favourite album and listen over and over again. Not on shuffle! Do it “old school”. Front to back!

But, listen very intently to each instrument and rhythm and dynamic and chord and note and percussion hit… You get the idea.

This will also help you develop great aural recognition skills by training your ear to focus and be more attentive. (I think we can all agree focusing on anything for an extended time these days is becoming a lost art. There’s just so much out there fighting for our attention.)

There are many apps available in this digital age which can also help. But I do believe in the above methods first and foremost. If you do use apps on your mobile device, perhaps use them only as a supplement for testing yourself – not as your main method of training.

Keep It Interesting

I do understand that this type of practising can be quite boring. (At least, it was for me.) So, try to incorporate it into your regular practice routine. During your warm-up, for example, you could sing along with a couple exercises. Warm up your fingers and your ears!

There you have it! My overview of some effective ways to develop you ear. Of course, you’ll probably find your own variations on these exercises and methods, and I highly recommend you do.

 Until next time… Keep listening!

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