Where do you see aural skills playing a role with beginners developing as musicians?  The be all and end all, or one of a set of skills to be developed?  I'm only asking about folk getting started, not how this applies to seasoned musicians.

My stance is that basic aural skill development should be combined with simple theoretical knowledge, linked visually to the instrument, ASAP.  I believe it is the synergy of all this that brings on rapid progress without feeling lost or lack of understanding.

Why?  Because, with no understanding of how to find notes on the guitar, and no understanding of the impact of tuning on intervals and hence every shape on the guitar, finding sounds from scratch becomes a lot like finding a needle in a haystack for a beginner.  So, (s)he has to bang around on the guitar (or whatever instrument) until something matches, and then search for the next match and so on.  

And even if the chord is found purely by ear and experiment, with no theoretical basis, or no help from friends, the student doesn't know what chord type it is, so won't respond if someone else asks him/her to play that chord by its name.

Another problem with playing purely by ear is that there may be many sounds that one wouldn't perceive of in one's imagination, for example, playing an FmMaj7 arpeggio against an E7#9, whereas knowledge let's you know this will work, and visualisation let's you create the arpeggio.
Personally, I think avoiding confusion / frustration is a bit part of motivation, and learning gradually, applied with practice, resulting in musical sounds, is a good starting point.  

That's why, when beginners ask questions, I try and avoid jargon and to suggest stuff that can be done fairly easily.  That is also why I avoid notation like the plague, initially.  A newbie can't see the wood for the trees there.  Ditto with note names and enharmonic spellings, initially.  Someone can get a very long way by developing aural and visualisation skills (with knowledge of meaning of shapes and how they relate to sounds), along with technique practice.

What's your thoughts?  Should aural skills trump everything else when starting off?
Aural skills are very important, but before starting ear training I would first suggest learning some basic chords and learning to play a couple of songs that use those chords. If you can't play it on your instrument, it will most likely make little sense and it won't really have an application. So I would say it's basic technique first. You can actually get by with just using tabs and chord sheets as a beginner. I wouldn't suggest relying solely on them, but I think in the beginning it's more important to have some music to play than to be able to figure out how to play a song by ear.

Also, when it comes to performing songs, it's important to be able to pick up certain nuances in other people's playing (i.e., what it means to play something musically instead of just playing the right notes) and to be able to listen to your own playing - are you playing in time, is the sound quality good, does your playing have any nuances in it or is it just technically playing notes one after the other, etc. Sure, those are also aural skills, but the way I understood "aural skills" from the OP was more about being able to play stuff by ear. I think it's possible to play musically, even if you don't understand what the notes that you are playing are and how they relate to chords and what key the piece is in and stuff like that.

Maybe this is a more "classically trained" perspective. I do think that learning to play by ear and learning to understand what's happening in music are important things, but I'm not sure if they are the most important thing, especially for beginners. Then again, learning to tune your instrument is very important.
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I agree beginners need a foundation of knowledge and ability before any real aural skills can be applied. And even then, it's a pretty tedious skill to isolate and work on for most children and adolescents.  

I think what's more realistic and important is developing a habit of careful listening. Memory and attention are the basis of aural pattern recognition. The "aural" skills we learn with ear training are really just the last step in a cognitive process that begins with listening. You have to listen, recall, and quantify the sounds. This is basically the same process as learning a language. You hear sounds, you attach meaning them, and then you can eventually reproduce them accurately.
The straight answer to your topic question is YES.

That doesn't mean other things are not important, but they are all secondary to aural skills.
It also doesn't mean that those other things are not extremely useful for developing aural skills.

Of course you need theoretical knowledge to name and describe the things you're hearing, so aural skills go hand in hand with theory in that sense.
But the aural skills are the point of the theory, not vice versa. The theory serves the aural skills.

So I agree with the similar points you make, but it doesn't take away from the dominance of aural skills. Music is nothing but sound in the end. You can become an excellent musician purely by ear, with no knowledge of theory terms at all. But you'd find it very difficult to talk to and work with other musicians - unless they also shared the same invented language you would probably use to explain things to yourself. E.g., self-taught guitarists can often communicate with each other using a shared language of chord shapes, which don't have to be correct in theoretical terms. But they wouldn't then be able to communicate with pianists. Ideas and knowledge would need to be shared by ear - playing not talking. Nothing wrong with that! - and it's not necessarily a s lower process either. Quite often a theoretical description is complicated, while the sound of it is immediate and obvious.

I disagree about notation, btw. I don't force it on my (adult) beginners, but I don't "avoid it like the plague" either. Personally I learned notation easily when I was a kid, before I ever picked up a guitar or even wanted to be a musician. (Every schoolkid learned it in those days.) So when I did decide learning guitar would be cool, notation was invaluable. I could teach myself by reading songbooks. If tab had existed I would have used that, naturally, but that would have taught me nothing about vocal melody,or songwriting skills.
My aural skills were practically no-existent then, and I didn't think they could be trained - nor did I care much. But my ears did get trained anyway by learning from records (when I couldn't find notation).

