Ear Training - February 20, 2017

Ear training with recordings, part 2

Seven years ago, I wrote a blog post about the benefits of practicing ear training with jazz recordings. In that article, I included an example of myself doing call and response, as well as improvisation, with Curtis Fuller's recording of "Moonlight Becomes You." For the sake of convenience, you can hear that audio recording right here: iwasdoingallright - audio clip

As one might hope, my ability to play by ear has improved since I made that recording in 2010. Thanks to those improved skills, I've been working on a couple of new ear training exercises which I'd like to share with you in this cleverly titled "part 2" article.

Disclaimer (aka, Rick making excuses once again): These exercises are fairly new to me, so the audio clips aren't particularly good. For example, you'll hear very uneven rhythms and hesitation. Someday I hope to be able to play these with a metronome, but I'm just not good enough yet.

EXCERPT-BASED IMPROVISATION

This exercise combines call and response ear training, improvisation, and compositional development into a single exercise.

Instructions:

  • 1. Start by playing a recording that you haven't heard before.
  • 2. As the recording plays, listen for any melody that jumps out as being both interesting and potentially playable (i.e. not overly complicated/hard).
  • 3. As soon as you hear a melody that you want to use, stop the recording.
  • 4. To make sure that you've heard the recording properly, sing the melody.
  • 5. Next, play the melody by ear on your instrument.
  • 6. Once you've played the melody correctly, improvise a theoretical continuation to the melody.

Step #6 is important, so I'll go into a bit more detail. Rather than just improvise anything I want, I'm trying to imagine what might come next if I were the composer. This forces me to play something that makes musical sense, as I build on what I've just heard. In time, I'm hoping this will add more cohesion to my improvised solos, so I can build from one phrase to another without it sounding like a bunch of random ideas.

Here's an example of this exercise: iwasdoingallright - audio clip

The source excerpt is from Howard McGhee and Benny Bailey's recording of "Nostalgia" from their "Home Run" album. After the excerpt plays, you'll hear me repeat the melody followed by my improvised version of how the rest of the tune might go. At this point I haven't listened to the rest of the tune, so I truly don't know how it should sound. I'll admit that I didn't do a great job with this attempt, but I did at least mirror the piano a bit with my descending phrase and I did manage to play the melody accurately by ear.

LEARNING SOLOS BY EAR

I don't have a particularly good musical memory. I have trouble remembering tunes, and it's especially difficult for me to learn intricate bebop tunes like "Donna Lee." In fact, even though I've heard "Donna Lee" hundreds of times, I probably couldn't even sing the first measure accurately.

This ear training exercise is an attempt for me to improve my musical memory while building my repertoire of jazz sounds and ideas.

Instructions:

  • 1. Pick an interesting, yet playable jazz solo. You certainly don't need to learn the entire solo. A chorus or two is fine.
  • 2. Memorize the solo by ear and be able to sing it accurately. Do not use any written music and don't write anything down. When memorizing, work on small sections at a time, listening over and over again until you are able to remember it all. This can take several days/weeks.
  • 3. Once you can sing the solo, try playing it by ear on your instrument.
  • 4. Once you can play it by ear, start on different notes, testing your ability to play it by ear in various keys.

Here's an example of this exercise: iwasdoingallright - audio clip

The solo is from Chet Baker's recording of "Tangerine." In the recording, I play a section of the solo in one key and then I play it again in another key. Neither key is the original key from the recording.

Obviously, you need to be able to play fairly well by ear already in order to succeed with this exercise. If you're having trouble, you could limit yourself to short phrases, or you could try a dedicated ear training tool like my free online ear trainer.

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Ear Training

Ear training is extremely important for understanding and creating music. Unfortunately, it's also typically absent from early stages of mainstream music education. I created some ear training tools to help improve my skills. Hopefully, these tools and my experiences will strengthen your aural skills as well.

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