Ear Training - November 9, 2010

Ear training with recordings

Ear training has been a regular part of my practice routine since the beginning of 2004, when I created the first version of my free online ear training tool. Back then, I couldn't play anything accurately by ear. Every attempt to play by ear felt like trial and error as I went from one bad note to another, hoping to eventually land on the right pitch.

Over the years, my ear training tool has helped me to gradually improve my skills, literally one note at a time. I began playing two notes (intervals) by ear. Once I was fairly accurate with two notes, I added a third note, and so on. Eventually, I reached a point where I could play random melodies that were six and seven notes long. I couldn't play these longer melodies accurately 100% of the time, but I was able to play them accurately most of the time.

Having become decent at six- and seven-note random melodies, I began focusing on even longer sequences that were based on jazz licks and simple songs. I also practiced with faster tempos, thus minimizing the amount of time I could spend thinking about each note. I even added random chord progressions to my online ear training tool, so I could work on all of these ear skills while navigating through chord changes. Basically, I was gradually modifying my ear training studies to come as close as possible to the conditions I'd face in a real improvised jazz solo.

Now that I'm able to play longer melodies and navigate through basic chord changes by ear, I've begun a new phase of ear training. Unlike my previous efforts, this new phase didn't require me to add any new features to my ear training tools. In fact, this new phase doesn't even use my ear training tools. And while this new phase might be new to me, it isn't new at all. It's actually the same form of ear training that pretty much every great musician has used to develop his or her ears since the dawn of recorded music. In this new phase of ear training, I'm finally listening to actual jazz recordings as I try to play back what I hear entirely by ear.

In all honesty, the notion of playing along to recordings isn't truly new to practice routine. I've tried many times over the years to mimic what I hear in jazz recordings. But, until recently, my ability to play by ear wasn't strong enough for me to get very far. At best, I'd pick out a few notes before becoming frustrated and giving up. Now, however, I'm actually able to play entire heads and sections of (slow) solos!

MY ATTEMPT AT EAR TRAINING WITH A JAZZ RECORDING

curtis fuller and red garlandiwasdoingallright - audio clip Here's a recording of me playing along with "Moonlight Becomes You" from the album "Curtis Fuller with Red Garland." That's Sonny Red Kyner on saxophone.

This recording begins with me listening to the saxophone and playing back what I hear by ear. About half way through the clip, I start to improvise along with the saxophone, as I play over the unfamiliar chords. I don't normally jump so quickly from emulation to improvising when practicing ear training with recordings, but I did so in this clip for demonstration purposes.

This clip captures my first time ever listening to and trying to play along with this Red Garland recording. It probably would have been a good idea to listen to it a couple of times before trying to play along, but I wanted to record the results of hearing something for the first time while trying to play by ear. This gives me a benchmark from which to compare myself in the years to come. It's admittedly not the best recording I've shared (it might be the worst!), but I think you'll agree that I'm at least somewhat successful at playing back the melody by ear and blending in with the chord progression. And I did it all by ear.

BENEFITS OF EAR TRAINING WITH RECORDINGS

  • Learn rhythm and phrasing from the masters - My ear training tool already has over 100 jazz licks that I can use for call and response exercises, but let's face it: they sound stiff and lifeless compared to an actual jazz musician. Ear training with recordings allows you to emulate the pitches, rhythm, and phrasing of your favorite jazz musicians. It's like real-time jazz transcription!
  • You can practice ear training and improvisation simultaneously - Your ear training doesn't have to be limited to repeating what you hear in the recording. You can also mix in improvisation. For example, you might start with a chorus or two of playing back what you hear in the recording. After that, you could play counter melodies that complement, rather than copy, what you hear in the recordings. And after that, you could go off on your own, improvising over the chords as you challenge your ears to play over the unfamiliar chord changes.
  • You can learn new tunes while you train your ear - When I was in college, anytime I wanted to learn a new tune, I'd open the Real Book and commit the tune to memory. Often, I'd memorize new tunes without even hearing the original recording; or any recording, for that matter. And look where that got me - not very far! It would have been much better if I had learned those new tunes directly from the recordings. In doing so, I would have challenged my ear to play what I heard and I would have learned how the tunes were intended to be played.
  • You'll never run out of material - A challenge of ear training is keeping things fresh so you're playing by ear rather than playing by memorization. That's the key advantage that software ear trainers have over ear training CDs. The ear training CDs will always play the same exercises over and over and eventually you'll start to learn the sequences by memory. With a good collection of jazz recordings, you'll never run out of new source material to challenge your ears. You could use a free service like Pandora as your source for jazz recordings, or you could use a subscription-based service like Rhapsody. I've been a happy Rhapsody customer for many years and highly recommend it.

ADDITIONAL READING

Comment by Laura Coyle

Your ear trainer has been so good for my ears. And next to basic ear training, this technique of playing/singing along with recordings and recording myself is just about the most valuable part of my routine. As much as I hate recording myself and listening back - it's the ultimate way to really hear if I'm getting it - particularly rhythmically. This article inspires me to do more of that. Thanks, great post!

Comment by Pepper Crutcher

What you describe is what I have been doing with Pandora Radio for almost a year. My experience has been a lot of one step forward, three back, two forward, on back, etc., due to two basic weaknesses - chop fatigue and discomfort above the staff and not having the basic lick vocabulary under my fingers yet. I appreciated hearing that I had followed in your footsteps unknowingly.

Nice to see somebody being so candid in front of this whole internet audience.

My sentiments also: Just have a go. If you don't try and keep persisting moving forward in music education can become hard work.

I "dared" myself to sing on my ear training review site (a first for me) but hopefully my free tips and audio recordings on how to tackle ear training will be of help to some music students.

Best of luck.

What a great site! A comprehensive website where we can follow as they develop the improvising musician. Very interesting this article about auditory training. I think it's an enjoyable way to practice.

congrats!

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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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