Examining The Overlooked Skill Of Ear Training

A chef can taste a soup, and know that someone put rosemary in it. A mechanic can listen to a car engine, and tell if the valve train needs work.

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When's the last time you've practiced the skill of listening?

A chef can taste a soup, and know that someone put rosemary in it. A mechanic can listen to a car engine, and tell if the valve train needs work. But can a typical rock guitarist listen to the song they're playing, and identify the chord voicing the keyboard player is using? Does this same six-string player pay attention to the chemistry between the kick drum pattern and the bass line?

Listening - it's probably the most overlooked facet of musicianship.

A lot of guitarists hone their skills in the isolation of their practice room, and then take this sense of separateness with them to the bandstand. But as we know, a band is a living, breathing, very organic entity. For a musician in a band to fully understand the situation they're in, they must listen.

As listening is such a broad term, I've broken it down into several different categories.

Harmonic listening would refer to hearing the chords, intervals, and tonalities of the moment. Harmonic listening is vital to surviving a sitting in on a gig, and especially in acing auditions. In plain English, being able to tell what chord the bass player is implying is very helpful if you'd care to play in the same key. And bandleaders prefer people to play in at least a similar key!

Dynamic listening refers to listening to the song as a whole. How does your volume level fit in? Is it too loud, or too soft? And are you listening to the actual tone emanating from your guitar? Remember that the goal of a musician is to play cleanly, and musically.

Objective listening-Play for the song can be a tough pill to swallow. It's the act of determining what the song needs. Does it really need those swept arpeggios and furious tapping? If you can step back, listen to the song as a whole, and honestly answer yes, than go for it! And if the answer is no, be a selfless musician, and leave it out. As a side note, playing for the song doesn't mean throwing technique out the window. I hear musicians who couldn't improvise to save their backwards-mullets-emo-haircuts use that excuse all the time. I just play for the song, man. Don't do that. If the song needsshredding, add it. And if it doesn't, don't. But first objectively determine that by employing objective listening.

Communicative listening is where things get fun. It's the process of communicating with the other musicians. For example, how the rhythm section is grooving? How is the conga player approaching the sixteenth notes? A good communicative listener can turn a mediocre gig into something stellar. In addition, if one wants to lock in with the rhythm section (and that's a given), communicative listening is essential.

Now that we've got a better grasp on the different skills of a good ear, how do we develop them? Some of the topics outlined above can be practiced at home. Others are best learned on the bandstand, as terrifying as that might seem.

Harmonic listening can be developed in the practice room, via diligent practice with books, recordings, computer programs, etc. he good news is that learning to recognize intervals, scales, and chords can be accomplished at home, and often with free software and web sites. I have several such sites linked on my webpage.

I suggest that you start with learning to recognize different intervals. Move on to scales, and then, chords. After all, a scale is a series of intervals, and a chord is those same intervals played simultaneously. Ricci Adams has an excellent web site at Musictheory.net with plenty of free ear trainers on just these very subjects.

Dynamic listening is the process of awareness. The next time you sit down to practice, pay special attention to your sound. Is it too thin? Thick? Are you a shredder who likes to sound like a pack of mosquitoes? Maybe that's why you're not getting the gigs you want.

Fiddle with that gear, and dial it in just right. Remember, your sound will change when your volume does, and especially when there's a drummer involved. You'd be surprised at how few musicians pay serious attention to their tone when they're playing. Start listening to your own sound, and you'll have a significant edge in the field.

Objective listening is a skill that can be developed many ways. One of the best is to listen to skillfully arranged music. Pop tunes are great here, but if you're looking for something with a more sinister edge, I suggest listening to an Ozzy Osbourne album. Ok, ok, I'm forcing my personal music tastes on you here. However, in my opinion, Ozzy's songs present a great blend of dazzling guitar pyrotechnics, solid riffs, and the guitarists' role of supporting the vocalist when he or she is singing. Other genres outside of rock also present a great learning opportunity, as the guitar parts in these songs are usually a bit more slick and subtle - witty one liner jokes of the musical world.

On a philosophical note, objective listening insight can also be gained from everyday interactions and conversations. Do you really consider your latest complaint a valuable addition to the conversation you're having with a friend? If it does, then say it. And if it doesn't - leave it out.

Communicative listening is best practiced with at least one other musician. Trading licks in a nonthreatening fashion is an ideal way to get better, especially if you jam with a more advanced musician. I've learned volumes in this way.

