Ear Training 101: Tonality Based Ear Training

An explanation of tonality based ear training, and some tips to get you started.

Ultimate Guitar
Ear training is sort of my thing. I became so obsessed with it when I was younger that I devoted all my time to it, then started teaching it and designing ear training materials full time. I believe that it is one of the most beneficial things any musician can work on, and that every musician should incorporate it into their practice.

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.

14 comments sorted by best / new / date

    It's nice to see more articles here on UG that help you to become a better musician, not only a better guitarist/instrumentalist.
    Chris Zoupa
    Scott! Singing is such a simple principle but so useful! I kinda KNOW all of this but it's hard to teach my students. This is broken down in an awesome way! Cool article man!
    Scott Edwards
    Thanks Chris! I'll work on putting some more lessons together for Ultimate Guitar soon!
    There's one tiny thing which is wrong in here, and that is the fact you've used the french names of tones (Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti/Si Do) in the F-major scale, which is wrong when you practice it, because the note C in French is Do, while C# is Do# etc. When you then apply the solfege system to any other scale, it becomes both theoretically and practially wrong... If you look at this picture: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/co... You can see when you use the solfege system, it gets wrong. I would recommend using the interval system instead, where you use Root, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Octave instead, because then it is correct since the intervals can change root notes, while the solfege system can't
    Actually, in the more commonly used (today)Movable Do solfege system, the tonic is always Do and the entire thing shifts. The supertonic is always Re, dominant is always So, etc.
    However, because of the largely-unaware group that will surely read this, MetalJohnny is technically not wrong; the article has to specify that the solfege system in use is Movable Do, To deter any misconceptions.
    Yes as zerocenx put it, both ways are technically correct, however what MetalJohnny does is bring up the problem with learning about music on the internet. Fixed Do is rarely used and not very practical for the modern musician and many music schools don't even teach it. This article's way of teaching ear training is the most practical and useful way of going about it and also the way most music schools teach solfegio. If you learned about music on the internet, it would be hard to have practical applications for these skills and you might not learn the correct way.
    Scott Edwards
    Thanks everyone for the positive responses! If you have any other specific ear training lessons you'd like to see, let me know and I can put them together!
    I'd reccomend that everyone sing all the arpegios to the 9th using this and to practice singing the major scale from any note. Start from re, start from so ect. Both up and down. The next step is to give yourself a note, sing the rest of the scale in your head, and then sing the final note to see if you remaind in key in your inner-ear. Renember, the goal is to clearly hear music that you want to play in your head and then play it. The beauty of hearing musical functions is it allows me to practice when I don't have my guitar with me. I'll hear "So"in my head and visualize it as 12th fret G string and practice hearing and playing lines over rhythm changes in C.
    I agree 100% with the learning to start singing everything! It makes you listen hard as most of us sing lazy and in and out of notes...once you sing along to notes it "registers" much stronger in your brain.