Illustration: Bill Evans
Have you ever found yourself struggling to learn music from notation or tablature, or gotten frustrated reading sheet music that just didn’t sound right? If you said yes, then you might benefit from working on a bit of rudimentary ear training. Whatever your experience level, I have a few tips that will set you on a direct path to being able to play your favorite pieces without relying on sheet music. You’ll soon discover the flexibility and spontaneity of learning music by ear, ultimately allowing you to play and interact with other musicians in the moment.
But first, a few ground rules: Commit to working on a little bit of ear training daily, which will bring you significant gains in time. Practice active (versus passive) listening whenever possible and get in the habit of singing along with your favorite music. Pay attention to the form, meter, and patterns in a piece, and what devices the musicians use to hold your interest.
As with anything new, it’s important to approach ear training with curiosity and an open mind. Notice which tasks are easy or diﬃcult for you, so you can focus your eﬀorts on where you need the most improvement, but don’t spend time judging yourself for the things you haven’t learned yet. That wastes precious brain power you could otherwise use in strengthening your ears.
Break It All Down
If you’re brand new to ear training, it’s best to begin with the very basics and break things down into tiny pieces. I often start out my students with an exercise where they practice thinking about the relationship between two notes. There’s no pressure to get the right answer; the point is to practice listening and evaluate what you hear. This drill is most fun when you do it with a musician friend, teacher, or practice buddy.
Start out by both playing an agreed-on first note, say the C on string 2, fret 1, then have your partner play a different note without naming it. Your job is to decide if that mystery note is higher or lower than the C, and by a little or a lot. Once you’ve made your assessment, have your partner identify the note. Then, you and your partner can practice playing that pitch and C so you hear the interval several more time times. Repeat this exercise until you can more easily evaluate what you hear, and begin to identify and play the notes on your guitar.
Focus On Rhythm
Rather than listening for chords, harmonies, and melodies all at the same time, try an exercise where you listen and repeat only the rhythms. This is most helpful with a teacher or musical partner and a metronome. Start at a medium tempo, agree on a meter, and have your partner play one measure’s worth of rhythm—whether four quarter notes in 4/4 or something more complex—on a single pitch. Then, repeat the rhythm on your instrument. Try trading call-and-response patterns without missing a beat, and work on processing and repeating diﬀerent rhythms in real time. This helps you practice focus, listening, and responding without all the additional distractions of a full piece of music.
Practice Hearing Within A Range
A great companion to the previous exercise is one where you focus on two or more pitches in a sequence and leave out the rhythmic information. Have a buddy play two pitches within a specific range—for example, any two notes between C and the G above that—then see if you can play back the same two pitches on your guitar. They can repeat the sequence as many times as needed for you to figure out what it is, then once you have, play it together while singing the note names. Continue with more two-note sequences within the same parameters for ten to 20 minutes, or until your ears are tired. Once you can listen and repeat two pitches in a sequence without hesitation, try identifying three, four, five, or even more pitches in a row.
Combine And Customize Exercises
If you commit to doing a rhythm exercise and a pitch exercise every day, over the weeks and months you will begin to see noticeable improvement. When you’re able to repeat more complicated rhythmic patterns, and you can play back a sequence of up to eight pitches in a row, it will be time to combine the rhythmic and pitch information and try listening to and repeating back simple melodic phrases. You can then create a whole new round of exercises based on the music you love, and the creative ground you hope to cover in the future.
Each of these exercises can be adjusted to varying levels of diﬃculty, and ideally you will expand them as your capacity to hear and play music grows. As you develop your ear training skills, try to maintain a level of diﬃculty for yourself that is challenging, but not so overwhelming that you want to give up and quit doing it altogether.
Of course, every musician is unique and shows up with a diﬀerent combination of skills, challenges, and experiences. If an exercise doesn’t feel right, adjust it until it works for you. This is the groundwork that you can build on for a more complex understanding of chords, harmonies, improvisation, and so much more.
Lissa Schneckenburger is a fiddler, singer, and music teacher based in Brattleboro, Vermont. Her Learning by Ear video course is a 14-part series that students can start at any time, available for all instruments and levels.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.