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Part 1

how to practice your musical ear to improve as an overall musician

In this post (part one of a quite extensive, two-part dive into this subject) I’ll talk about the concept of the “musical ear” and how training it by regularly performing so called “ear training” exercises benefits your overall understanding of music and your ability to play by ear.

EAR TRAINING
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF EAR TRAINING AND IS IT FOR YOU (HOW TO CHECK IF YOU’RE “TONE DEAF”)

Ear training is the concept of practicing your “musical ear” to improve your ability to recognize certain things in music – so called musical “colors” – like for instance whether a chord is major or minor, whether or not it has any extensions (and if yes: which) and also -most beneficially- which intervals are being played.

Intervals

An interval in music is simply the distance between two notes.

Being able to recognize intervals within a piece of music is particularly beneficial if you want to copy a piece by ear. Not only does it enable you to sing the melodies (we in fact use this very skill if we copy melodic lines of a song by singing them; the fact that 9 out of 10 people are able to recognize and imitate the vocal line of a tune, indicates that most people are in fact already quite proficient in recognizing and repeating intervals before any training) but more significantly, being able to use the skill of interval recognition to define bass changes, is the very first step in figuring out the harmonic structure -the chord progression- of a song.

The first step is to remember

Important to realize here, is that although you might not instantly be able to correctly name every interval, 90% of the population (fair chance this includes you) is in fact able to recognize and repeat.

Using our basic auditory capabilities, a large part of the population is perfectly capable of repeating the melody of a song by singing it, right? Then there’s the part of the population that simply aren’t stellar vocalists and -although they know the tune and can re-play it in their heads- just haven’t gotten the vocal control to intone the notes they intend to with their voices. This part of the population actually just stumbles upon the biggest bump/obstacle for “playing by ear” a little sooner than the rest of us that hasn’t quite aced this skill: actually playing it.

However, being able to remember and re-play music in your mind, is in fact the very first step in being able to recognize intervals and play by ear.

From the mind to the instrument

Singers “play” the instrument “voice.” Because of the fact that they’re in fact one with their instrument AND have been “playing” it all their life, blabbering, talking and screaming with it, they have a major advantage over those of us that chose another axe for executing our music with – they can instantly “find” every tone they want to play.

Even those of us that aren’t real singers, but can simply hum or imitate a melody with their voice (or even whistle it) already know that when you “know” a tone -if you’re able to “think” / “hear” / “play” it in your mind- you can also re-produce it. IF you how to find it.

Many people can control their vocal chords well enough to at least come close to the tone they hear in their mind and have therefore experienced the advantage in re-producing tones that vocalists have over other instrumentalists. You don’t have to “aim and hit,” you just feel and do, right?
(if you are not one of those people and really can’t sing the tone you intend to, don’t worry just stick to the idea of being able to “hear” / “re-play” the note in your mind, or -if this too is something you’re uncertain of- go to the “Tone Deaf Check” below)

The real tricky part is to execute a tone from your mind on an instrument that you can touch (don’t get smart on me by saying that with the right set of knives, you can also touch the vocal chords). How can you “feel” where that tone is on for instance, a piano?

PLAYING “BY EAR”

Playing by ear actually just means being able to translate that what you hear in your head, to the correct notes on your instrument.

When we want to re-produce (a) note(s) that we hear on a keyboard, we have to press the correct key(s). So how do you know where those notes are situated exactly?
How do you get to “feeling” which one to play?

Glad you asked. But first, the tone deaf check.

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Playing by Ear means knowing which chord to say when. #musicisalanguage


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Tone Deaf Check

If you really suspect you’re in the 2 – 5% of the population that is “tone deaf,” here’s what you can do to check it.
(you’ll need a buddy that you know isn’t tone-deaf – just ask someone that can sing, or is “musical” in any other way – and a recorder/voice memo app on your phone if you don’t have access to those, check *alternative below):

