How to Develop a Good Ear

Published: 01st February 2006
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What do we mean when we say that someone "has a good ear?" Actually, the term can mean several things. When someone has a good ear, they can accomplish at least one of the following:

1) they can identify, usually by note name, the various pitches that they hear, and sing those pitches in tune;
2) they can identify chords by name; and/or
3) they can identify instruments or combinations of instruments within a musical work.

Having a good ear is something that most musicians strive for. Having a bad ear means that you can't recognize or label the music you are hearing an important skill for performers and composers.

I run a songwriting website, (The Essential Secrets of Songwriting ), and I know how important a good ear is. If you are a songwriter, having a good ear is vital because the best way to improve your songwriting craft is to listen to the music of the professionals. But if you can't really identify what you are hearing, you're missing out on opportunities to improve. Throughout my years as a music teacher, I have observed something interesting and very important. The marks that my students make in music theory studies are usually very close to the marks they receive in ear training. And more than that, I can usually gauge how a student is going to do in one course by looking at their progress in the other. For example, students who do well in theory but poorly in ear training will usually see their ear training marks rise over time. And students who have great ears but weak theory skills will generally experience better marks in theory over time. In other words, music theory and ear training go hand in hand. The first and most important thing you can do to improve your ear is to improve your theory skills. Why? When you understand how music is structured, your ears have a reason for what they are hearing.

Here's one good example. In any key, there are three or four certain chords that work well to reinforce that key, and are more likely to occur than any other chords. Knowledge of theory helps you know and identify those chords. So when you are listening to music and trying to identify the chords you are hearing, you can focus in the most likely choices. Besides improving your theory skills, here are some other pieces of advice for you:

1) Try some of the ear training websites that are out there. Just do a search for "online ear training" and you'll find lots of resources that can help.

2) Try purchasing some ear training software. These days, most university aural perception programs incorporate computerized training into their curriculum.

3) Try writing down the melodies that you hear being played. Transcribing music in this manner actually does not require strong music reading skills, and you will find that what skills you do possess will improve greatly and quickly. Take a simple song, and play it on your CD player a bit at a time, writing down whatever notes you hear. Even if you aren't sure of the rhythms, write whatever pitches you can. If you're stuck on a note, find it on your guitar or piano, and then write it down. This is the best ear training exercise there is!

Practicing your instrument is crucial to becoming a better musician. But be certain that you don't neglect your ear!

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Gary Ewer is the author ofThe Essential Secrets of Songwriting and Gary Ewer's Easy Music Theory. He is currently an instructor in the Dept. of Music, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.



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