Ear Training | Part 2 – Getting Practical

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This is part 2 of a more extensive dive into the subject of the musical ear – how ear training help you develop the auditory side of the elusive skill of playing by ear

Hi Everybody! How are you guys doing?

In this second half of my explanation on the subject of “playing by ear” and how ear training can help you develop this skill, I’ll get more into the root of what “playing by ear” actually means – how it works – and we’ll get practical, walking through the actual steps to execute and to improve.

Side Note: please make sure you’ve read part 1 before diving into this one. These posts will make the most sense as a whole.


Let’s pick it up where we left off – the deconstruction of the concept of playing by ear and how to practice each of those aspects:

  • Identifying notes – recognizing intervals.
  • Using the interval to identify Bass progressions (and melodies)
  • Identifying gender – recognizing chords.
  • Matching up bass + chord.
  • Recognising and adding extensions
  • (Moving within key, or out of key)

Identifying intervals.
Reference – The Very First Step

When someone is able to tell you which note you’re playing, without simply trying to match up the correct one by pressing each note on the keyboard separately until he’s found the one that matches, it’s because he can reference it to another note (either played before, or one that is already in his mind) and identify the interval.

The interval is the distance between the two notes – the referential one and the one that is being asked. Like for instance, when you’d play a “melody” existing of two notes – moving from “c” to “f” – someone that has done some ear training might recognize this interval as being a fourth.

Now, if you’d tell him the first note was a “c,” he could tell you the second one is an “f,” without touching or looking at an instrument.

There’s two sides to this skill of being able to identify and correctly name the “f” here.

1. Color – Recognizing intervals by sound.

Musical colors are feelings; specific aural flavors if you will, that we can learn to recognize.

Like the various different chordal “colors” in music – like the basic difference between minor – major, augmented, diminished and the various extensions – intervals also have colors. In fact, all those mentioned chordal colors can be led back to- and are in fact formed by the different colors that the intervals that exist within these chords have.

Each interval has its own specific aural color. A quarter always sounds like a quarter, no matter which tone it starts on (in which key it is being played); a sixth always sounds like a sixth etc.

Being able to recognize this, “matching up” the specific flavor, color, to the interval is the first step that will get you to identifying for example the “f” in the example above.
Namely, if you can identify the “taste” of the quarter, and someone plays a quarter – there you are: you know we’re dealing with a quarter!

However, which quarter? And also, what exactly is a quarter?

There’s many different optional ways to get to the answer to that first question, depending on the musical situation, but let’s stick to the most basic and obvious first step here (one that you’ll be able to practice): you’re being told that the first note played was a “c” – if you recognize a quarter, then you know the correct answer is to name the quarter of “c.”

Which brings us to the second question and the second half of the skill:

2. Knowing intervals – the theoretical side.

Obviously, if you want to get practical with ear training, it’s not enough to only recognize the color. How can you tell a quarter from “c” if you don’t actually know what a quarter is?

As mentioned, intervals are universal building blocks in music, meaning they are the same in every form (key) they occur in. A quarter is always the same distance of 5 half steps and like this, every interval has it’s own set distance.

If we know this, and we’re told the first note played was a “c,” AND have aurally identified the interval as being a quarter, we can thus identify the second note as 5 half steps above “c” -> an “f.”

If you’d like to learn exactly how intervals are built, how they work and can be used in music, it’s all explained thoroughly in chapter / lesson 2.7 of Hack the Piano.

Getting practical.

Obviously, one might start thinking about exploring the possibilities of this skill for recognizing and copying melody lines.

For instance, say after that “f” a “b-flat” is played, another quarter. You’d be able to recognize that quarter again, identifying the distance as a quarter from the “f” that was just played and is now in your mind as the last referential note and use your theoretical knowledge to identify the “b-flat” too, right? You’d have figured out a total three note melody of “c,” “f,” “b-flat.”

Or, say with the first example “c” – “f” you were not told the first note “c.”

However, beforehand you just got another interval presented “d” – “g,” (identified that as a quarter too) and before we even started with the “c” – “f” example, you still had the sound of that last note “g” in your mind. This would have allowed you to use that as a referential note to identify the “c” as the quarter of “g,” enabling you to identify both the “c” AND the “f!”

See where this is going? This way you could figure out entire melody lines, interval by interval. Which is great, but let’s not get carried away. There is something even more valuable when we expound upon a derivative of this.

Being able to recognise intervals “in a row” to figure out melodies is very cool and handy. But to be honest, quickly being able to identify all the different intervals between the different notes in a fast melody can be quite challenging – unless it’s not challenging because the melody is just that simple (often the case in nowaday pop-music) in which case it’s just plain lame to actually play that melody on the piano (I actually meant to say “not very challenging,” or “not very engaging,” maybe)

However, remember when in the first half of this post, I told you that you would already be able to make good use of each individual step in the deconstructing of playing by ear?

