Improving Your Musical Ears

Listening Back

Being a musician requires a great number of skills. However, the aural component is by far the most prevalent. So, to perform at the highest levels, we must have good listening skills. Ultimately we need to hear, and understand, exactly what is happening around us. Only when we can do this can we respond in our most communicative and artistic way. This is why I suggest constant refinement of our musical “ears.”

In my opinion, singing and “playing by ear” the two strongest ways to strengthen, improve, expand, and refine our musical ears.


Even if you never plan to step in front of a microphone, singing is an essential tool for developing our musicianship. This is particularly true for those of us without frets. We don’t need a great singing voice, but we do need to be able to clearly audiate (i.e. hear in our mind) what we want to come out of our instrument. Singing is a simple and efficient way to ensure that what we hear in our mind is clear, distinct, and accurate. It’s why all formal music study includes Sight Singing.

Here are a few starter ideas on how to incorporate this into your practice:

  1. If this is all new, start by singing with recordings. Sing the vocal parts, but also sing the other parts
  2. Sing when you play your scales. Start by singing the notes you are playing. Slowly graduate to singing intervals. I suggest starting by singing a diatonic third above the pitch you are playing.
  3. Try singing the melody to a song while you play the bass line. Start without words if you need to.
  4. When you improvising, sing what you are playing.
  5. When you are away from the bass, try singing a melody, or your bassline, or whatever, acapella. This will test your internal ear, and knowledge of intervals, very well.
  6. Pick up the sheet music to a simple melody. Attempt to sing it “at sight.” Check yourself on a fixed pitch instrument.

Playing by Ear

Playing by ear is a necessary skill for jazz, rock, folk and most non-classical musicians. However, classical musicians can benefit from this type of playing as well. I suggest honing this skill no matter what genre of music you specialize in.

  1. Learn songs strictly by ear, on a regular basis, with no sheet music
  2. Find a radio station that plays a style you are unfamiliar with and try to learn the tunes by ear, as they pass by. One shot only, no rewinding or playing a second time.
    • Can you nail the changes the first time through?
    • What about the Melody?
    • Can you come up with a harmony or countermelody?
    • Can you solo over the changes?
    • The more unfamiliar the style, the greater the challenge
  3. Do some transcriptions strictly by ear, at full speed.
    • “Slow downer” programs can be very helpful when you first start learning music from recordings. Ultimately, however, you want to be able to know what you are hearing in “real time.” One way to get to that point is to transcribe at the original speed. Start with some simple solos, or even melodies, and learn them without the aid of technology.
    • With the abundance of transcriptions available in sheet music form, it is tempting to jump right to those. Your musical knowledge will benefit from doing it strictly by ear. You can always check your work against a published transcription by someone else.

Knowing precisely what you are hearing, and how to replicate it on your instrument, is a vital skill for a musician. Work on your singing and your ear playing, and your musicianship will grow.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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Leave a Reply to jesse Cancel reply

  1. Would whistling be a good substitute for singing?

    • jesse

      jo bob check out toots thielemans on gitare , the whisler and his gitar or something – or find bluessette by toots thielemans on gitare – not harmonica

  2. Rob

    I’ve never had any luck with hum/singing along. I can’t get through past the 3rd of a scale in tune.

  3. jesse

    where there blogs or magazines like this 10years ago ?
    amazing insight on truth

  4. jesse

    jo bob check out toots thielemans on gitare , the whisler and his gitar or something – or find bluessette by toots thielemans on gitare – not harmonica

  5. I’m working on learning to play by ear, but if I have to sing then I might as well just pack up my bass and sell it because I simply cannot carry a tune. I can hear songs perfectly well in my head, but something goes terribly wrong when I try to get them to come out of my mouth. It’s baffling, because I can hear when my bass is out of tune and I can sing reasonably well when singing next to someone singing the exact same part so I’m clearly not tone deaf, but I couldn’t sing a harmony if you held a gun to my head.

  6. I’ve always played by ear. played along with the radio ( no do overs!) sing the bass line to everything. sing the guitar parts, keyboard parts, etc. but I’ve never been able to sing and play Bass at the same time. I just can’t sing a different note than I am playing. but I can sing and strum chords on a 6-string !.

  7. William

    I learned how to play bass by listening to a jazz/RB radio station in LA and trying to play along.