Now, as a teacher, I teach kids (7-10) using books which use notation, not tab. They have no problem with it - although some do get a little confused when they think the lines refer to strings. (Tab would obviously suit those ones much better.)

The adults I teach are mostly less receptive to notation. They've acquired the notion that it's "difficult" (a notion that kids don't suffer from). There is a minority who really want to learn it, but most much prefer tab. My song sheets always provide both, so that those that want to learn notation can pick up the principles by comparing with the tab (and with the recording). But I let them use whichever parts of the sheet they can make sense of. I often tab out vocal melodies too, because I know how much I learned from that.
Last edited by jonriley64 at Jun 30, 2017,
I dunno if they should necessarily trump everything from the offset but they should definitely have equal importance - I do think they become more important as you improve technically though. 

It's easy for novice guitarists to get bogged down in the physical side of things, and the further along you are the harder it is to make the adjustment and start using your ears properly. At the end of the day your ears and your fingers are a team, you can't play guitar effectively without both of them pulling their weight so it makes sense to be developing them both in tandem from the beginning. If you don't then you invariably find yourself frustrated at some point in the future and end up having to backtrack to play catchup, and that's always going to be harder than gradually developing those skills and knowledge gradually over time.
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No. Learn to play first. The ability to actually play is the important factor. Ear training can come later after you have learned some basic playing techniques. Some players never develop a good ear and still go on to be very good players. It's a great thing to develop over time but it doesn't help you learn where to put your fingers on the guitar neck, how to form a chord or learn a scale. Learn to play.
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Quote by jonriley64

I disagree about notation, btw. I don't force it on my (adult) beginners, but I don't "avoid it like the plague" either. Personally I learned notation easily when I was a kid, before I ever picked up a guitar or even wanted to be a musician. (Every schoolkid learned it in those days.) So when I did decide learning guitar would be cool, notation was invaluable. I could teach myself by reading songbooks. If tab had existed I would have used that, naturally, but that would have taught me nothing about vocal melody,or songwriting skills.

Yeah. I think being able to read notation at some level is pretty beneficial. Of course you don't need to be a master at sight reading, but having a basic understanding of how to read notation is something I think musicians should learn. It's a good way of visualizing music, and if you are interested in learning theory, notation makes understanding theoretical concepts much easier, especially when it comes to stuff like polyphony and voice leading in general. Then again, if all you want to understand about a song is the guitar part, I guess tab is good enough for that.
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Should aural skills trump everything else when starting to learn guitar?

Of course! But it is not even an issue because aural skills trump everything else long before starting to learn guitar... Nobody begins learning music from scratch - they have already been hearing music their whole life. That music has years of head start being heard aurally as sound, not visual depictions, nor geometric representations, nor semantic named relations.

... picking up my first instrument was not a big huge surprise; it was not like I had never noticed, heard, or understood music before.
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PlusPaul Depends what you mean by aural skills ... sure I listened to loads of music before I started playing, and I could sing back a tune etc, but I certainly didn't listen with a view to what the chord progression was (in terms of relating the chords together, and against a tonal centre), or how the notes  in a melody related  to a tonal centre, and so on.  

And I absolutely couldn't just pick up a guitar at the age of 9 and play it from day one, recreating what I'd heard on records.  I had to ruin records played over and over again to work stuff out.  And with a lot of help from friend guitarists then.

That's very cool if you were able to do that on day one.  I suspect you are in a very small minority.  I don't know anyone that just went to a guitar and started properly playing back tunes immediately with no other guidance.

Did you never look at a chord book or scale book as you were getting going? And no-one else showed you bits and pieces on guitar?

I can vividly remember stumbling through page after page of chord dictionaries, wondering why on earth would I use such-and-such a chord (as at that time I didn't understand enough about chord function, and didn't listen too much music that used those sort of chords).  It was an odd mix of fun and frustration.  This was all pre-Internet, and when there weren't many resources available.

Out of interest, how do you advise newbies to try and pick out a melody?  Note relation to each other?  Note relation to the tonal centre?  Or something else?

