What is Ear Training skills?
When vocalist talk about ear, they don’t mean the sense organ itself so much as the brain’s ability to perceive, distinguish, and understand what the ear has heard. The term ear training refers to teaching vocalists to recognize information about notes and chords just by hearing them.
A few people have what is called perfect pitch or absolute pitch. These people, when they hear music, can tell you exactly what they are hearing: the G above middle C, for example, or the first inversion of an F minor chord. A few Vocalists with particularly perceptive ears can even tell you that a piano is tuned a few cents higher than the one that they play at home. This is an unusual skill that even most trained musicians do not have, and research seems to suggest that if you don’t have it at a very early age, you cannot develop it. (For more on this subject, you will have to search for our articles on music filter.
However, most singers can be trained to recognize relative pitch. In other words, if you play two notes, they can tell you that one of them is a major third higher than the other. If you play four chords in a row, they can tell you that you played a tonic-subdominant-dominant seventh-tonic (I-IV-V7-I) chord progression.
Fortunately, having relative pitch is good enough, and for many singers may even be more useful than perfect pitch, because of the way Western music is conceived. Since all major keys are so similar, a piece in a major key will sound almost exactly the same whether you play it in C major or D major. The thing that matters is not what note you start on, but how all the notes are related to each other and to the “home” note (the tonic) of the key. If someone really wants the piece to be in a different key (because it’s easier to sing or play in that key, or just because they want it to sound higher or lower), the whole thing can be transposed, but the only difference that would make (in the sound) is that the entire piece will sound higher or lower. Most listeners would not even notice the difference, unless you played it in both keys, one right after the other.Note
All minor keys are also heard by most listeners as interchangeable, but there are important differences between major keys and minor keys. In fact, the differences in sound between a major key and a minor key is one of the first differences that a singer should be able to hear. If you would like to see whether your “ear” can recognize the difference between major and minor keys, please try the listening exercise in Major Keys and Scales.
So, you often don’t need to know exactly what notes or chords are being played. Simply having an ear well-trained in “relative pitch” is extremely useful in many ways. Guitar and piano players can figure out chord progressions just by listening to them, and then play the progressions in their favorite keys. Other instrumentalists can play a favorite tune without a written copy of it, just by knowing what the interval to the next note must be. Composers and music arrangers can jot down a piece of music without having to “pick it out” on an instrument to find the notes and chords they want. And of course, ear training is crucial to any singers who wants to sing jazz or any type of improvisation. Given a well-trained “ear”, any musical idea that you “hear” in your head, you can sing. And ear training is also crucial for those interested in music theory, musicology, or just being able to write down a tune accurately.
As with all other musical skills, there are many different levels and kinds of proficiency. One singer may be very good at “singing by ear”, but may not even read music and cannot name intervals or write the music down. Another may be very good at “taking dictation” (writing down the music they hear), and yet feel unable to do jazz improvisation. As always, the key is to practice the particular skills that you want to develop.
Ear Training Skills
This is the most basic ear training skill, crucial to being able to sing music that people will want to hear.
- At the beginner level, work with a skilled singer who can teach you how to tune your voice and help you identify and fix tuning problems.
- Sing with other musicians often. (Singing along with recordings does not teach good tuning skills.) Don’t just tune at the beginning of rehearsals and performances. Listen at all times and be ready to retune any note whenever necessary.
- Spend as much time as necessary tuning whenever you sing. Do not (knowingly) practice while out of tune; if you do, it will slow down your ear training tremendously. Whenever possible, until you are good at tuning, get someone else to help you tune every time you sing.
- Practice tuning quickly and accurately. Learn any alternate skills and other “tricks” available on your vocal texture for fine-tuning each note as you sing.
- You do not have to learn to read music to be able to do this, but it is very helpful to know a little bit about music theory so that you can predict which chords are most likely to happen in a song. Try starting with Beginning Harmonic Analysis.
- Ear Master includes 3 activities for harmonic ear training: Chord Identification, Chord Inversions, and Chord Progressions (including cadences). Training with those activities will help you develop your abilities to sing scales and other harmonic content by ear.
- Really listen to the chord progressions to the songs you do know. What do they sound like? Sing the same progressions in different keys and listen to how that does and also does not change the sound of the progression. Change the octave notes of the scales to see how that changes the sound of the progression to your ears. Change harmony and scales voicings, and again listen carefully to how that changes the sound to your ears.
- Practice figuring out the chords to familiar songs (that you don’t know the chords to). For songs that you do know the chords to, try singing them in an unfamiliar key, or see if you can change or add chords to make a new harmony that still fits the melody.
- A teacher who understands harmony can help tremendously with this particular skill. Even if you don’t normally take lessons, you might want to consider having a series of lessons on this. Find a teacher who is willing and able to teach you specifically about harmony and typical scales.
Singing Tunes by Ear
This is fun to be able to do, makes it easy to increase your repertoire, and is an important step in being able to improvise.
- Just do it! The best way to learn this skill is to spend some of your practice time trying to sing tunes you know and like.
- EarMaster’s Melody Imitation activity is an efficient and easy way to power-train your ear and pitch accuracy. In that activity, EarMaster plays a melody that you have to sing back. The software evaluates the accuracy of your performance in real-time and increases the difficulty of the exercises as you become better at singing back tunes.
- Once you start getting good at this, see how quickly you can get a new tune down. How few mistakes can you make the first time you try it? Can you “recover” quickly from a mistake by making it sound like a bit of improvisation?
- If you sing a melody (one that plays only one note at a time), there are different bits of information that help you recognize what the next note will be: how far it is from the note you are on (see Interval), where it is in the key (see Beginning Harmonic Analysis) or where it is in the chord (see Triads). These three things are all related to each other, of course – and a singer with a well-trained ear will be aware of all of them, at least subconsciously – but you may find at first that one works better for you than the others. You may want to experiment: is it easier for you to think of the next note as being a perfect fourth higher than the note you are on, or as being the root of the scale, or as being the fifth note in the scale of the key?