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Ear Training and the iTunes Game

ShuffleAs a musician, our greatest tool is our ears. Our job within a musical context is to listen, and quite frankly, to play notes that sound good. As a bass player, we need to be on our toes and quickly decipher the bass line and at the very least, the root notes of the chords that are being played.

There are tons of great ear training devices out there, from music theory websites to iPhone apps, but ultimately, there’s no substitute for learning tunes by ear. These tools will help you sharpen your skills in identifying chords or intervals, so they’re excellent for ear training and provide immediate feedback, but they are a very specified and somewhat “academic” way of practicing.

Despite the importance of these exercises, a crucial element to ear training is context. If you can identify intervals all day long but can’t hear what is going on in a song, you need to refocus some of your practicing.

Hearing and identifying an isolated chord is an essential skill, but hearing how the chord functions in a chord progression is just as important. We must learn how to listen to what the chord is doing, where it is leading, how it feels within the song, and what our options are in terms of creating a line that moves from one chord to another.

I’ve found that the best way to practice this skill is to simply learn tunes by ear. No tab, no notation… just listening. Pick a tune, listen to the bass line, to the chord progression, to what the other instruments are playing, and try to play along. Learn how to identify the key of the song based on the chord progression and try to “think in numbers” (ie: the I chord, the IV chord, the minor vi chord, etc.).

The more you do this, the more you’ll recognize similarities or musical tendencies. You’ll also become better equipped to identify chord progressions when you’re put on the spot in a jamming situation or if you need to learn 20 tunes in two days to sub for a cover band gig.

One of my favorite ways of practicing ear training is using what I call “the iTunes Game.” Here are the rules:

  1. Set iTunes to “Shuffle” and make sure you’re listening to music on appropriate speakers or headphones. You want to be able to hear the whole sonic spectrum, so be aware of how distinctive the instruments are through your listening medium. (Listening on your laptop’s built-in speakers will create a problem, since the bass will be fairly inaudible).
  2. With your bass in hand, press play and listen to whatever song comes on.
  3. Try to play along with the song with little or no rewinding.
  4. Do your best to identify the “key notes,” such as the roots of the chords and the key of the song. Discover the chord progression for the different parts of the song (verse, chorus, bridge, outro, etc.)
  5. Do your best to play along with the entire song on your first or second go around.
  6. Don’t worry about figuring out every note of the bass line, unless that is the crux of the song, but do try to catch the “essential elements” of the line and the movement within the song.
  7. Try to pick up on interesting or surprising elements of the song, such as a key change, a bridge with an uneven number of bars, or a chord substitution that you didn’t expect.
  8. When the song is over, another one will come on, so get ready to do it again.
  9. You can skip a song if it’s totally off the charts and not applicable to the game (I tend to skip through classical music… The London Symphony Orchestra performing Stravinsky is beautiful to listen to, but not ideal in this situation). You can essentially make the game as simple or as difficult as you wish by creating your own “skip this song” criteria.
  10. Try to set a time limit, such as a half hour, so that you don’t spend all evening doing this (it can be addicting).

The game works best with “songs,” or music within the pop, rock, blues, country, or other radio genres. Therefore, you can augment the game by creating a “genius” playlist based off of a certain song or genre. If you’re new this kind of ear training, try picking a blues or classic rock tune and create a genius playlist from that. Chances are, most of the songs that come up will have a similar chord progression but you might get a couple of doozies thrown in.

Depending upon how developed your ears are, it make take awhile before you get to the point where you can play along with the songs in real time or with little rewind. If you’re just beginning your ear-training journey, then perhaps focusing on just one song or one part of a song is more appropriate for your practice session. In that situation, being able to play this game is a great thing to aspire to.

In addition to the ear-training element of the game, I’ve found that the benefits go way beyond learning how to hear the I-V-vi-IV chord progression in popular songs. You may find that one of the songs you’ve learned in this game will pop up in a playing situation. Hopefully you’ll be able to recall certain aspects of a tune, simply because you’ve listened to it before and briefly played your way through it. Although the goal of this game is not to learn the tune, you will become familiar with the song and it will, in some way, shape or form be stored in your mental vault.

This is also a great way to discover music in your library that you may never have listened to or haven’t heard in a while.

Remember that every player has special powers and ear training is one of them. Having “big ears” is as much of a skill as sight reading, speed or slapping, and it requires time, repetition and sonic familiarity. If ear training is something you need to work on, prepare to be frustrated when you can’t get something right away and remember that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. You’ll be excited and empowered when you do figure out a difficult bass line or progression, so keep at it!

I’d love to hear your tricks for ear training! Please share them in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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