So let’s take it down a notch and make this more tangible with the first -and quite possibly the most valuable- step: identifying bass changes.

Bass changes.

Bass notes -especially when we’re talking about the main root note of the chords they are supporting- tend to change much slower than melody notes.

This means you have more time and lesser notes to identify.

As Piano Hackers or longer followers of me already know: the bass defines the harmony. In short, this means that when you’re able to identify the bass – the root of the chord, you’re only one step away from being able to tell which chord(s) is (are) being played.

The trick works the same, but now using your ears to identify the intervals that the bass plays.

Side note: when the bass plays more than just the root, the root feels very strongly like the “home” note of the musical carpet (harmony, chord) that is sounding at that moment. 

Matching up Bass + Chord – Identifying gender / quality

After you’ve identified the bass changes – telling you the basis (the roots) of the actual chord progression, the next step is just to match up the (right hand) chords to each of those bass notes you’ve found.

This might sound difficult, but actually when you’ve already found the root – assuming that you know how to build and play chords – there’s just the question of “what kind of chord” it is.
There’s just 4 options there: major, minor, augmented or diminished.
These are “qualities” or “genders” (gender actually refers only to major and/or minor) that you can also do ear training exercises for and become able to identify by ear.
Even if you’re not quite proficient in recognizing these chord-qualities/genders (yet), since there’s just 4 options -of which two are highly less likely- trial and error, hit and miss to match up correctly is also a valid piece of cake when you are just starting out- in fact training your ears too.

Do this with all root bass notes of your tune of choice and you’ve figured out a songs chord progression all by yourself, by ear. How cool is that!?

Adding extensions / color tones.

The final step would be listen for possible extensions.

Extensions, are the flavor tones to the chords. I’ve written much about them already and you can also learn all everything about those in Hack the Piano and Advanced Piano Hacks – but in short what’s relevant for now is:

  1. Yes you can also do ear training to start recognizing these.
  2. If you’re not yet there (or even if you are already playing them, but are just starting out with this whole playing by ear stuff): they’re easily left out. Yes the sound will differ slightly, but if the actual chord played is an Cadd9 and you identify the “c” bass, the major triad, but can’t figure out the add9 extension – just play C and you’re fine.
    Start with the earlier steps to not get overwhelmed. If you’re beginning to get a hang of that, ear training the extensions are your next move.

So all in all, after knowing your chords and intervals (the theoretical side) the “by ear” part is a matter of recognizing intervals, colors and chord qualities.

How to train ears.

Which brings us to the real question: how exactly do you train your ears to recognize intervals, colors and chord qualities?

Well, in fact it goes quite a lot like I explained in the “c” – “f” example: you get an interval presented (played on an instrument or sung by your teach or buddy) and you try to recognize it.

Either the first note gets told (or you’re asked to define it from your last referential note) and you identify and name the second one, or you’re just asked to identify the interval, which is the actual aural part of the equation, as explained.

As I mentioned, each interval has its own flavor (color). The best thing to start with is to anchor or encode (to “link”) each interval to an interval that you already recognize – intervals that occur in (preferably start with) tunes you know.

“Somewhere over the Rainbow” for instance, starts with an octave (some-where).
If you link the sound, the flavor of this tune’s first two notes to the interval of an octave, each time you hear an octave, you have something to “compare it to.” This will help you to start recognizing the octave interval.
I’ve created a list of well known “anchor tunes” for all major intervals, which you can get here:
or find within the complimentary handout download for the first ear training session in the Couturians’ Lounge.

Ear training to improve your recognition of chord qualities: simply start with just a set of random major / minor chords, to train becoming more proficient in recognizing this most basic difference between the more happy, uplifting, cheerful or “regular” sound of major vs. the more sad, melancholic or dark sound of minor.

To make it more difficult, add in the dim and aug – this would be “level 2” so to speak.

Finally, start adding some extensions to the chords. Maybe two or three different ones (I suggest starting “low” 2’s 4ths’s etc.) and combine them with the set of options that you already had (major, minor, augmented, dimished)

Keep adding more challenging extensions, even in combination with each other to keep taking it to the next level.

You can do this with a buddy (that knows his intervals) or a teacher or with any of the many options available online.

Or if you don’t have a buddy, you can have me as your buddy/teacher, by following the ear-training sessions that are included for our Premium Members in the brand new Couturians’ Lounge.

Thanks for sticking with me to the very end of this extensive post!

I’ve edited and removed it quite a bit already to not make it even longer, which I really hope didn’t effect the clarity and quality too much.

If you miss stuff, wish to have more clarification or think there’s things that are missing and should be added, please let me know by leaving a comment or getting in touch any other known way 🙂

I might very well write a few more posts on this subject.

Cheers, Coen.