How to Develop Your Ear

Ear training is an essential part of my teaching approach because it's what separates good guitarists from great ones. This article will give you a background of ear training methodologies and two foundational exercises.

Ultimate Guitar
How to Develop Your Ear
Ear training is an indispensable part of the Armagh Approach. It's what separates good guitarists from great ones. It allows you to play the music you hear in your head, and actually create solos vs. Running through previously memorized licks. It also will help you transcribe your favorite solos or licks and play them by ear a very helpful skill when you don't have access to tabs or sheet music.

When we talk about someone having a good musical ear we can mean one of two things. Some people have a skill called "perfect pitch" which is the ability to recognize any pitch, say a C or a Bb just from its sound. It's a truly kick-a-s skill. Some schools of thought say you have to be born with it, and there are others out there who claim to be able to teach you the skill by recognizing "tone colors." Either way, this is not the best skill to learn for guitar playing.

The other skill set is called "relative pitch" and it refers to the ability to recognize intervals, chord times, and scale degrees from the sound of them. Where it differs from perfect pitch, is that you need a place to start with, a tone center or tonic note. Say you're playing in the key of C, you need to hear a C first in order to identify the other scale degrees. However the upside to this skill is that it is much easier to learn than perfect pitch, and can be readily accessible with a few exercises.

Singers have been using a technique called "solfege" for centuries to develop their relative pitch and improve their sight-singing. The way it works is you start with seven basic syllables, one for each scale degree, and assign each one to a note. Those syllables are as follows:


So if you're playing in the key of C, the note C would be do, D would be re, E would be mi, so on and so forth.

Personally I've found these syllables hard to remember so I teach a similar, but related method called "Numerical Sight Singing." Instead of the syllables, I assign a number to each scale degree, so you simply have:


C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, F is 4, G is 5, A is 6, B is 7, and your top C is 8. (8 and 1 in this system are interchangeable.)

The basic exercise is then to sing your major scale using these numbers. Below is an example in the key of Db:

Spend a few minutes each day practicing this exercise. At first play along with your guitar and sing the numbers. Eventually you'll be able to sing the scale from memory. When this happens practice anywhere you can in the shower, in the car, whenever you have a few minutes.

Occasionally I get asked what to do if you can't sing. I always reply that there's a big difference between someone who literally can't sing and someone who can't sing well. Let me assure you that you don't have to sing well in order to get 100% of the benefits from this exercise. If you're really having trouble matching pitches, just start with the first three or four, and let the rest come as the skill develops.

An issue people sometimes face is a difficulty when the notes get too high for their voice. Let me say that you actually have a much larger range than you probably know how to access it's just that again, singing high notes well takes some more training and practice. That being said, all that's required for this exercise is to match the pitches. So allow your falsetto to take over when the notes get too high. You've probably accessed this voice when clowning around with your friends. But above all, stay relaxed and let the pitches come. This is very important because if you try to squeeze out the high notes you'll injure your voice.

The more I've done these exercises, the more I'm convinced that the guitar is probably the closest instrument to the human voice that exists. Not only are there a lot of vocal ornamentations that can only be recreated on a guitar, but the whole system of relative pitch is so similar between the guitar and the human voice. Once you move up the neck a bit, your playing is dependent on scales and knowing what they sound like. If you try to memorize all possible combinations of visual forms, you'll drive yourself nuts. But if you treat the instrument like a human voice, and learn how to play scales based on their sounds, you'll have a whole new world opened up to you.

So once you've established a major scale what's next? There are many directions you can go in. You could vary the rhythm and intervals, making things progressively more challenging. A quick Google search of "solfege exercises" will yield a ton of results that do just that. You can also sing through the arpeggios of each key, or various chord progressions. In my Six Months of Speed guitar training course I have several exercises that do just that. Other possible directions involve exploring minor scales and their variations, which I cover in another article and will release in future training courses. One final option, which I'll include below involves establishing your 1 note in between each other scale degree. I find this one very helpful in identifying wide jumps.

A good ear will truly set you apart as a guitarist. It will open up new possibilities for your playing and give you an edge over other people. Take the time to practice these exercises and your music will never be the same.

Rock On,

About The Author:
Kevin Armagh has been playing the guitar for over 20 years, and has developed a revolutionary method of learning that combines theory, technique, and ear training in a single approach. His work can be found at

