February 18th, 2011

Fundamental Ear Training Exercises

By Forrest

ear training fundamentals

Keep your eyes on the stars but keep your feet on the ground.Theodore Roosevelt

The fundamentals of ear training are largely glossed over. Developing one’s ear is seen as a linear track: learn your intervals, then your triads…and so on. But developing your ear is not a linear pursuit. Like improvisation, it’s a quest of constantly pushing forward, while simultaneously strengthening your roots.

Choose your ear training partner wisely

Finding someone to practice ear training with makes it more beneficial and more fun. Find someone around your level and who is willing to practice with you at least three times a week. Ideally, you’d have a roommate or neighbor who’s willing to practice daily.

The most important aspect of choosing someone to practice ear training with has to do with attitude. You want to work with someone that will not criticize or judge you because you make mistakes. And similarly, you should adopt an attitude of understanding and respect for the current level of the person you’re working with.

I’ve practiced with people before where I’ve felt that if I said the wrong answer, they would think less of me as a musician, or make fun of me because I screwed up a basic exercise. This situation will cripple your learning, rendering your ear training sessions virtually useless.

Choose your ear training partner wisely. Aim to develop a relationship of mutual encouragement and your practices will be enjoyable and rewarding.

Ear training mindset

Many people practice ear training as though they were playing a game. They guess and hope for the best, or use the process of elimination based upon what they know a particular sound not to be.

Ear training is not a game, or a take-your-best-guess kind of a thing. It’s about developing yourself as a musician. It’s about changing the way you hear sound and music; being able to hear on a deeper level.

Take your time and constantly repeat the intervals and triads which give you the most trouble. Hear and sing accurately in terms of pitch. Focus and listen intently to the sound in your mind. If you notice drastic changes in the way you’re hearing and playing music, then you know you’re practicing ear training correctly.

Focus on fundamentals and SING!

In school, our ear training professor would play an interval a few times over a period of thirty seconds or so and you would write down the interval on a piece of paper, which would later be graded. Most classes on ear training (not all, however. I was jealous of the undergrad ear training courses at William Paterson with Armen Donelian. Check out his awesome ear training book) hurry through the fundamentals of ear training because they’re on a schedule.

This mindset toward ear training diametrically opposes the mindset I set forth in the last few paragraphs. You can’t hurry through these essential elements because everything after builds upon them. How can you hear seventh chords if you can’t hear triads? How can you hear the intricacies of a chord voicing without knowing your intervals solidly?

These fundamentals of hearing – intervals and triads – should be practiced to a much larger degree than simple recognition. They should be internalized and known inside and out. You should know each one like an old friend. To acquire this familiarity rapidly, sing everything. Singing every exercise will help you develop your ear much more quickly. It will greatly strengthen your connection with what ever sound you’re learning. It gets easier the more you do it.

Fundamental Ear Training Exercises

What you need: a wisely chosen ear training partner, a piano or keyboard, 20 minutes of uninterrupted time, a clear mind

Interval Exercise

Partner
Plays a random interval, two notes, one immediately followed by the other.

You
Hear the interval in your mind. Sing the first note and then the second note. Then state the interval and direction. If you need it repeated before attempting to sing and identify it, request that your partner plays again.

Partner
Verifies pitch accuracy of your singing and whether you identified the interval correctly. If you are incorrect, have your partner play it again, listen even more closely and try again. Do not proceed to the next interval until you sing it accurately and identify it correctly.

Repeat this process until your partner has randomly played all intervals ascending and descending. That’s all the following intervals, randomly played at least once, up and down: minor 2nd, major 2nd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, diminished 5th (tritone), perfect 5th, minor 6th, major 6th, minor 7th, major 7th, octave. You can add a major 9th (an octave plus a whole step) and minor 9th (an octave plus a half step) if you like as well.

Harmonic Interval Exercise

This is the same as the previous exercise, but the notes are played together instead of one after another. So…

Partner
Plays a random interval, two notes, this time played simultaneously.

You
Hear the harmonic interval in your mind. Sing the first note and then the second note. Then state the interval. If you need it repeated before attempting to sing and identify it, request that your partner plays again.

Partner
Verifies pitch accuracy of your singing and whether you identified the interval correctly. If you are incorrect, have your partner play it again, listen even more closely and try again. Do not proceed to the next interval until you sing it accurately and identify it correctly.

Repeat until you’ve gone through all the intervals at least once

Triad Exercise

Partner
Plays a random triad in root position, three notes of a triad played together (i.e. CEG, C major triad)

You
Hear the triad in your mind. Sing the triad starting from the root. Then state the quality of the triad. If you need it repeated before attempting to sing and identify it, request that your partner plays again.

Partner
Verifies pitch accuracy of your singing and whether you identified the triad correctly. If you are incorrect, have your partner play it again, listen even more closely and try again. Do not proceed to the next triad until you sing it accurately and identify it correctly.

Repeat until you’ve gone through all the triads at least once: major (135), minor (1b35), augmented (13#5), diminished (1b3b5), sus 4 (145)

Fundamental ear training

Go through each of the three exercises and then trade spots and play the exercises for your partner. Practice in this manner at least 3 times a week for a month and you’ll notice tremendous improvement in the way you hear and play. The key with any ear training practice is hearing the sound in your mind and reproducing it with your voice accurately while you continue to hear it in your mind.

Mastering these essential sounds will give you a strong foundation. Even after you become fairly confident with these exercises, return to to them. When you start it may take some repeated hearings. Then, in a week or two, perhaps you’ll only need one playing of the sound, but it will take you a moment to sing it and identify it.

Keep decreasing the time between hearing the interval or triad and singing/identifying it until you know exactly what the sound is right away and can sing it. Then work on it some more ;-)