I am continually amazed at the power of the brain to make sense of sound, and music in particular.  And the design and function of the ear from outside inwards is staggering, not to mention its sensitivity. Do you ever read any books on music psychology?  Fascinating.
Last edited by jerrykramskoy at Jul 1, 2017,
Jerry, I'm like you. I ruined many records picking up the needle and plopping it down in a particular spot over and over learning songs strictly by trial and error. No tabs (hadn't been invented), no internet (the word itself was not in use) and even if you saw a piece of sheet music in a music store I can almost guarantee the chords were probably wrong and not in the key of the original recording. I got my ear training by repetition, there was no other way available to me. I'm not complaining. We did what we had to do with what was available and that's how I am today only now I use a computer to start and stop a song I'm learning. I still don't know how to read tabs and honestly don't want to. That's just me I'd rather figure it out myself. I find once I have figured it out I know it. I don't have to write it down or try to memorize it. The act of figuring out how to play in with all the repetition involved is enough for me.
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Last edited by Rickholly74 at Jul 1, 2017,
I heard a lot of music from an early age. By the time I was starting kindergarten I had heard all the popular jazz standards hundreds of times, because those and classical were the records played on the hifi at home. As far as I can recall I have always heard and recognized the harmonic pressures in music that the theorists call "function" and their relationships to what the theorists call "key". I didn't have names for them, I just heard and liked them.

I taught myself to play the guitar by ear by listening to records, but I did not play them over and over because I knew they would be ruined (I still have them and listen to them, never bought CDs or fooled with digital formats). I played a record no more than once a day, listened to it, and sought to remember how it went, then worked on it at the guitar. Maybe the next day or so I would listen again to see how close I was and remember more. This habit by itself I think has a lot to do with my capacity to grasp something as quickly as I hear it without replay... plus, music is very redundant with parts that repeat or cycle over and over, so listening once is really hearing things multiple times anyway.

Similarly, I too learned when resources were scare and all I had was records and a desire to play lead, so I taught myself to play lead guitar first. I think I discovered a secret, which is that it is much easier to grasp chords (and see how to build them as needed) after learning lead first. Since the leads I was learning were already associated with the chords and chord changes in what songs I was hearing and learning, the relationships between them were "already there" in advance - that the lead and chord connections were already inside me.

As far as advise, that is problematic in a couple of ways...

First, in general the problem is that when someone asks a musician how they do something, the correct answer is really, "I don't know". So they ask about things that have less, little, or no connection at all to how the musician does was he does. They ask about patterns, positions, named things, etc... when it may be that the musician does not use visual, geometric, or semantic methods of grasping music (because music is sound). Now, if the questions are insistent the musician may relent and say, "Well first I start with a Dbdimb6" but if the assumption is that he is thinking in terms of named chords, that might be wrong; all he has done is translate what he himself does grasp in some abstract way into something the other can hold on to... but it is the wrong answer.

The second thing is that in the present day the kind of advice that might be effective is not going to be followed because it will be perceived as too hard and too time consuming, because there are methods, lessons, videos, books, tab, forums, slow-down software, go cameras clamped to show closeups of fingerboards, on and on all promising quick, painless, effortless mastery of the instrument. Nobody will accept that the best way might be to listen and play figuring it out by ear. This is somewhat related to the first problem above, when one discovers that the guitarists one wants to play like actually taught themselves by listening and playing by ear. You would think you might want to use the method that worked for them, but now, "There's an app for that!".

My degree was Psychology, focusing on sensation, perception, and cognition. In graduate school I studied neurophysiology and published a couple of research papers on the methodology and results of programming simulations of neural processing hierarchies; so yeah, it is fascinating stuff and more so the deeper you go.

Something that I have done for a long time and continue to do when practicing is a kind of thought examination. I will be about to learn something specific and go through a process like this:

- before I learn it, I examine how it feels to not yet know how to do what this thing is. I try to make a very clear sense of what this feels like because I'm going to reference it later. I try to feel my "ear" and feel what my hands "think about it"...

- then I learn the thing

- then I examine how it feels to know the thing, and compare this to the feeling before I knew it. I think to myself, "Before, if I picked up my guitar I would not know how to do it, but now I can pick up the guitar and do it. What is different, what changed, where in my mental world did something change, and what was the form of this change? How did something change that now I can do what I couldn't do before? Does "my ear" feel different? Do my hands feel different?"

This is the kind of effort that has no payoff whatsoever until you have been doing it for years and begin to get indirect hints of the identity of a few traces of pathways and connections, but ultimately the hints are all abstract and ineffable to description. So one really reflects back to the first problem, where the correct answer is, "I don't know". In a world where the answer is, "There's an app for that!", the hardest thing for the musical world to accept is that music can be learned, but can't be taught.

Didn't mean to write a book, but you asked great questions that all guitarists should be thinking about. I know that I love reading about how others think about these things.
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Last edited by PlusPaul at Jul 1, 2017,
Quote by Rickholly74
No. Learn to play first.
I was assuming that was taken for granted.
I agree with PlusPaul that we all - all of us - acquire aural skills just from hearing music around us (although he was luckier than most in that early experience). We pick up the language of what is right and wrong in music. Any non-musician will recognise a wrong note when they hear one. They just don't know why it's wrong, because they don't have the theoretical training. They also probably won't be able to tell which note is the offending one in the context - just something sounds wrong there. That's not because of some magical gift, but because 100% of the commercial recordings we hear all follow the rules. So we know when something's out of place, at least if it's in the context of a familiar kind of music. It's as obvious as when someone puts order words in wrong the.