And of course, the best way to do business here is to jump in way over your head, and join a band that you can barely hang with. Your ear will develop, or you'll lose the gig. It's a great way to learn! I call it The All Terrain Vehicle Gymnastic Educational Method. Put simply, either you succeed at doing a back flip on an ATV, or you don't! And the same goes with joining a band that's above your skill level.

So next time you're around other musicians, start to listen with a vengeance. Don't zone out - Listen up!

Josh Urban (photo) is a musician with a unique perspective on music. Always a thinker, he gains insight wherever he can find it, be it in the clubs as a working musician, busking on the city streets, or teaching in the classroom. A naturally enthusiastic fellow, Josh is always fired up about bringing the lessons he's learned to his readers. Maintaining a website, a blog, and a monthly newsletter, he aims to make musicians stop, think, and play with a little more intensity, integrity, and inspiration. You never know who's listening.

46 comments sorted by best / new / date

    walidb123
    Nice article, I was thinking about how to "listen" when playing in a band myself recently since I joined my band. More please!
    jrnjd
    ok, nice article. Im still a beginner (2 1/2 years) so some of it is over my head but the rest made a lot of sense.
    mrbiscuits315
    Lin wrote: a lot of good points, but little specific advice. kinda like religion; it sounds very life changing, but very difficult to put into practise when you're thinking about a billion other things at the same time. basically, the only way you're gonna be good at this stuff is through experience, not reading at article about it.
    well yeah but a lot of people probally dont even think about this stuff at all. So this article may help them a lil.
    StratEnRegalia
    Stop shredding and start playing something musical. Use your ears. Use your minds. Pay attention to tone. Paint pictures with your instrument, it's probably one of the greatest if not the greatest goal of a musician looking to play cohesive art (solo or in a group). Jam. Improvise. Play with others. See what you create. Don't cop out and play 46 nps, you fail at music and art in general if you treat our greatest gift (to create these things) as another extension of your penis (or you ego if your member is a little on the short side).
    Me2NiK
    I did a lot of ear-training as I learned to play the various instruments I play and now being able to learn music by ear and such is by far my strongest talent that gets me places where my relatively weak technical ability would normally not allow me to go so I can testify to how much ear training benefits your musicality as a whole. I read this article mainly because as I was skimming through UG I was transcribing a Beatles solo and thought to myself "hmm, how appropriate...".
    robbyalexander
    if you guys want real perfect pitch training check out David Lucas Burge Perfect Pitch Training Course. takes a lot of discipline but it's worth it in the end.
    Shard Heilia
    Good article. I've always played guitar by ear, it just seems more natural. It's most important when you're playing with a band, though, to make sure that you cut through the rest of the band and make yourself heard.
    Darkone666
    redstrat8 wrote: DOESN'T PLAYING BY EAR HURT LIKE HELL.
    just a little but you get used to it. But my ear is really lagging behind my playing so i should really work on it more.
    flipdirtman
    this is very true and possibly helpful towards some but seriously though if you pick up an instrument and you dont start listening to tone and levels and dynamics then youre not really that interested in playong or youre not that good a musician(excluding beginners because thay cant help their not great yet...ha) but I use to be youre average listener too who would listen to anything that was easy to bang my head to but when I picked up guitar i kind of found it hard to listen to musicians who werent trying to become any better than they already are such as green day motion city soundtrack, but on the all in all it was a pretty cool article
    flipdirtman
    StratEnRegalia wrote: Stop shredding and start playing something musical. Use your ears. Use your minds. Pay attention to tone. Paint pictures with your instrument, it's probably one of the greatest if not the greatest goal of a musician looking to play cohesive art (solo or in a group). Jam. Improvise. Play with others. See what you create. Don't cop out and play 46 nps, you fail at music and art in general if you treat our greatest gift (to create these things) as another extension of your penis (or you ego if your member is a little on the short side).
    this is true for some guitarists but the real guitarists can shred while creating a dynamic feel such as Jimmie Paige,Angus Young,Slash sometimes and Jimmie Hendrix
    flipdirtman
    redstrat8 wrote: DOESN'T PLAYING BY EAR HURT LIKE HELL.
    why yes, yes it does in fact I find playing by pick alot easier. LOL
    flipdirtman
