An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

September 15, 2007 Ear Training 7 Comments

Shredding (and playing) by ear

I receive quite a few emails from people who are just getting started with ear training. Usually they've read a few of my ear training articles and they might have even tried one of my free online ear training tools. They're eager to improve their ability to play by ear, however they're also frustrated by their early attempts at ear training. The simplest of intervals elude them and chords sounds like a mishmash of notes. At this early stage it's easy to give up and so they wonder: do we need to be born with the ability to play by ear, or can we really learn it through practice?

I think it's natural for people to wonder if the ability to play by ear can actually be learned, especially when you consider how few people seem to have the ability. In an average high school band program, for example, the vast majority of students can't play anything accurately by ear. They might be capable instrumentalists, but they can't play any music unless it's written down. I was one of these students myself. When I was in high school, I just assumed that everyone depended upon written music (unless they memorized the written notes). I had no idea I was musically-challenged!

It wasn't until I was a junior in high school that I finally encountered somebody who could play anything perfectly by ear. I discovered his ability one day while I was rehearsing a tricky spot in one of my solo pieces. He was standing about ten feet away from me, listening to me play the same three or four measures over and over again. When I stopped to take a break he picked up his trombone and played the exact passage I had been playing, and it was perfect. I asked him how he was able to figure out the notes without reading the music and he stated simply, “I don't know how I do it, I just can.” Shortly thereafter I then tried to play by ear a few times myself but failed miserably. I couldn't even get close to the right pitches. In the end I figured it was something you had to be born with so I stopped trying. Boy do I wish I hadn't given up...

As I discussed in an earlier ear training article, I believe the reason that most of us cannot play by ear stems from our music education. Most of the people I knew in middle and high school learned how to play their instruments the same way I learned, in concert band class. From day one, everything we were ever asked to play was written down and we never bothered trying to play anything unless we had written music to read from. Unfortunately, since we didn't try to play by ear that ability was never developed and we ended up with poor aural skills. While band classes churn out loads of students who are similarly dependent upon written music, there is a relatively large group of musicians who can play well by ear precisely because they learned to play WITHOUT reading music all the time. To which group of instrumentalists am I referring? Well, I suppose you might guess from the picture... I'm saluting those who are about to rock: guitarists.

shredding by ear

When I attended music school in college, I was surprised to discover that almost all of the guitarists that I knew could play very well by ear. There were plenty of occasions where they'd hear a melodic passage and within seconds they'd be playing it perfectly on their guitar. Similarly, they could listen to a tune for the first time and readily figure out all of the chords by ear. I'm not saying every guitarist can play well by ear, but in my experience all of the good ones could play at least fairly well by ear. By comparison, all of the good trumpet players I knew couldn't play well by ear. In fact, most of the trumpet players and other concert band instrumentalists that I knew in college couldn't play much of anything by ear. So, why were the guitarists so much better at playing by ear? It would have been too much of a coincidence to suggest that they were all born with the ability. No, that wasn't it. They were better because that's how they learned to play.

Guitarists are a great example of how the ability to play by ear can indeed be learned. While us band class students were only playing stuff that was written down, guitarists were learning tunes and riffs by ear from day one. Imagine the budding guitarist who wants to learn the solo from Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Believe it or not, there was a once a time when he or she couldn't readily access the full score to that solo (the horror!). Instead, the "Stairway..." solo had to be learned entirely by ear, note for note, while listening to the original recording over and over. Similarly, if you wanted to learn the Hendrix intro to “Hey Joe,” you didn't look at sheet music. You learned directly from the recording. This continual process of learning from recordings would gradually improve one's ability to play by ear, making each successive tune easier to pick up. In time the ability to play by ear becomes second-nature. Coincidentally, learning by ear is also how the early jazz musicians learned to play jazz. It really is the best way to develop strong aural skills and those lucky guitarists just stumbled into it!

