Intro to Ear Training

Introduction to Ear Training

At the most basic level, ear training (also known as aural skills) is the process of connecting hearing and thinking. It’s also cultivating the ability to hear what isn’t actually there, by using what you already know about a song, exercise, or scale to identify pitches, intervals, chord progressions, rhythms, and even more advanced musical concepts. You also need to understand how they relate to each other.

It’s important to note (no pun intended!) that by “hear,” we really mean “process.” Of course, anyone who is not actually hearing impaired can literally “hear” all aspects of music, but only people who can connect the auditory (hearing the sounds) with the cognitive (knowing what those sounds mean and how they relate to each other), are demonstrating a good musical “ear.”

How to Train Your Ear

OK, so how do you get better? You can practice ear training in a variety of ways. In this guide, you’ll learn about the various ways to train your ear, and the exercises you can use to improve.

But before you get too overwhelmed — remember that simply listening to music you love can also help you train your ear! If you want to ease into ear training, start there.

Hearing and singing the intervals in the melody or harmony, the bass line, or even identifying the quality of each chord in a song can be hugely beneficial in building and maintaining your musical ear, so keep on listening. And read on as we explore the world of ear training!

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Ear Training Vocab

Ear training: learning to identify pitches, intervals, melody, chords, rhythms, and other basic elements of music, solely by hearing
Pitch: the quality that allows us to classify a sound as relatively high or low
Perfect pitch:
the ability to hear a pitch and know exactly what note is being sounded
Relative pitch: the ability to hear how pitches relate to each other

Ear Training Exercises Using Pitches

Recognizing and understanding pitches is a great place for beginners to start with ear training. Pitch, simply put, is the quality that allows us to classify a sound as relatively high or low. You may have heard the phrase “perfect pitch,” which we’ll get into in the next section.

The ability to recognize pitches has tons of benefits for musicians — for singers, you’ll be able to quickly harmonize, which can be especially helpful in a choir or group setting. For instrumentalists, tuning your instrument will be easier if you can hear the nuances between pitches.

For an introduction to pitch ear training, check out the video to the left.

Interesting Facts About Perfect Pitch via the Absolute Pitch Study:

  • Absolute pitch sometimes runs in families and clearly has a genetic component
  • Some people with absolute pitch have strong color sensations, or other sensory experiences associated with particular pitches
  • Absolute pitch ability can go “out of tune” with age

What is Perfect Pitch?

Perfect pitch (or “absolute pitch”) is the ability to hear a pitch and know exactly what note is being sounded. It is also the ability to sing or play any given note without hearing it first.

For example, let’s say little Joanie has perfect pitch. I say to her, “Joanie, sing an A for me,” and she is able to sing an A without hearing any reference pitches. Then I play a C# and ask her, “Hey Joanie, what note am I playing?” If she has perfect pitch, she will immediately be able to answer correctly. This sounds and IS really cool.

For singers, however, It’s important to remember that because your vocal technique (breath support, tone placement, etc.) affects your intonation, having perfect pitch does not mean you will always be perfectly in tune. Therefore, although perfect pitch is an asset to a musician, it definitely isn’t necessary. If you don’t have it naturally, you have just as much potential for greatness as someone who does. Why? HOW?! Ear training, of course!

You can be trained to improve your pitch or recognize pitches or intervals immediately through study and practice. Relative pitch, or the ability to hear how pitches relate to each other, is a more important practical skill.

On the flipside, are you worried you can’t distinguish pitches at all? Learn more about tone deafness here.

Ear Training Exercises Using Intervals

Any two notes played in succession are some distance from each other, and that distance is called an interval. So, in the simplest terms, an interval is the space between two notes.

Intervals are especially important for singers to have in our ears because we don’t have keys or strings to press! We have our ears and a sense of “position” of notes in our various registers, but we don’t have a physical instrument to look at or touch. We have to hone our hearing to the point that we know exactly what the distance to the next note is, in a song, a scale, or when we’re reading music.

Sometimes, you can just memorize the way a melody sounds and have it down without having to think about the intervals involved. Other times, for one reason or another, it’s not so simple. Luckily, learning your intervals is not complicated, and there are a few ways you can approach memorizing them. Check out the video to the left to learn some interval ear training exercises.

Practicing Intervals

Here’s a cheat sheet for remembering a few of the essential intervals:

Major Intervals
– Major 2nd: Happy Birthday
– Major 3rd: Kumbaya
– Perfect 4th: Bridal Chorus
– Perfect 5th: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
– Major 6th: My Bonnie
– Major 7th: Take On Me
– Perfect 8th (octave): Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Minor Intervals
– Minor 2nd: Jaws theme
– Minor 3rd: Smoke On the Water
– Minor 6th: The Entertainer
– Minor 7th: Star Trek theme

Using the cheat sheet to the left, follow along with the video below to listen to each interval:

Ear Training Exercises Using Chords

By itself, a note is just a note. But when you add a few other notes, you can make a chord: a harmonious sound, the basis of music. Training your ears to recognize these chords and the notes within them can make you a stronger musician.

