I think a big part of the reason that most musicians don't do much ear training is because so many have limited success with it. It's far too common for musicians to practice ear training for months (or even years!) and never manage to connect the dots and see the results they're looking for. This has led a lot of people to believe that most of us mere mortals will never be able to play by ear. Fortunately, this isn't the case. Everybody can learn to play by ear, and once you learn what I'm about to tell you, you'll be on the path to finding out for yourself.
The secret to success with ear training is to use a tonality based approach. With a tonality based approach, you will learn to identify any note by identifying the interval that separates it from the tonic. The two most common ways to do this are by learning to identify any note using scale degrees (numbers based on a note's position in a scale) or solfege (syllables that are based on the same thing. The diagram below shows the C major scale with each note's scale degree/solfege syllable written below it:
Each note's scale degree/solfege syllable changes, based on the tonic. So when we change to a different scale, such as the F major scale, the scale degree/syllable of each note changes. The new tonic (F) is now scale degree 1/do, and each note's scale degree changes accordingly.
A tonality based approach like this works so well, because each scale degree/solfege syllable has a unique, recognisable sound, and the tonic acts as a stable reference point. So we have a (relatively) easy way to identify each note.
I'm not claiming to be coming up with anything new here. Scale degrees and solfege have been around and in use by countless musicians for hundreds of years. But with so much information available these days, our biggest challenge sometimes isn't finding the right information, it is sifting through everything we find and working out what works best.
This is especially true with ear training, where more often than not, musicians are told to start by learning to recognise individual intervals. This approach isn't nearly as effective when starting out with ear training, because an individual interval doesn't give you enough information to easily and quickly work out multiple notes and chords as they fly by in music.
So, if you want to train your ears and work towards playing by ear, remember to stick with tonality based ear training. Interval training can be helpful later on, after you have mastered a tonality based approach, but if you can't already recognise and play complete melodies and chord progressions by ear, a tonality based approach will serve you much better.
How do you use a tonality based ear training approach?Once you've committed to a tonality based approach, the question still exists of how to proceed. I've spent a lot of time developing specific, targeted ear training exercises that focus on different steps along the way. These are great, especially if you're getting serious about ear training, but there are much simpler ways to get started:
1. Write the scale degree/solfege syllable above/below each note in the music you play
When you're practicing tunes or scales, work out the scale degree of each note, and write it down. Just like in the diagrams above. Simply being aware of the scale degree of each note you play will get you to start tuning into the unique sound of each scale degree.
2. Try to practice tunes/scales in another key
If you're playing a tune in E major, write the scale degrees out, then try to play it in A major. This will be a real mental workout, as you'll have to translate the scale degrees from one scale to another, but it will help you to get your brain thinking in scale degrees and your ears recognising them. For example, if you were practicing the C major scale above, try translating it to the F major scale (or any other one), by working out the scale degree of each note in the new scale.
3. Try to sing melodies, using scale degrees
Take a melody or scale that you played yesterday, and try to remember how it went and sing it. Use the scale degrees to remind you of how it went, but don't play it! This encourages you to remember how the melody as a whole sounded, as well as each scale degree. To really push yourself, try to sing a melody you've never heard before using scale degrees to work it out (this is called sight singing). This is a great exercise for learning the sound of each scale degree.
4. Sing everything!
Simply singing music is a great tool for ear training. If you can sing a melody, it means you're hearing it clearly. Start singing everything that you learn to play, and it will help you to make sure it's all making its way into your ears, not just your fingers.
Those are a few tips to get you started with ear training, using a tonality based approach. If you get started, you should start to notice that you're learning the sound of each scale degree/syllable pretty quickly, and hopefully it will motivate you to keep going with ear training. Good luck with it!
About the author:
Scott Edwards is a professionally trained musician and ear training nut. He's the founder of EarTrainingHQ.com, which aims to provide musicians around the world with effective ear training materials and the encouragement and guidance they need to successfully develop their aural skills and musicianship.