Ear Training For One
We’ve presented tons of exercises on how to practice ear training, but many require that you have someone to train with. So what do you do when you don’t have a partner?
When you have no one to practice ear training with there’s just as many exercises you can do and better yet, you can really take the time to iron out your personal weak spots. Here’s a few of my go to exercises that are super simple and super effective.
Exercise #1: Interval pre-hearing
I love this exercise, in fact, I think it’s even more valuable for learning your intervals than if you had a partner! With a partner, we get into such a guess-and-check mindset, feeling rushed and oft forgetting that the point is to absorb the sounds we’re hearing on a deeper and deeper level.
By ourselves we can take our time, relax, and let the sounds echo endlessly.
To do the interval pre-hearing exercise, first choose any interval and direction to focus on, for example, let’s choose a major third going up. Next, play any note on a piano, or if you don’t have one, any tone will do, even if it’s hitting a spoon against a glass (yes, you can practice ear training anywhere even with very minimal equipment). Once you play the note, hear it in your mind and then, pre-hear in your mind a major third (our selected interval) above the note you’re playing on the piano, before singing it. Got it?
To recap, pick an interval, play any note, hear the note in your mind, pre-hear the note a major third above the note you’re playing, and finally sing that note that lies a major third above the note you’re playing. That’s the core of this exercise.
But you’re not done. Oh no. You’re nowhere near done! That’s how most things go. They start simple, and very quickly bubble up to something complex. So once you get comfortable with the simple steps described, the next step is to play another note and do the same thing. Aim to hit your entire range. Go up and down the piano, play a note, hear it, pre-hear the note you’re going to sing which lies at the interval you’ve selected, and sing it. Continue this until you feel like you can play any note, immediately pre-hear the note you want to sing, and sing it accurately.
But wait, you’re still not done. That’s just one interval in one direction. You have all your intervals in both directions. Now you needn’t practice all in one session. What I usually do is just pick a few that I feel I’m weak on and spend a few minutes on each. If you did this exercise everyday for ten or fifteen minutes, the intervals that give you trouble could be easy in a week.
Exercise #2: Chord tone colors
Time alone is an excellent opportunity to burn the colors of chord tones in your mind. What does this “color” mean? Every chord tone sounds a particular way. The major third of a major seventh chord has a particular sound, as do the root, fifth, and seventh. Every chord tone on each chord has a certain color to it. This color can only be heard. It’s like describing the color red. I could try all I want, but at the end of the day, you need to see it to know what red is.
For the chord tone color exercise, start by selecting a chord and a chord tone. For example, let’s take a C major seventh chord, and the major seventh chord tone (B). At the piano, play the notes of a C major chord in root position (C-E-G-B). Try to isolate the sound of the seventh n your mind. Play the chord again, but this time after playing the chord once, immediately continue to hold the C-E-G while you play the B a second time.
Essentially what you’re doing is playing the chord, but playing the chord tone you’re trying to hear another time after you play the chord, so you can better isolate that sound in your mind. Keep pounding out the chord and independently playing the seventh as much as you need to until you can really hear that seventh as it’s one entity. Hear how it lays against the rest of the chord. Hear how it fits in. This is the color of the seventh. Burn this sound in your mind, and you’ll know what a major seventh chord tone sounds like on a major seventh chord.
You know where this exercise is going. Just as the first exercise had a tone for you to do, so does this one. You can work with any chord and any chord tone. For example, what does the fifth of a half-diminished chord sound like? It’s time for you to go find out! Or what’s a sharp-elven sound like on a major chord?
Pick a sound that you want to learn and just go for it. You’ll find that some of the more esoteric sounds are actually easier to hear because they sound so unique. If you’re like me, you may need to work harder at hearing some of the basic sounds like, thirds and fifths. You’ll see very quickly how much this exercise can open your ears.
Exercise #3: One chord, inside-out
This is a final wrap-up exercise that you can do anytime you don’t know what to do. The idea: play one chord and milk it for all it’s worth. For instance, play a C major seventh chord. Now, as you hear the chord ring in your mind, sing the root. Once you’re successful, sing the third, then the fifth, followed by the seventh. then go back to the fifth, the third, the root. Then jump around. Sing the root, sing the seventh, sing the fifth, sing the third.
Then work on hearing the colors of each chord tone as you did in the previous exercise. Hear the color of the third. How is the sound of the third different than the fifth? Then the seventh. How is the sound of the seventh different than the fifth? Do this with all the chord tones.
Then try singing chord tones that you’re not playing. For instance, sing the sharp eleven or the ninth. If you need to, you can always add theses tones to your chord so you can better hear them.
Next try hearing the intervals between chord tones. Hear the major third between the root and the third. Sing it. Then hear the minor third between the third and the fifth. Sing it. Then hear the major third between the fifth and the seventh. Sing it.
What else can you practice? You can see how easy it is and beneficial it is to practice ear training alone. Not having a partner is no excuse. The three exercises presented are more than enough material for a long time, so pick a small amount of material that you’re currently not good at, and start improving. Remember, it’s just organized sound. The key is being able to hear how it’s organized.
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