Ear Training, an Introduction: the What, the Why, the How
December 4, 2018
#1 Why do ear training?
Ask a student or performer if they listen as they play, and the answer which they give, without much pause to think, is generally “yes”. Yet the ability to hear clearly while playing, and to understand what one is hearing, is the principal things that sets a good player apart from others. The good player does not only have a good technique, but they have as strong an ability to listen completely and objectively to the sounds they are making. In the hands of a master, technical matters are brought under the control of the ear.
It is a surprise to most musicians if you tell them that they are not really listening attentively when they play. That too much of what they consider listening is actually physical sensations generated in the muscles causing notes to sound. At the moment of an attack of a new note, there is often more tactile and kinaesthetic feeling going on than listening.
When the physical action stops but the note continues to sound, it is easier to focus purely on the sound. Ideally there is a way to how to isolate sound from any muscular feelings or other sensations than that of hearing.
There is a way for the ear alone, whether that of the pianist or a listener, to learn to identify and distinguish among the many relations into which notes can combine.
Each such relationship produces for us a quality, and it this quality that forms the basis of ear training.
Being a good musician means having a mastery over the medium in which music exists, I.E. sound. When possessed of such mastery, one can mold the medium of sound to one’s will.
No prior experience is needed to begin to develop the sensitivity of the “ear”.
#2 Sound is a quality.
The experience of sound is a quality and not a measurable quantity.
How notes combine into a single conscious experience is not a dividable into half steps or ticks of a clock. Being a quality, there is no way of describing the quality of sound using words. We must experience it. If we try to ‘describe’ it to someone else, it is useless unless the other person has also experienced it directly.
The sounds we hear may result from combining notes in some measurable way, but we do not “hear” these measurements. The quality of a chord, for example, is like a perfume. It impresses us directly and unmistakably. We do not need anything extra, such as the chemical makeup of the perfume, to fill ourselves with its aroma.
As I walk I may identity a certain scent in the air as that of a “rose”. But unless one has already experienced this aroma and then also learned to associate it with the same word that I use, it is of no use to say the word “rose” to another and expect that they will know what scent we are talking about.
Associating an aroma with a word does not alter the aroma in any way. We can study and examine the rose, but all we gain is knowledge (facts, quantitative measurements, etc.). But all the while the fragrance persists calmly in our consciousness apart from anything visual, descriptive or analytical.
It is easy to stray from just the quality. We are apt to substitute for it a symbol in the form of a name or an image.
A ‘rose expert’ can tell us while blindfolded what the name is of the specific type of rose they are smelling. And though an ‘ear training expert’ would be able to give separate names to different patterns of sounds, it is more important that we simply have the ability to recognize when sound qualities are the same, or just similar, or vary more considerably. Thus, while we could say: ah, that’s a perfect fifth sounding, or that’s a major chord in the first inversion, or those melody notes all belong to this or that scale, the important thing is that when you hear a perfect fifth and then a perfect forth, you can “smell” the difference. If we never heard of a ‘half step’ we would still be aware of the difference in quality.
Ear Training is most successful when you work with qualities; when you use your innate, rapid, intuitive faculty of directly perceiving even the most subtle differences in quality between one combination of notes and another. At first maybe we may only notice the most obvious differences, as between a chord and a melody. In the world of odor, this would be like only being able to tell difference in quality between the smell of a lilac and that of a rose. Later though we will be able to notice the difference in quality between various types of chords (various types of roses), and still later the subtlest differences between chords that arise from the intervals between the notes in the chord, their inversion, the number of notes they contain. Our ability to distinguish between similar qualities in sound gets finer and finer.
If we hear a fast melody, we can tell from its overall quality through time just how many notes were in it (without counting as we hear them).
Eventually we become like the rose expert and can detect slight variations in quality between two roses on neighboring bushes. We will be able to tell the difference between two chords that have the same root note, same ‘quality’ (major, minor…), and the same number of notes, whose only difference lies in the arrangement on the staves of where the root notes are, the thirds, and the fifths. We will be able to single just one note from the chord with our ears and say whether it is a root note, third, or fifth.
We can be just as expert with intervals, melodies, and any other abstract relation between pitches (what I call “Sonic Geometry”). We just want to avoid the temptation of applying some sort of musical ‘ruler’ to the sounds, by which we can measure the distance between two notes by a sense of their distance on a staff, along a piano keyboard, or along a violin string.
#3. Resolving ‘complex’ ear training abilities into an amalgam of simpler abilities.
In looking for a starting point for ear training, we might be tempted to start with something like : what is this chord that I just heard? However, this is already a fairly complex ability. It entails separate skills: is it a chord I’m hearing; how many notes are sounding; is it in root position or in an inversion; if I wanted to can I single note with my ear each individual note; can I tell what the intervals are between these notes; which of these notes are root notes, thirds, fifths, etc..
To come to realize that the original question involves an amalgam of simpler abilities, we can learn to ‘refract’ through a ‘musical prism’ the original ability to see if it resolves into simpler component. Nor should we be surprised if these simpler abilities, in turn, if each is put through another prism, do not resolve into even simpler abilities. All ear training questions ultimately boil down to: 1) which is higher in pitch of two notes? 2) which is longer in duration of two notes? 3) how many sounds just sounded? Then we can work our way backwards to our original question: what chord did I just hear?
#4. Ear training is fun to do when there are two people together.
If you do not have access to a computer program*, or to a class being offered locally, Ear Training can be easily practiced with the help of just one friend and a room with two pianos (one will do also but it is a bit more cumbersome logistically).
The two people go back and forth presenting “questions” or answering questions. The questions are always some combination of sounds. The answer is either given in words or by reproducing the sounds on the other instrument.
Some examples on the simpler side:
Play two notes in a row: ask which one was either higher in pitch or longer in duration. You can do something similar with three or more notes in a row (which was highest in pitch; which was longest in duration).
Play two or more notes at the same time: ask how many notes were sounding. Play two or more notes one after the row: ask how many notes sounded.
Play a series of notes, one at a time, from an agreed upon range. Have your partner try to match each one. This range can after a while be expanded when agreed upon. Later, let it be two simultaneous notes from an agreed upon range.
Agree that all the notes will be, for example, C-naturals, then play C-s in different ranges of the piano and have your partner match it in the correct octave.
Some examples of something with moderate difficulty:
Play examples of intervals (harmonic or melodic) but limited to only two possible answers (major third / minor third; perfect fourth / perfect fifth …). Your partner provides the name of each that you play. Later, there can be three possible correct answers (and eventually more).
Did the two chords just heard contain the same notes, or was one or more different (one being much harder than several).
The same principle of starting with two correct choices, then adding a third, fourth, etc.. can be applied to most ear training situations: distinguishing among types or aspects of chords, three-chord harmonic progressions, types of rhythms, etc.).
As things advance, and the recipes become very gradually more complex.
Here are some examples of things of harder difficulty:
Which steps of a common scale did you just hear and in what order? Or match the same notes (given the first note).
Was the chord in root position, first inversion or second inversion …
Listen to two chords: by how many half steps (and whether up or down) did the root notes move.
How many of the notes in one chord were also in the next chord.
Here is the scale of a particular key (play it one octave up and then down). Then play a series of chords. Ask on which scale step each is built. Complicating factors can be whether the chord is in root position or inversion; whether non-diatonic chords are allowed; whether altered steps of the scale can be used for root notes.**
* You are welcome to request a copy of the “Joe Bloom Ear Training Program” which runs on PC-s but unfortunately not on Macs.
** For a more complete list of ear training activities, just send me a request.