Chords make up almost all of the music we listen to and are a part of every professional musician’s training. However, chords should not be the first thing on your ear training list. Each chord is made up of multiple pitches. In order to fully absorb a chord, you have to pick out each individual note. If you have trouble matching single pitches or recalling short tunes, master that before moving on to chords.

How to Incorporate Chords Into Ear Training

Please note that chords have Roman numeral names, and that many singers use movable do solfege to describing the notes in the chords. If you aren’t sure what this means, scan this article.

There are two ways to start getting your ears used to chords:

1. Identify individual pitches in the chord. A great ear training exercise to start with involves I chords (do, mi, and so in movable do). With this exercise, your teacher will play the chord and ask you to sing each individual pitch. This exercise forces your brain to hear chords as combinations of individual notes.

2. Identifying whole chords. The most common chords in Western popular music are the following four chords:

I: do, mi, so
V: so, ti, re
vi: la, do, mi
IV: fa, la, do

The I-V-vi-IV chord progression is so popular that it is almost comical — check out the video below to see what we mean! Start by learning to recognize these four chords (and the pitches within them), then move on to other chords if you feel so inclined.

Ear Training Exercises Using Chord Progressions

Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with chords, you’re ready to start learning about chord progressions. Songs are made up not just of individual chords, but chords formed in a specific order. These chains of chords are called chord progressions, and training your ear to recognize them can help you to understand music better and become a better improviser.

Chord progressions affect every singer, but they are particularly important for singers who accompany themselves on the piano, guitar, or another instrument. Because singers can only sing one note at a time, they can only produce one note in a chord; that is why singers are usually accompanied by other instruments.

How to Incorporate Chord Progressions Into Ear Training

As you learned in the last section, there is one chord progression that comes back time and time again in Western popular music: I-V-vi-IV. This is the first progression you should learn to identify. Once you’ve got that done, here are some other popular chord progressions you can practice identifying:

  • I-IV-V-I
  • I-ii-V-I
  • I-vi-IV-V
  • I-IV-iv-v

Try testing your knowledge of chord progressions with this video:

Ear Training Vocab

Intervals: the difference between two pitches
Chord: harmonious sound made up of multiple pitches
Chord progression: chains of chords in a specific order
See also: This chart of common chord progressions

What’s Next?

Now that you’ve learned the basics about ear training, what’s next? If you have a natural ear for pitches, you may be right on track. If not, it just means you need a bit more practice — and that’s OK! Working with a music teacher will give you individualized attention, helping you progress at the right pace. (Need help finding a teacher? Start your search for in-person or online music lessons here!)

Outside of your lessons, take advantage of the many ear training online resources, or download a handy app for your phone to help you practice! Our recommendations are below. Good luck!

Ear Training Apps & Software

Ear Trainer app

» Ear Trainer App for iOS ($6.99) – Explore more than 260 individual exercises covering intervals, chords, scales, relative pitch, and melody

Music Theory Pro

Music Theory Pro app for iOS ($4.99) – Use this app to practice identifying chords, intervals, key signatures, and more

» Ear Worthy App for iOS ($0.99) – Check out the many training exercises for a variety of listening and identification skills, from notes and intervals to scales and chords

Relative Pitch Free Interval Ear Training

» Relative Pitch Free Interval Ear Training for iOS (free) – Intended for beginners, this app trains and tests users on ascending intervals.

Real Piano app

» Keyboard apps, like Real Piano for Android or Piano Maestro for iOS – With a keyboard or keyboard app, you can match the pitches and chords in any song, practice scales and intervals, and more.

DaTuner app

» Tuner apps, such as DaTuner for Android or Tuner Lite for iOS – Any tuner app (or an actual tuner!) is great for checking your pitch. You don’t have to use a tuner all the time, but it is helpful for identifying any trends in your singing.

Ear Training HQ

» Ear Training HQ – Membership for this site is $29/month, and includes ear training exercises and tutorials in an easy-to-follow sequence, as well as access to a community of like-minded musicians.

Other Ear Training Online Resources

musictheory.net

» Interval Ear Trainer via Musictheory.net

teoria

» Teoria.com – Music theory and ear training tutorials, exercises, and articles

theta music trainer

» Theta Music Trainer – In addition to their app, this website offers online ear training exercises, games, and tutorials

Post Contributors

ElainaRPost Author: Elaina R.
Elaina R. teaches opera voice and singing in Ann Arbor, MI, as well as through online lessons. She is currently working on a Master of Music at the University of Michigan, and she has a B.M. from the University of Southern California. Learn more about Elaina here!
Post Author: Shannon F
Shannon Mollick Fearon was a professional vocal coach, vocalist, bassist, photographer, makeup artist, and writer. She attended NOVA, GMU and UNT. She lived in MD with her husband, her cat, and her Newfie. She was killed by a negligent driver on Oct. 13th, 2015 at the age of 28.