It's funny to me how the band geeks (French horn and trumpet players, I'm looking at you) get all high and mighty about how they're real musicians because they can read music and because they play serious stuff like John Philip Sousa marches and tunes by Aaron Copeland, yet it's those devoted guitarists who are more actively developing the skills required to become real musicians. To be fair, though, guitarists do have an advantage. As a guitarist you can't help but want to learn all of the riffs and solos of your favorite rock songs. After all, you hear those songs all the time and the lead instrument is the same thing you play: dude, the guitar! And due to the fact that those riffs aren't all written down for you, you're pretty much forced to learn them by ear. As a French horn player, however, you'll probably NEVER hear your instrument in popular music so you're much less likely want to pick up your horn and emulate something you hear on the radio. That's too bad for us band geeks. We missed out on a lot of free ear training practice. The good news is that it's never too late to start learning to play by ear.

Before I go, I would like to encourage the young guitarists of today to resist the urge to learn tunes from the abundant online tab archives. Sure, it's easier to play something if you've got all the notes in front of you, but doing so will make you a music-dependent band geek just like the rest of us. And that's not rock and roll at all...


For more information about ear training and jazz improvisation, as well as introductions to my ear training tools, check out my Learning to Improvise - Ear Training article.

Comment by Julien

It's funny because , intuitively, I would have say the opposite. I tought trumpet, because it requires you to really produce the notes from scratch, would naturally develop someone ear.

I mean if you are able to play a written score then I assume you must be able to associate the notes with their sound so I don't understand why doing the reverse (associate the sound with the note) would be a problem.

Hi Julien,

If anything, I'd say the trumpet is more challenging since we only have 3 valves and the valve pattern is somewhat random. On the guitar and especially on the piano, notes are arranged linearly. Not only can you hear the notes as they're played, but you can see (and feel) intervals and chords, thus adding a visual element to your learning. Basically the visual part adds another reference point to your understanding of music. But really, at the end of the day, the instrument we play probably doesn't make much of a difference.

On any instrument, if you aren't playing by ear, you're relying on motor memory to find the note. For example, on trumpet that motor memory tells you that when playing a low "G" you need to relax your embouchure and get a large volume of air through the horn. As long as you're in the neighborhood of a low "G" you can play one, assuming you guess the correct note/fingering. Similarly on guitar you'd naturally move your hand toward the pegs to play a low note but unless you guess the precise fret, you won't play a "G". So, on both instruments the motor memory gets you in the general vicinity of the note, but that's not good enough to play a specific pitch by ear.

As we learn to play by ear, we add pitch-precision to that motor memory so when we hear that low "G" in our heads we know exactly which fret/valve to press!

Comment by Chang

Hi Rick,

Great article. Of course, being a guitarist, I feel compelled to weigh in :)

I agree completely that picking out favorite radio tunes by ear is a great exercise for ear training. However, having done so for a good part of my life, I still managed to end up with a pathetic excuse for an ear! At least pathetic in the sense of being able to reproduce melodies in my head on the guitar on the first try.

One of the issues is that on guitar there are always at least 2 natural ways to find an interval (by staying on the same string or by moving to another string). For larger intervals, there are 3 or four ways to do it (by skipping strings), so as a guitarist, you have to know a lot more interval positions, plus you have to also decide which is the most advantageous one to play at any given moment!

If that isn't difficult enough, all the strings on a guitar are tuned 4ths apart, except for the 2nd and 3rd strings (from the bottom), which are tuned a major 3rd apart! So as you play an interval across these 2 strings, you have to suddenly switch to another paradigm of string/interval relationship thinking! And these 2 strings are probably the most utilized in guitar soloing. Bottom line is, in some ways, the guitar is the worst instrument on which to try to break in your ear...

In any case, regardless of instrument, I still think the best way to develop that brain-to-hand connection is by doing DAILY ear training drills, using software such as you have generously provided on this website. The key is to try to reproduce short melodies on the first try OVER and OVER and OVER and only gradually increase the size of intervals, number of notes, and speed of play. That is the surest way to develop that ability to improv freely.

Unfortunately, even doing these drills daily, it will take years to achieve that holy grail of abilities, as your anniversary articles and my own personal experience attest. There is no escaping the fact that there is an extremely high price to pay for musical virtuosity. However, along the way, as your ear and musical freedom develop, your improvising will get better and you will start to gain a tremendous sense of accomplishment and reward.

To anyone who is trying to apply this method and is getting frustrated with the lack of results, all I can suggest is to KEEP GOING no matter what. It takes a LOT of effort and patience, and you just have to believe that you will eventually get better. YOUR EAR CAN BE TRAINED. I have been doing this daily for months, and I can sympathize with the idea that it's not a ton of fun doing something where the majority of the time you are making the same mistakes over and over, and progress is so slow. Just realize that making a lot of mistakes is indeed part of the process...

