November 4th, 2012

3 Highly Effective Ear Training Exercises You Can Do All By Yourself

By Forrest

3 Ear Training Exercises for Musicians

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

Hear, then sing

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, you get into such a guess-and-check mindset, feeling rushed and often forget that the point is to absorb the sounds you’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,

  1. Choose any interval and direction to focus on, for example, let’s choose a major third, ascending.
  2. 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).
  3. Once you play the note, hear it in your mind as clearly as you possible ca. Let the sound resonate in your skull.
  4. Then, pre-hear in your mind a major third (our selected interval) above the note you’re playing on the piano
  5. Once you pre-hear the note a major third above the note you’re playing on the piano, sing  it.

Got it? To recap, pick an interval, play any note, hear the note in your mind, pre-hear the note a major third (or any interval you’re working on) 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. Once you get comfortable with the simple steps described, the next step is to play a different note on the piano and repeat steps 1-5. Aim to cover 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 to practice. Now you needn’t practice all in one session. Pick a few that you feel weak on and spend a few minutes on each. If you do this exercise everyday for ten or fifteen minutes, you’ll see huge gains in hearing, singing, and understanding intervals.

 Exercise #2: Chord tone colors

Listen for the chodrd tone color

Time by yourself is an excellent opportunity to ingrain the distinct colors of each chord tone in your mind. What is this “color” I’m referring to? Every chord tone sounds a particular way. The third of a major seventh chord has a particular sound, as does the root, fifth, and seventh.

Every chord tone on each chord has a certain color to it. This color can be heard, but not easily described. It’s like describing the color red. I could try to describe it to you all day, but you need to see it and experience it to know what red is.

For the chord tone color exercise,

  1. Select a chord and a chord tone. For example, let’s take a C major seventh chord, and the seventh chord tone (B).
  2. 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 in your mind.
  3. 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 want to hear another time after you play the chord so you can better isolate that sound in your mind.
  4. 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 against the backdrop of the rest of the chord.
  5. Hear how the seventh lays against the rest of the chord? Hear how it fits in? This distinct flavor is the color of the seventh.
  6. Burn this sound in your mind and then you’ll always know what the seventh sounds like on a major seventh chord.

You know where this exercise is going. Just as the first exercise had a ton for you to do, so does this one. You can work with any chord and any chord tone. For instance, what does the fifth of a half-diminished chord sound like? It’s time for you to go find out! Or what does 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 more basic sounds like, thirds and fifths. You’ll see very quickly how much this exercise can open your ears and improve your overall musicianship.

Exercise #3: One  chord, inside-out

One chord inside and 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.

  1. Play a C major seventh chord (C E G B)
  2. Now, as you hear the chord ring in your mind, sing the root. Repeat until this is easy.
  3. Once you’re successful, sing the third, then the fifth, followed by the seventh. Again, repeat until all this is easy.
  4. Then go back to the fifth, the third, and the root.
  5. Then jump around. Sing the root, sing the seventh, sing the fifth, sing the third. Hangout on this step for a while, really get comfortable with these sounds!
  6. 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 and take your time.
  7. 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 play these notes along with your chord so you can better hear them.
  8. 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. Explore all the relationships. Sing them, understand them, get comfortable with them.

What else can you practice?  Use your creativity and I’m sure you’ll come up with all sorts of ways to open up your ears. You can see how easy it is and beneficial it is to practice ear training by yourself. Not having a partner is no excuse. The three exercises here are more than enough material for quite some time, so pick a small amount of material that excites you, and start improving! Remember, it’s just organized sound. The key is being able to hear how it’s organized.