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!
Ear Training Exercises Using Pitches
Think you have perfect pitch? Take this test!
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
Ear Training Exercises Using Intervals
Here’s a cheat sheet for remembering a few of the essential 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 2nd: Jaws theme
– Minor 3rd: Smoke On the Water
– Minor 6th: The Entertainer
– Minor 7th: Star Trek theme
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
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:
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 for iOS ($6.99) – Explore more than 260 individual exercises covering intervals, chords, scales, relative pitch, and melody
» Relative Pitch Free Interval Ear Training for iOS (free) – Intended for beginners, this app trains and tests users on ascending intervals.
» 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
» Interval Ear Trainer via Musictheory.net