If you can endure the discomfort of imperfection, you will gradually achieve great results!


Hi Chang,

I was hoping to hear your thoughts about this article!

During the seven years that I stopped playing the trumpet, the guitar was my main instrument. I wasn't a serious student of the instrument, but I did get good enough to play rock and blues solos. And you're right, multiple string options and that G/B gap do add some complications. Even with those issues, I still think it's easier to play by ear on the guitar since each string has the notes arranged linearly. You can see and feel yourself playing something up or down a half step (at least sometimes). By comparison, the 3 trumpet valves don't follow a linear logic whereby you can visualize a half-step or other intervals from note to note. But like I said before, the differences between instruments are probably negligible.

I am curious about the fact that you've spent a lot of time learning tunes by ear yet you didn't really develop the ability to play by ear. Perhaps you didn't do it that often (or for extended periods of time) or maybe you still spent a lot of time reading music? I'm thinking one of these would have to be the case otherwise you should have developed at least some ability to play by ear through practice. If you did work on playing by ear often in the past, what are you doing differently now that your ear training practice is producing results whereas it didn't previously?

Anyway, thanks for the great comment. Not bad for a guitar player... ha!


Comment by Chang

Hi Rick,

Being that I've never played trumpet, I completely rely on your experience and observations there. I was mostly comparing the guitar to piano, where there is exactly one location for each interval for any given starting note and where there is no G/B warp zone complication. Piano is probably the easiest instrument from which to start ear training. Nevertheless, I agree with you that the particular instrument is not the critical factor.

Your question about learning tunes by ear is a good one, and it just led me to an interesting realization.

When I started playing guitar, for the first 3 or 4 years, I was learning tunes almost exclusively by ear. My ear was good enough where I had very little problem picking out the notes through trial and error; however, I never got anywhere close to being able to reproduce a melody on the first attempt without making any errors. As of 1 year ago, after 15 yrs on/off with the guitar, I couldn't play happy birthday on the first try if my life depended on it!

I think my problem was that I was actually too good at memorizing visual finger patterns. So once I figured out the notes of a song, I stopped using my ear to decide where to place my fingers. My eyes would direct the fingers, and my ears were simply there to make sure I didn't play any wrong sounding notes-- they were quite passive!

That's why the random interval/melody playback exercise has been so useful for my ear development. Forcing myself to try and get it right on the first attempt has really pushed my ears to get involved and do real work. Since I don't have the luxury of knowing any finger patterns a priori, I have to rely entirely on my ears to guide my fingers.

That has made all the difference for me in producing results!

Wow, thanks for asking. That was a cool revelation!


Comment by Felix

All music is not created equal. In other words some tunes, songs, or compositions are simple melodies and have simple slow moving harmonies that might repeat a lot but on the other hand there are some pieces of music that have fast and changing harmonic rhythms, complex poly-rhythms, complex and chromatic harmonies, and fast moving and highly syncopated melodies with very little repetition. I guess a lot of American people do not seem to have the ability to recognize these things, because if they did they would demand a better quality of music from the record companies and the media that drives pop music into our heads daily. I have been defeated by music many times and felt that I was not a very good musician when I was at least pretty fair. Some of this has to do with the competition I had to deal with as a young musician. I was in some pretty fast company. I was expected to do a man's job and I was a kid so I stressed and failed too often. Pushing the right buttons at the right time can only take you so far. Thanks for the use of your software. I am getting better along with trying to do my job most excellently.

Comment by Elani

Every instrument has there advantages/disadvantages. The piano is great for visualizing music and composing, but isn't as good for training intonation/fine hearing. (and that extra 'magic' horn players have in their solo).

The guitar trains intonation somewhat-- you have to tune it and you can bend the strings. However fretless instruments or horns are the real deal in that department.

I struggle with hearing bass lines, but this is crucial if you want to learn a tune fast. Often times the bass melody will outline the chord changes.

In order to be a complete musician you should probably learn to hear all of the instruments clearly, not just your own. Often times you will recognize patterns that will actually make your part make more sense, easier to remember, and thus easier to play by ear.

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