Ask Damian Erskine: Ear Training

Q: I’d like to explore some ear training to improve my ability to hear intervallic relationships. Any good ideas?

A: Simply put, ear training is exactly that: better training your ears to understand what you’re hearing.

I find transcription to be the most entertaining way to develop my ears. I like to listen to what I want to transcribe over and over again until I can sing the part I’m transcribing (not that I sing in tune, but it’s important to really have the melodies or lines internalized in order to accurately represent them on paper).

Once I can sing it, I’ll take it a measure or two at a time and try and play it on my bass, constantly referencing the actual track and correcting myself. If a passage is too fast to hear well, I will use software to slow a passage down. (My favorites are either the Pro version of Quicktime, or a program called “Transcribe”. I also love “Capo” for the iPhone and iPad).

I’ll often create a rough draft of the passage on paper as I go, not worrying too much about bar lines and cleanliness, and will go back afterwards and make a clean version using Sibelius.

There are a number of other ways to work on ear training, though.

Sight singing is a wonderful way to internalize the sound of different intervals. For this, you can pull up a melody in the real book and sing along with yourself playing the melody in unison (voice and instrument). Or you can read along with a version of the tune you like and sing the melody while reading it. You can also simply sit with your instrument and practice singing different intervals while you play them.

Another method is to practice playing different chords on the piano, and practice singing each individual note of the chord.

Learning the intervals inherent to common harmonic phrases is a great tool as well (for example, happy birthday… Root-Maj 2nd, root, up a 4th, down a minor 2nd, etc…). You can do this with licks that you hear often and like.

I’ve found that learning the sound of any given shape on my fretboard can be very helpful when transcribing, when you hear a lick and you just know what it is already. That feels great! But this is all especially important when playing actual music with people. If you’re jamming and they modulate up a minor 3rd, will you be able to find your place again within a few beats? A few bars? At all?

Learn to hear what chord qualities sound like (Major vs minor, for example).

I sometimes like to simply sit and try and sing a cool bass line and then play it on the bass. Ideally, I’d be able to find the line pretty darn quickly! This can be a nice way to break us out of our normal patterns and lines when playing, too. Let your voice and the melodies in your head guide what you play. Try singing along with yourself when you play!

I find it interesting to try and match my voice to my bass playing for a while and then reverse it, so I’m now singing and trying to play along. They are usually two very different things.

As with anything, we learn by doing and paying attention to both our successes and our mistakes. Find something that’s fun for yourself and you’ll actually enjoy the process and pay better attention to it.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Will Cardinal

    I took ear training at V.I.U. Jazz program, got pretty good marks! For me it was hearing piano play intervals and write them down. Maj/min 3rds and 7ths, nat, & #9’s, and the dreaded tritone!!! A couple of weeks of practice will hone your ears like mad!

  2. Russ N.

    Would you suggest buying Guitar Pro 6 or Silebius?

  3. Samuel

    Here is a pretty good tool too, I used it in school and such:

    Also, you can try harmonizing with what your playing or hearing.

  4. I’ve been using with my students for years. It’s free – check it out.