Why you should start training your musical ear

Why you should start training your musical ear the day you buy your first instrument

Ear training, like music theory, is a topic whose benefits are hidden by a boring name. Many musicians will neglect these two areas because they seem dull or abstract, when in fact they can unlock some of the most fun and creative aspects of being a musician.

When you start learning music it’s easy to get caught up in the specifics of your instrument. Whether you play piano, guitar, violin, trumpet, or any other instrument, there are fingerings and physical technique to learn, posture and breathing to think about, scales to practice and pieces to learn. You might join an ensemble or band and start preparing for performances. With all of that to think about, music theory and ear training tend to get left aside and treated as “optional extras” or advanced topics to perhaps cover one day later on.

I’d like to persuade you that ear training is something to be included in your musical training from day one. Not because you “should” or because it’s theoretically important, but because it has real practical benefit to you and (if you do it right) can have a huge positive impact on how enjoyable you will find learning music throughout the process.

What is ear training?

Ear training is the process of developing your ear for music. It takes many forms and covers many different areas, but it is essentially anything you do in order to have a “good ear for music”.

It has always been a core part of serious musicianship training, covered in every music degree course and conservatoire syllabus, and included in instrument exams, such as the “aural skills” section of ABRSM grades. However, it is often taught in a dry, abstract and tedious way, leaving students bored and frustrated. Often instructors fail to connect it with real musical tasks, which is the key to really appreciating what ear training can do for you.

Ear training is what lets you develop an “instinct” for music. We’ve all seen musicians who can play by ear freely and easily, improvise amazing solos, and create their own music seemingly effortlessly. Apart from a few rare exceptions, these musicians have worked hard to gain those abilities. The process they followed was ear training.

The most common form of ear training is doing exercises which teach you to recognise particular musical elements, such as notes and chords, by ear. You can then apply this to work out tunes and chord progressions and play songs by ear on your instrument. You can also use it to bring the music you imagine in your head (maybe a pop song you’re remembering, or a brand new composition you’ve dreamed up) out into the real world through your instrument.

Why start ear training?

Even as I described some of the benefits above you might have found yourself thinking “That sounds hard” or “Maybe later on”. I want to encourage you to squash those thoughts.

Ear training does not need to be difficult. It doesn’t require great knowledge of music theory. Even a little practice can go a long way. In fact it’s most effective when done in small regular doses, so you don’t need to commit a large amount of time to it.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that including some ear training in your regular music practice from the beginning can totally transform the kind of musician you become.

So the question really becomes: What kind of musician do you want to be?

Do you want to be a musician who is dependent on reading sheet music? Who can’t improvise music or play by ear? A musician who struggles to hear the difference between an acceptable performance and an excellent one? Who feels tightly bound to the things they’ve practiced in depth, and nervous to branch beyond that into new musical opportunities?

Or do you want to become a musician who is relaxed and confident? Who can boldly explore new musical activities wherever the opportunity arises. Who can pick up your instrument and play whatever is in your mind freely and easily.

You might have thought that the difference between these two types of musician was “talent” or having a “gift”. It isn’t. The choice is yours, and ear training can provide the path you need to become the type of musician you’ve dreamed of.

The sooner you start, the sooner you will see results, and it is easiest to integrate ear training into your musical training from the beginning, so that you can directly relate it to the theory and instrument skills you are learning along the way.

How to start ear training

Hopefully you’re starting to see how ear training could help you from the very beginning of learning music. But where to start?

Like music itself, ear training can seem like a vast and infinitely varied subject when you first start exploring it, which can easily cause you to feel overwhelmed. Don’t be intimidated! Everybody who has succeeded with ear training felt the same way to begin with.

The key to successful ear training is to begin with the end in mind. At Musical U we encourage our members to start from their “big picture vision” of the musician they want to become, and work back from there to determine what their training goals should be to develop the skills they will need. At Easy Ear Training we provide free resources and tutorials on a broad range of ear training topics and by exploring these you will be able to quickly get a feel for which areas are most important to you.

Some topics to consider are:
• Intervals and Melodies
• Chords and Chord Progressions
• Rhythm
• Audio Quality and Effects
• Singing in Tune
• Playing By Ear
• Improvisation

For a musician just starting out, the best place to begin your ear training is with your sense of relative pitch, identifying the notes you hear in music. This will in time let you play by ear and improvise easily. You can study interval recognition and then move on to chords and chord progressions.

The most common way to train your ears is with specially-designed exercises. Typically these are provided as an interactive app or simple MP3 tracks for you to listen to. The idea is to listen to examples and practice recognising them by ear, whether it’s intervals, chords, progressions, rhythm patterns, or other musical elements. Often lesson material will help to explain what you should be listening out for and how to keep making progress.

I would recommend the following three steps for anybody starting out in ear training:
1. Decide on your “big picture” goal: what kind of musician do you want to become?
2. Identify the areas of ear training that will help you reach that goal
3. Find suitable training resources to teach you those skills

As with everything in music, your plans are going to need to adapt along the way as you learn more and discover your own strengths and interests. So don’t worry too much about constructing a perfect fully-fledged plan for now.

The important thing is to make a start, as soon as possible. If you’ve bought your first instrument or taken your first music class, then you’re ready to begin ear training too. Developing a strong and versatile musical ear takes time but it is rewarding from the very beginning.

Give yourself the best chance of becoming the musician you’ve always dreamed of by starting your own ear training today.

About the author

Christopher Sutton is the founder and Director of Easy Ear Training and Musical U. He is passionate about helping amateur musicians reach their true potential by developing the "inner skills" of musicianship, including playing by ear, improvising and composing music. He lives in London with his wife, daughter and far too many instruments.

Related

JOIN THE DISCUSSION