Ear Training - February 5, 2006

John Murphy - ear training interview

john murphyFollowing is an interview I conducted with John Murphy, a professor in the jazz studies program at the University of North Texas (UNT). As you'll read below, the interview focuses on his thoughts about ear training and its role in jazz education at UNT.

I really value John's insight and would like to thank him for his contribution to this website and, more importantly, to jazz education. Thanks, John!

And now, on to the interview…

Q: What classes do you teach at UNT?

A: These are the courses I teach regularly: jazz aural fundamentals, undergrad and graduate jazz history, graduate jazz analysis and research methods, Jazz Repertory Ensemble. I've also taught Music Cultures of the World, seminar in transcription, and seminar in Cuban and Brazilian music in the ethnomusicology division.

Q: Please tell us a little about the required ear training classes for undergraduate jazz studies majors at UNT. How many aural skills classes/semesters are required? What skills are covered in the required classes?

A: Two semesters of jazz theory, the second one integrated with playing; one semester each of aural fundamentals and keyboard. More details here: http://www.music.unt.edu/jazz/courses.html

Q: Please tell us about the skills you cover in your "jazz aural fundamentals" class. Where does it fall within the other required ear training classes (is it the first class they take, last class, etc)? What methods and/or books do you use in your class?

A: It's usually taken early in a student's undergraduate program. Sometimes graduate students take it if they need more work on aural skills, and sometimes people from other majors take it as an elective. It covers intervals, intonation, chord quality, rhythm, tempo, chord progressions, form, modes (of major, melodic minor, harmonic minor), blues and pentatonic scales, symmetrical scales, and transcription. I'd like to do more with listening for timbre. I don't use a textbook, but I recommend Dan Haerle's The Jazz Language and Mark Levine's The Jazz Theory Book as references, and ear training books by Armen Donelian and Jerry Coker (Hearin' the Changes).

Q: I'd like to get a sense of the average aural skills level held by most freshmen in the jazz studies program. For instance, what percentage would you say can already identify intervals by ear? What percentage can identify chords? What percentage can play accurately by ear?

A: Some entering undergraduates with strong aural skills test out of the course. Of those who take the class, some can hear intervals well at the beginning and find other skills more challenging. Some need to work steadily on all of the skills. Most of them have tried to learn tunes and solos by ear. They have a wide range of expertise in aural skills that reflects the wide range of experiences they've had prior to coming to UNT.

Q: What level of aural skills would you say are required by professional jazz musicians? How does this compare to the levels attained by the average UNT student upon graduation?

A: Very high levels of aural skills are necessary. Hearing well is fundamental. The average UNT jazz undergraduate has excellent aural skills by the end of the program. Achieving excellent aural skills is a long process that continues well beyond the college years.

Q: In a previous email exchange, you mentioned that you encourage your students to practice the playing of simple songs/melodies by ear. What percentage of your students can accurately play simple songs by ear? Have you ever tested that ability in class? If so, how did it go?

A: I have tested this in class. Usually we sing rather than play. Many students can sing familiar tunes by ear. When I ask them to do that on scale degrees, it's more of a challenge. I ask students to practice that skill on their instruments in all keys. There's something special about playing melodies in all keys that helps you perceive it as a structure in a key instead of a series of pitch names. You can use that structural sense to develop your ideas when you improvise.

I ask my students to sing on scale degrees rather than solfege syllables. Solfege is more natural if you speak a language that uses those syllables as the note names. It's always struck me as a clumsy and arbitrary system for English speakers. I'd rather use numbers because the sequence is already internalized and scale degree numbers line up easily with chord extensions and functional harmony. We already use numbers in chord symbols and in chord progressions, so why not use them for scale degrees, too instead of switching to an arbitrary set of syllables? Scale degree numbers also link up well with interval-based approaches to improvising like Wayne Krantz's.

Q: From time to time, I hear from visitors to my website who don't have the ability to play by ear. Not even simple melodies. My traffic logs will show that they initially use my ear training tools, however after a week or two they'll stop. There could be several explanations for this, however I suspect they stop working on the skills because they don't see immediate improvement and/or because they find the exercises to be tedious and frustrating. In your experience, how long does it take for someone to develop the ability to play by ear? Are there any words of encouragement you'd like to give to people who are just starting to work on ear training?

