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

July 12, 2008 Ear Training 7 Comments

Dave Douglas on ear training

Dave DouglasLast year, I saw an announcement from Dave Douglas, mentioning some of the classes he was going to teach at the 2007 Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. One of the classes, "Ear Training for Improvisers" really piqued my interest. Not only was it an ear training class specifically geared toward improvisation, but it was also being taught by one of my favorite jazz musicians on the scene today.

Real quick, for those who are less familiar with Dave Douglas, here's a (very) brief bio: Dave Douglas is a two-time grammy-nominated jazz trumpet player, composer, and educator who has recorded over twenty-five albums as a leader and he's appeared on over one hundred recordings as a sideman. In addition to leading his own band, Dave Douglas is well known for his work with John Zorn's Masada group and more recently as a member of the SFJazz Collective. Dave Douglas also started his own independent record label, Greenleaf Music. Here's an even shorter bio: Dave Douglas is a bad ass! For more information, read Dave Douglas' official bio.

Since I knew I couldn't attend Dave Douglas' ear training class in person, I sent him an email hoping to learn more about the class and possibly his thoughts about ear training in general. We exchanged a couple of messages after my initial inquiry, and Dave graciously agreed to write an article about ear training for his GreenleafMusic.com blog. He did warn me, however, that it would probably take several months due to his busy playing and touring schedule. And boy has he been busy. Since that first email Dave Douglas toured around the world with the SFJazz Collective and separately with his own band, he composed a 75-minute suite for big band and quartet, and he recorded and released a new live album with his Keystone band. Oh, and don't forget all the other requests he has to contend with from demanding fans like me!

Given Dave Douglas' hectic schedule, I wasn't expecting him to send me anything more than a few paragraphs about ear training. And honestly, I would have been thrilled just to get that. So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when Dave recently sent me six pages worth of ear training exercises and valuable insight!

Below, I'll highlight a few sections of Dave Douglas' ear training article. I encourage you to read the entire article at the GreenleafMusic.com blog.


If you've read any of my ear training articles, you already know my answer to the above question (hint: my answer rhymes with "chess"). While I'm absolutely confident in my beliefs about ear training, it certainly helps to have some supporting evidence about the importance of ear training, especially when that evidence comes from professional musicians.

I think the following paragraph from Dave Douglas says it all:

Ear training is the most valuable training for any musician, and maybe most of all for an improviser. Improvisation puts a musician on the spot in unpredictable ways -- you have only your ears to help you learn what's going on and decide how to respond to events or initiate them. Basically ear training underlies anything a musician does: melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, form, density, community (who you are playing with), legacy (how you choose to deal, or not deal, with the traditions of music). You name it -- to be handled fully it has got to be heard deeply and accurately.


If you've searched around for ear training materials, you've probably seen at least one of those ear training programs boasting super fast results. Some even go so far as to suggest that you can develop perfect pitch within a few weeks. I fell for one of these programs myself, many years ago (it was a waste of money). Unfortunately, I've yet to find a "silver bullet" for ear training. It's much more realistic to say that while most methods of ear training will improve your aural skills, the results come slowly, and only through practice and perseverance. Ear training can also be very humbling when you realize you can't play simple things accurately by ear. Dave Douglas echoes these sentiments in the following statement:

Ear training takes a lot of time to master, and it seems like the more you work on it the more you see your own shortcomings. It's slow going...

I don't know about you, but I certainly feel a lot better about my own progress with ear training now that I know a fantastic jazz musician like Dave Douglas can relate to the slow (and frustrating) process of ear training.


In his ear training article, Dave Douglas describes several exercises which became part of his practice routine at one time or another. There's a lot of great detail in this section, so be sure to check out the original article for more information. Following are some highlights from Dave Douglas' ear training exercises:

Practice With A Metronome

Dave Douglas illustrates several different ways to practice with a metronome, including everything from playing along to clicks on 2 and 4, to subdividing individual beats so each metronome click represents dotted quarter and dotted half notes. He even goes on to explain how you can use the metronome to practice over tricky meters like 7/8 and 9/8. As Dave states, "These exercises are about developing a solid time feel. Part of my motivation stems from the philosophy that each musician in an ensemble should be equally responsible for the time."

I occasionally practice with a metronome on 2 and 4, but I hadn't even thought about some of these more advanced ideas. I'll definitely give some of them a try, but I probably won't spend too much time with the 7/8 and 9/8 stuff. I'll leave that to the pro's ;-).

Seeing Structures

Dave Douglas' structure exercises involve taking a section, or cell, of music and using that section as source material for improvisation. The improvised material should be the same length as the source material, should sound at least somewhat similar, and should be followed by a repetition of the original source material. For example, let's say you begin with a melody that's two measures long. You'd start out by playing that two-measure melody at a steady tempo (this is a good time to use that metronome). After playing the original melody, you'd improvise for two measures, keeping your improvisation faithful to the original melody. You might stick to the same notes, the same rhythms, the same dynamics, the same general form, whatever. The main point is that the improvised section should be derivative of the original melody and it should be two measures long. After those two improvised measures you'd replay the original two-measure section followed by another two measures of improvisation and so on.

I currently practice a variation of Dave's structure exercises when practicing licks from jazz transcriptions. I'll pick a measure or two that I really like from a transcription and I'll use that lick as the inspiration for my improvisation, occasionally returning to the original lick. If the lick has lot of interval leaps, I'll have a lot of leaps in my solo. If it's bluesy, I'll also try to play bluesy. You get the idea. I don't, however, obey such a regimented structure where I improvise for the same length of the original lick nor do I repeat the original lick after each improvised section. I'm definitely going to spend some quality time doing this exercise as Dave Douglas describes to see where it leads me.