    and one last thing only playing for 2 1/2 half years is not an excuse for not knowing technical terms or not playing good im 14 have been playing for 2 1/2 years and understood everything in the article and have a gig were i will be playing Stairway to heaven on september 2 so dont use a number of years as an excuse it gives a bad name to the rest of us
    bluesrocker101
    StratEnRegalia wrote: Stop shredding and start playing something musical. Use your ears. Use your minds. Pay attention to tone. Paint pictures with your instrument, it's probably one of the greatest if not the greatest goal of a musician looking to play cohesive art (solo or in a group). Jam. Improvise. Play with others. See what you create. Don't cop out and play 46 nps, you fail at music and art in general if you treat our greatest gift (to create these things) as another extension of your penis (or you ego if your member is a little on the short side).
    Quit being ignorant. Shredding can be melodic too. anyways. Checked.
    StratEnRegalia
    I would never call Angus Young dynamic. I heard their discography in 3 minutes. And almost all shredders are soulless. There are only a handful of them who can actually do something melodic that isn't ultra cheese. The rest are people with insignificant genitalia who think music is a race.
    Let It Be0o0
    flipdirtman wrote: StratEnRegalia wrote: Stop shredding and start playing something musical. Use your ears. Use your minds. Pay attention to tone. Paint pictures with your instrument, it's probably one of the greatest if not the greatest goal of a musician looking to play cohesive art (solo or in a group). Jam. Improvise. Play with others. See what you create. Don't cop out and play 46 nps, you fail at music and art in general if you treat our greatest gift (to create these things) as another extension of your penis (or you ego if your member is a little on the short side). this is true for some guitarists but the real guitarists can shred while creating a dynamic feel such as Jimmie Paige,Angus Young,Slash sometimes and Jimmie Hendrix
    Ok really now...Jimmie Paige? Jimmie Hendrix? Cmon man...
    justin_fraser
    Great article. I cant agree with you more. I know for myself, I most often listen by listening to the harmonies. When i listen to music, I dont hear the melody much anymore, I hear the harmonies. Because of this and a few years of choir, I almost have relative pitch. My brother is the same way and does have it, so being able to have relative pitch is so nice. Just listen to everything. Another thing that my old guitar teacher told me is that if you take a cd, it will sound different in your car than your computer. This is very true, so try to listen to cds in more than one player to get a totally different perspective.
    Absent Mind
    wow ooder the cow is so banned Good article, I'm probably poor at nearly all of these disaplins.
    Jack Flint
    Good article. Hopefully some musicians will learn something. The dynamic listening is so true, most musicians don't realize they're being too loud, and I always have to turn up to match them. It's dumb, really. When you play with a band, if anyone makes a comment concerning if someone's too loud, to soft, listen! You can only get a good practice in if everyone can hear each other.
    fretsonfire74
    this is a great article, this might help turn some of the hopefuls and wannabe's out there in to actual musicians. i said maybe! lol. But i noticed i already do most of this, all of it other than leaving the shred out of a song, i like to show off a bit lol.
    Jackolas
    easthatred wrote: 6th lol yeah im cool. nice read
    That's right.. ahah!
    scm031
    really helpful and true for guitar and bass heck of a lot better than most other articles on here
    Nebblacktip
    Good article. Every musician needs to learn how to listen. And thanks for pointing out that "I"m not good enough to do that" is different from "the song doesn't need that."
    Quicksand15
    great article! and thanks for "playing for the song doesnt mean throwing technique out the window" there are too many guitarists with great skill but no soul...
    Lin
    a lot of good points, but little specific advice. kinda like religion; it sounds very life changing, but very difficult to put into practise when you're thinking about a billion other things at the same time. basically, the only way you're gonna be good at this stuff is through experience, not reading at article about it.
    rlp11
    fretsonfire74 wrote: this is a great article, this might help turn some of the hopefuls and wannabe's out there in to actual musicians. i said maybe! lol. But i noticed i already do most of this, all of it other than leaving the shred out of a song, i like to show off a bit lol.
    agree..
    sp0ckr0cks
    hell, i listen to ozzy enough already, don't encourage me...but hey, i don't think i listen enough, and i agree with fretsonfire74
    6thbeatle
    So True. everybody wants to be a musician but they don't take the time to listen to each other. A lot of guitarist take to much glory on solos too. Warren Haynes says it's important for guitarists to take breaks during solos to listen to the rest of the band. Truly its the bottom instruments of any band that are the most important. I would take warren's advice considering he is one of the best living jam artist out there.