A: It will take different people different amounts of time. With steady work, you can notice improvement almost immediately if you set realistic goals. I have graduate students with such strong aural skills that they can transcribe all of the parts of a collective improvisation section in a recording by the Dave Holland Quintet. I wouldn't try that as a first project if you're just starting to learn by ear. Choose something you can do and gradually increase the difficulty. I often use pop songs with catchy riffs or horn parts for practice in class because they're memorable and they repeat often during the tune. Another thing to try is to get a jazz etude book that comes with a recording, and only look at enough of the etude to get started. Then transcribe it and use the etude as an answer key. If you're just starting this is helpful because the etude is easier than actual music.

Q: In the IMPROVISATION section of my site, I discuss several fundamental elements that I believe aspiring jazz musicians should focus on. These include listening to jazz, ear training, rhythm exercises, building cohesive solos (using motifs), vocal improvisation, transcription, and jazz theory. Is there anything you'd like to add and/or remove from that list? What relative weight would you give to ear training?

A: Ear training is essential. If you're going to build a cohesive solo, you need to recognize cohesiveness when you hear it in someone's solo and you need to hear what you are playing. Use the voice as a bridge between what you hear and what you play. In transcription, listen to a short passage enough so that you can sing it, then figure it out on the instrument, then notate it. This strengthens the sort of inner singing that you do when you improvise: with that inner voice you imagine the next thing you want to play and then execute it. Someone who sings while playing, like Kurt Rosenwinkel, who I was lucky enough to hear at the Village Vanguard last month, sings all of those incredible lines he plays. I also suggest that my students check out other world music traditions where improvisation is prominent, like Indian music, and notice how much singing there is in the training of players of pitched instruments and percussionists. I want my students to develop a seamless kind of musicality in which they can sing everything they play, play and write down what they hear, and hear what they read in notation. It helps improvisation, composition, sightreading, rehearsing an ensemble. Hearing well helps everything you do in music.

Q: What percentage of jazz studies majors at UNT go on to become professional full-time musicians?

A: North Texas graduates are everywhere, playing all kinds of music. Have a look at the main news pages and the alumni pages of the UNT jazz website.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add about jazz education (at UNT or otherwise)?

A: Every so often I encounter people who have a fixed idea of what UNT is, often based on very little direct contact with the program, that is far from the reality of it. They might think of it as a big band school, for example. Big bands are a prominent part of our program, but there are three times as many small groups as there are big bands, and there are other ensembles besides big bands. Our busiest student players do lots more small group playing than big band playing. Another thing is that the program is always changing in large and small ways. We recently added private instruction in jazz to the undergraduate curriculum and we're working on a proposal to do the same with the master's level and another proposal for a DMA in Jazz Studies. The faculty are involved in new projects. Most importantly, the students change, and they have the creative space to do their own projects. So I would say to a prospective student who hears something positive or negative about North Texas to follow up and see just how recent and direct that information is. It's a big program. There's room for people to develop as individuals by finding like-minded people to play with. That's a kind of ear-training, too: not believing everything you hear.


In 1947, the University of North Texas (UNT) became the first university in the country to offer a degree of jazz studies. Since that time, it has remained a leader in jazz education, continually receiving accolades for its role in music education and the professional jazz industry. Visit the UNT Jazz website to learn more about the program, faculty, and facilities.

Comment by John Murphy

P.S. I thought about your post about your old improv teacher last night as I was playing the sort of gig that your teacher wore a tux to. I was thinking about all the aural skills practice that it gave me, even though most of it was playing written parts: listening for intonation and blend (it was four horns + rhythm), dynamics, timbre, hearing my note against the bass note and the harmony in general, rhythmic feel (we played lots of different styles), looking ahead to sightread and hearing the pitch and rhythm in my inner ear just before executing it. It wasn't just good practice, it was enjoyable to play with a high level of craft with other strong players. It was enjoyable just to play the tenor, clarinet, and flute. Other gigs depend more on improvisation, but every time you play with people it's a chance to develop your ability to hear the total sound.




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