Of course, when we start playing an instrument, then our aural skills get gradually refined. We start to understand the difference between right and wrong notes, and how to control it. This is automatic too. We don't need specific training or exercises. We know when our guitar's out of tune, and to begin with we'll use a tuner to put it right. We won't even know which string is wrong to start with, but we soon learn to spot that, and how to check tuning by ear.
The more we play chords and chord sequences, the more we'll start to recognize the same sequences in recordings and find it easier to learn by ear. The more we play along with melodies and solos, the more we'll recognize melodic intervals, chord tones and extensions, etc.

In this sense, I agree - playing comes first: playing is an essential part of developing aural skills. But only in this sense of refining and focusing the aural skills we already have.
Last edited by jonriley64 at Jul 2, 2017,
PlusPaul It's a shame we are separated by 1000's of miles ... `i would love to meet up, and have a proper chat, swap ideas ...

That was a great, great answer.

When I was a young kid (5 ish), we mostly had classical music on (my Dad loved it, but he succeeded in putting me right off it back then).  And the radio stations over here (London) were quite limited in choice ... I don't remember hearing any jazz going into my teens.  So, first thing to make me want to play was Cream (Clapton), Wheels of Fire.  After 6 months I was way better than Clapton (so long as I didn't pick up a guitar :-)   .  But again, what was interesting then was that different musical styles (other than classical) came and went, rather than co-existing.

So, I could figure out most rock music, but got stumped by jazz(y) music.  Remember trying to suss out the solo in George Benson's "This world's a ghetto", and only half succeeding.  

Thankfully things are different now ... I've moved on!

I disagree that music can't be taught.  But maybe you mean "musical" rather than "music"?  I have heard ample evidence that being musical requires something more regardless of the knowledge imparted (or lack of it).

One of the amazing facts I read about was how listening to music could take away the symptoms of Parkinson's disease ... the shaking would stop, until the music stopped, when it would once again resume.  This came from a book "Music, the brain, and ecstasy" ... for me the best of several layman's books I've read on music pyschology.  Robert Jourdain is a brilliant writer.  Another wonderful fact from there was about native African musicians traveling to play at a village, where the audience would become so saddened and emotional from the music, they would take fire brands to the musicians, and burn them.  The musicians considered the burns at the end of a night to be the mark of a good gig!
Last edited by jerrykramskoy at Jul 2, 2017,
Rickholly74 I got disillusioned with the music industry ... and gave up playing for a few years, and then went to keyboards, which I was dreadful at.  Then I was asked to record with an old band of mine (lead guitar), and it was awful.  And that spurred me on.  I signed up at a guitar institute in London, and became a good friend with Shaun Baxter who was head of jazz and rock guitar there.  He taught me a great deal, and I became a much much better player than when I was briefly signed!

It allowed me to try out many more ideas than I would have heard in my head, and to make sense of much of what I heard ... and things became much easier to work out.  I mostly listened to sax and piano players (still do) for ideas, and music will always be something I will be a student at.

For me, I am very glad I did decide to learn more on a semi-"formal" basis, as it exposed me to new ideas, but also showed me that theory was not a scary thing at all, far from it.  I understood the basis of the majority of elements in jazz theory very quickly (literally hours), though of course I couldn't apply it on my feet for quite some time.  But I am to this day still finding new ways to apply it, and how others apply it.
One of the most important skills as a guitarist is simple: to be able to hear if you are in tune. You can play amazingly yet still sound like shit if one string is a few cents out.
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What's your thoughts?  Should aural skills trump everything else when starting off?

That's a tough question. In my case I started learning by ear out of necessity, because the songs I liked at the time  had no transcriptions -  it turns out that was the best thing to ever happen to me because out of the gate I began learning by ear and working my memory - I couldn't write the music down so I had to memorize everything.  Eventually I got into tabs and then actual music notation for classical guitar, but I always spent most of my time listening.

To this day, I can learn 100 times faster simply hearing music than trying to read it. This goes for classical pieces as well, oddly. This would make me a terrible cruise ship or session musician, if sight reading is involved,  but helps for writing and improvising. 

I think the big issue at first is keeping someone motivated, so it's tough for me to recommend throwing someone into the gauntlet right off the bat unless they pick it up easily and quickly.  As instructors, you guys have a difficult task of managing those aspects. 

One thing I have noticed, is that most musicians I know that never learnt by ear simply don't play anymore or play the same drivel over and over - it's a huge handicap that actually takes away from musical enjoyment in the end. 
Same here; there are people that still insist that learning a song by ear takes too long... to me it's like snapping a photograph instead of drawing a picture.
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