Ear Training Exercises: Chords & Scales

guitarBefore you can master an instrument like the guitar, students need to first learn the art of listening. When you can quickly recognize certain things like intervals, chords and scales, your playing ability will greatly improve. Read on for a great ear training exercise from Elk Grove, CA teacher Loren R

When music students first hear of “ear training,” they might not understand what it means.  It sounds important and basic, but what is it? When we hear music, we know that it’s our ears that need to be “trained,” because music is only for ears, not for the eyes.

We also know that hearing is not just hearing. There’s hearing and then there’s knowing what we’re hearing. If we learn to know what we’re hearing well enough, we will have the skill to go to our instrument and reproduce the music, either in part, or with an arrangement that is manageable by our single effort on our instrument. We can learn to hear how to represent the various instruments in the band playing the music. When people see these skills in action they say, “That musician plays well by ear.” This is a high compliment among musicians.

But how does one develop a good ear? One important part is simply being able to match the pitch one hears in the music to a pitch one plays on their instrument. Ask your teacher to let you give that a try if you haven’t done that. Many people can do that already, but don’t know how to go beyond that to recognize more of the music than just the one note at a time.

The trick is to find a way to play the sounds you need to learn the most. They are called chords and scales. Also, we need a few recognizable bits of melody that are common in music. I call these “moves.” In real music, chords, scales and moves always occur in the context of rhythmic patterns, too. Even in the music where there are lots of repetitions, and we can add even more repetitions to give ourselves a certain picture of what our ears are hearing.

If we can find a way to play the most common chords, scales and melody fragments, and make direct comparisons one after another in repetition, we’ll begin to recognize the most common elements in music. That’s ear training. Once a musician knows a good portion of the most common chord progressions, scales and moves in their favorite genre of music, they’ll be “ear-trained” in that genre.

For guitarists, the key of A is a common key to start with. Here are the chords derived from the A scale: A, Bm, C#m, D, E7, F#m and G#dim. Set yourself up to do chord comparisons by using chords that set up the key in four-square phrasing first (loops of chord changes once per measure in four measures lengths, measures being four beats on one chord).

Play through the chords in the pattern you’ve chosen, setting the key up clearly by using lots of A, D and E7. Then have your guitar teacher help you to “audition” each chord by changing only one chord at the beginning of a new loop of 8 measures of the progression, beginning a new progression with just one substitution chord at the beginning of the loop. Audition chords borrowed from the parallel minor scale to find some really pretty or interesting ones. Like these: F, G, C  (borrowed from A minor). Prettier, but less common chords are the “add 9” chords. They work even better, but you might need some help finding them with your teacher.



You might also like…
Ear Training Exercises: Recognizing Intervals
Music Transcription: How to Transcribe Your Favorite Song
5 Things That Challenge Even the Best Guitar Newbies


Elk Grove music teacher Loren R.Loren R. teaches guitar, piano, bass guitar, music theory, and songwriting lessons to students of all ages in Elk Grove, CA. Loren joined the TakeLessons team in October 2012, with two music degrees and several years of teaching experience. His specialties include country, rock and classical styles. Learn more about Loren, or visit TakeLessons to find a teacher near you!


Photo by stephcarter


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