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.
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 www.Kevin-Armagh.com.