46 comments sorted by best / new / date

    "So allow your falsetto to take over when the notes get too high. You've probably accessed this voice when clowning around with your friends." This ^
    "I've found these syllables hard to remember" - how? Haven't you watched the sound of music? - they'll be ingrained in you for life!
    Sound of Music? Hmmm, never heard of it. But if I had heard of a hypothetical song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein sung by Julie Andrews intended to teach Austrian children solfedge I would have to revoke my status as a self-proclaimed bad-ass. But thankfully I've never heard of such a thing so I'm safe. In all honesty I say that I can remember the numbers better because I find it easier, especially when you're doing skips and/or singing arpeggios, which I get into in my training course. I find I have to stop and think to sing do-mi-sol-mi-ti-re-sol-re-do-mi-sol-mi-do to sing a I-V-I progression. However 1-3-5-3-7-2-5-2-1-3-5-3-1 is readily accessible.
    Phoenix V
    Si, Ti, dutch, latvian, german. Who cares? Call them cat, dog, rat, cow, bull, ewe, bat and ant ... In 7 different languages if you like. Whats the difference? .Whats important is to get the relative pitches down. Who cares what you call them or what language you speak. Hum them if you need to. Sheesh.
    "Those syllables are as follows: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do!" actually it's "do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do"
    Both are correct, but in English-speaking countries 'ti' is more prevalent.
    In Brazil we say "D-R-Mi-F-Sol-L-Si-D" we don't say the letters like "C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C" we only use them as notations...
    Isn't Si sung when sightreading an augmented 5th? A G to G# in the key of C would be read Sol Si
    "Ti" is better because "si" is also a "sol sharp" (and I think "sol" should be just "so", maybe depending on the language - at least in Finland it's "so", not "sol").
    G-FORCE 69
    you say that because you probably haven't got any latin influences in your language because the ones that do actually find it much easier
    I know that "sol" is the original name. And I also know "si" was the original, not "ti". But doesn't "si" also mean augmented fifth? In Finnish it does, what about other languages? And if it does, wouldn't "ti" be less confusing? I mean, both are correct but using "ti" instead of "si" (that also means augmented fifth) would be less confusing.
    G-FORCE 69
    well it may make sense to you in Finnish but to me those syllables are pure and simply the names of the notes, and none of them as a double meaning
    What about "sol sharp"? How do you say that? Or do you just say "sol sharp"? Ti is used in other languages too and I'm pretty sure that's because of "sol sharp" being si. And I know how to think logically. So instead of sol it's more logical to say "so" because every other syllable has two letters and then there's a sol that has three letters. Same with ti instead of si because si means "sol sharp". And it's not just in Finnish. There are other languages too that use ti instead of si and so instead of sol. As fatgleeson said, it's the same in Ireland. And I know there are some illogical things in Finnish music terms too. For example we use H instead of B and IMO that's just stupid. When we say B, we mean B flat.
    that H and B being B flat is how classic theory is taught. modern theory has B and Bb. No jazz player will call B an H.
    Are you talking about Finland or countries in general? And in both cases that's not true. My friend is a "jazz player" and calls B an H. And I'm a "classical player" (I play trumpet) and we called them B and Bb. How they are taught completely depends on the music school. In most countries H isn't even used. I think it's used in Germany (and that's why it's also used in Finland). Oh, and B and B flat isn't "modern theory". I'm sure that's how it originally was. Because note names are the alphabet: A B C D E F G. I don't know why people have started calling B an H.
    In Italy we just say "Sol diesis" (Sol#). Never heard someone say "Si" instead of "Sol diesis". "Si" is the name of a note, the one english-speaking musicians call "B"
    OK. In Finland we use Do-Di-Re-Ri-Mi-Fa-Fi-So-Si-La-Li-Ti (shraps) and Do-Ra-Re-Ma-Mi-Fa-Sa-So-Lo-La-Ta-Ti (flats). I don't know where they come from. This is what I found in Wikipedia: I noticed that your use of solfege is a bit different. Your Do is always C. In Finland and some other countries solfege is used for scale degrees. Do is always the first scale degree and Fa is always the fourth scale degree. They are different systems. We use solfege for singing.
    In Finland we have it all messed up... Think about it, the notes in Finnish are A-H-C-D-E-F-G and when you lower the H you get a B. Music theory just doesn't make any sense at all in Finnish.
    And I think that's because somebody decided to start using the German system. Yeah, the H thing really sucks. But I think that's pretty much the only difference between the "music theory" in Finland and other countries. Oh, and as said, some countries (IIRC at least France and somebody here said Brazil) use solfege as note names. So "do" is always C.
    G-FORCE 69
    You find the syllables hard to remember? In many countries such as in Portugal and major Europe I think you are tought the notes by do re mi fa sol la SI(not ti), they don't even teach us the nomenclature of C, D and so on... I learned the letters because all the tabs and chords came like that, but for me a C will always be a do, and it's much easier to make sense of the pitch of the notes if you study them like that...
    pretty sure that depends on what you learned first. Ive always learned them as C,D,E and so on, so thats what i know best.. And im from Denmark, its a little bit humptydumpty about which one you learn.
    G-FORCE 69
    it's not that linear, look it up online try to sing the notes, with the syllables and with letters, and then you'll see what I mean.
    It'd be nice if people actually commented on what they thought of the exercise versus how different languages say or write the scale.
    c starts on the 8th fret not the 9th fret
    Ahh clever eye! The example is actually in Db. I do that so that the student doesn't think about the note names, but instead focuses on the scale degrees. It's how you develop relative pitch.
    Tom Hess v2.0
    care to justify that remark?
    steven seagull
    I have to admit there's a similar vibe, all this "Armagh Approach" self-aggrandising bollocks and talking about his "revolutionary method" - the content's decent enough though. I just wish people would stop with this kind of crap and just call a spade and a guitar teacher a guitar teacher. He seems to know his onions and I'm sure he's a good teacher but we all got wise this kind of marketing crap 20 years ago and its embarrasing to see it these days.
    Hey, at least this guy's informative and had a decent title.. I'd tend to agree with you more if the title said "3 Secrets The Business Doesn't Want You To Know To Develop Your Ear", followed by 1 useless tip and then asking for $60 for some DVD.
    I disagree. He's still selling something but his paragraphs contain useful information where Tom's are just drivel.
    Considering this wasn't basically an ad with "Subscribe to hear more" tagged onto it, I wouldn't say this guy is Tom Hess v2.0. We've had a lot worse than this, with some of the Hess clones popping up for an article or two. Hell, Mr. Armagh didn't even give the "for $X, you can unlock all the secrets of relative pitch" speech.
    I haven't read every post so this may have already been covered. 1) si versus the u.s. ti is the correct syllable. I think solfege in many Latin languages uses si ...for whatever reason English (especially the American variety) uses ti. 2) numbers versus syllables.....numbers are easier to visualize and conceptualize. But in practice syllables are easier in the long run due to no multisyllabic sounds and the addition of other single syllable words for flat and sharp scale degrees. Its really all about the individual and whatever works best for them.....but there is a reason the vast majority of music schools teach moveable do solfege.