  • Put on-, play- or ask somebody to sing a melody. It can be a short phrase of about 5-10 notes.
  • Take your phone and open a “recorder” or “voice memo” app.
  • Repeat the melody as it was just presented to you by singing it and record your try.
  • SIDE NOTE: if you know you can’t sing -I’m not talking about being a world class vocalist, I mean you aren’t able to imitate and produce the tone you intend to- maybe try whistling? If you can’t do that either, go to alternative below*
  • Listen to the recording.
  • Did you sing/whistle the correct notes? (Again note that I’m not asking if you sounded like Beyonce, I’m simply referring to whether or not you regurgitated the correct notes, or came very close to them. It’s about your INTENDED notes being the correct ones -> that you heard and remembered the original melody correctly)
  • Let your musical buddy double check.
  • Three options:
    1. Yes: Great, you’re not tone deaf!
    2. No: Are you yourself able to hear that your try wasn’t not correct and can you re-play the correct melody in your head? (you’re allowed to take another listen to the original example; can you “re-sing” it in your mind?) -> You’re probably not tone deaf, but just don’t have a trained voice and can’t whistle either (sorry! :D). Go to alternative below.*
    3. No: Do you feel you recorded the correct melody, but your buddy had to tell you that it wasn’t (again: it’s okay if a few notes are off and it’s not stellar-vocalist quality, it just has to be close. However, if it wasn’t even close, but you thought it was:) -> unfortunately, you’re probably tone deaf. Enjoy listening to music and / or playing from sheets as much as you can, but playing by ear is going to get difficult for you.

*Alternative / double check

In the audio examples below you’ll hear me play a melody and then repeat it. I’ll do this with three different melodies.

  • Play the audio example, melody 1 & it’s “repetition.” and STOP the audio sample.
  • Write down whether or not you thought the repeated version was the same melody as the first?
  • Repeat with melodies 2 & 3.
  • Check the answers below.
  • If you had only 1 wrong or no wrong answers: You’re not tone deaf!

EXAMPLE 1
Original:


Replay (is it the same?):


EXAMPLE 2
Original:


Replay:


EXAMPLE 3
Original:


Replay:

Answers at the bottom of this post

Great, now that we got that out of the way, if you’re still with me, let’s dive in deeper into how we can use this to our advantage.

Deconstructing the skill

I’m going to be up-front with you here. If you’re looking to instantly play a note, melody, chord or even poly-chord, without any reference (get to that in a sec); when it’s presented to you merely on sound, this is an end stage that -if you don’t have perfect pitch, a skill that is very rare and often confused simply with “good/trained ears”- is going to take quite a while to develop.

Not to discourage you, but to illustrate nevertheless: I’ve always been told my ears are very good and I can easily copy anything, depending on the complexity of the music, within “instant” – 10 seconds after I hear it.

I’ve been playing and improving my ears for about 15 years now, yet I still can’t do what I just described – that is, without any reference instantly hit all the correct notes. To figure out something by ear, I have to have reference and also be allowed to trial and error a bit when figuring out a tune.

However, the fact that I can do what most people are actually looking to be able to when they want to be able to “play by ear,” is promising. We can in fact deconstruct the path to gaining that skill in a way, breaking it down into steps that will not only take us to that seemingly far away promised land of playing by ear gradually and with easy to grasp bite-sized chunks, but will also be super efficient and valuable in and of themselves, greatly improving upon your musicality with every step you take.

In other words: by getting better at it, you’ll already actually be able and executing; “playing by ear” from the very start. Here’s how it’s broken down globally:

  • 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)

As per indicated, with a voice, there’s no pressing, hitting, strumming or plucking the right key, string or whatever, that re-produces the note in your head. You simply “feel” and “do.”

This presents the vocalists with another advantage: they don’t actually need to know the name and “look” of the note (where it’s situated), to find and play it.

On any other instrument though, this -unfortunately, or maybe not- is necessary. At least at the beginning of this “earie” journey.
It’s important to realize that to be able to find the designated note(s) we have to combine theoretical knowledge, with hearing.

In the world of playing by ear, one cannot live without the other. You need to know what you are dealing with – what it actually IS that you hear – in a theoretical explanation.
This will allow us to break down and re-build the skill with a profound understanding.

In that sense “playing by ear,” which is often confused with the end result of “perfect pitch,” (on a side note: am I saying you can “learn” perfect pitch? Definitely.) can be emulated, cheated into if you will, from a very early stage of getting better at it.

The first step to this is where identifying intervals comes into play.

Next post I’ll tell you all about those. How you can practice them, use them and how being able to recognize them relates closely to the foundation of understanding music.

Answers Tone Deaf alternative check: 1 – not same (last note differs); 2 – not same (first note differs); 3 – same


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