Playing In All Keys

Dave Douglas' final ear training recommendation involves playing music without written materials, in every key. As Dave states, "It should be obvious that this skill is important in improvisation because it entails, essentially, the removal of barriers between the musical imagination and the musical instrument." In other words, the ability to play equally well in any key, and actually without even thinking about key, frees you to play any musical idea that pops into your mind. Dave recommends taking a familiar tune and playing it without written material in each of the twelve keys. You'll only use your ears to guide you from one note to the next.

If you've tried either of my ear training tools, you know that I've got several different exercises to help you play melodies by ear in every key. My simple song randomizer will give you random tune names and starting notes and my ear training applet has random melodies, simple songs, and jazz licks, all of which can be sequenced and modulated. You can even modulate the melodies over the complete cycle of 5th (and 4ths).

A side note... As you probably noticed, Dave Douglas doesn't like to use the term "playing by ear" to specifically mean playing without written materials. In his mind, all music is played "by ear" even when reading from written music, since we're always using our ears to guide us on some level. For instance, even if you're reading from written music, your ears are still able to tell you whether or not you hit a wrong note or whether or not you're out of tune. So, to Dave, there's always a "by ear" element to playing music. I definitely see where Dave is coming from on this and he obviously sees where I, and others, are coming from when we talk about playing (exclusively) by ear. We simply have a different default definition of the phrase "playing by ear". Just thought I'd address that in case anyone was confused, since I use the phrase "playing by ear" throughout this site.


Dave posted his ear training article to his GreenleafMusic.com blog a few days ago and I've already seen it re-posted on a couple of jazz message boards (TrumpetMaster, TalkBass). No doubt, his article will inspire and motivate more people to spend time with ear training in their daily practice routines. I, for one, am extremely grateful to him for taking the time to share his thoughts about ear training.

If you haven't heard much of Dave Douglas' music, I'd recommend starting with his "Live at the Jazz Standard" recording, which was released in 2007. The interplay between Dave and saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, is crazy good. It's an excellent example of what you can do with strong aural skills!


Comment by Darren

Thank you Rick and Dave for this article. Dave has a lot of good ideas which I will use in my ear training practice.

It's a surprise to learn that somebody like Dave Douglas even had to work on ear training. I always thought people like him were born with perfect pitch and that ear training was for less talented people like me. That made me feel inferior on some level, like I could never really get good no matter how much I practice. Maybe Dave began ear training at a much higher level than me, but just knowing he went through some of the same challenges inspires me to work harder. Thank you!!!


Comment by karim

Dave hit the nail on the head on ear training. Doing things like learn songs in all the keys, and with your ear training tool is cats need to become a great musician. Also learning songs by ear will help with this as well. I think the site is great and, also lets me know that there are cats with the same problems as I on the horn.


Comment by Filipe

Your blog is realy amazing.

I'll include in my rss reader right now!

Cheers from Brazil.

Comment by Marc

The seeing structures exercise is all about enforcing an artificially high level of discipline in your practicing which will give a greater degree of control in a performance situation. Randy Halberstadt describes a similar exercise in his book "Metaphors for Musicians". In his exercise you play a short melodic idea, leave a bit of space, then repeat the idea with an improvised extension, leave some space, and then play the extension with a new idea tacked on, leave some space, play the new idea, etc. This is a great way to see if you really knew what you were playing or if you were just playing a random lick to take up space in a solo.

Great stuff in your blog here.

I love Dave's creative uses of the metronome. Thanks so Much!

Yeah Rick & Dave, a very thorough insight into ear training.

After over 40 years of music teaching I'm convinced that most music students need ear training.

Unfortunately it is looked at as something boring.

I "dared" myself to sing on my ear training methods review site (a first for me). Hopefully my tips & audio examples on how to tackle ear training will be helpful for some music students.

Check it out: http://www.eartraining.whitecirclemusic.com

Comment by Felix

Dave's idea about practicing with the metronome was inspiring for me. I have good time and never had a problem with it, however as a church musician who is working with untrained singers and drummers who loose time and speed up time it has been very frustrating. Our director is a very nice woman who has a beautiful voice and sings a beautiful soprano to teach voices never seems to loose time when she is singing the lead, however when she is teaching others she feels everything on 2 and 4. She will clap her hands to keep the form clear by accenting 2 and 4 all the time. She admits that she never did learn how to dance as a young person and that she looses time. I have to deal with her (feel) errors in real time however. Now as a rhythm section player like me who is the pianist and organist I play with accents on 1 and 3. So I disagree with Dave here when he says Bebop accents 2 and 4. The changes are always on 1 and 3. So I am making changes on 1 and 3 while swinging on 2 and 4. All good pianists do it all the time. Dave's idea about setting music time where the metronome is beating exactly on time, a little ahead of time , or a little behind time is brilliant. I can see where practice like this will be of great benefit to me where I am dealing with these untrained singers and drummers. I can see where a division, a subdivision, or a fractional combination of those ahead or behind the beat going on the metronome while I work in real time is going to be a great asset to me. Our director is not clapping when she is singing the lead voice or singing a solo. So apparently she feels everything very soulfully. She is an African-American as am I. We have a natural swing to everything we do and I do not know why. I was in the U.S. Army and was a piano player with the Army Band of New York. I played the bass drum and cymbals often for marching and I am a good marcher. There everything is 1 and 3. Left, * Left,* Left, Right Left is the military mantra. Good comping rhythm section pianists and guitarists push and thrust time into forward motion by playing anticipations and delays but the changes remain on 1 and 3. There are only very rare occasions where there is a chord change on a 2 or a 4. Now odd time are a different story.

Post a new comment



Your Website (optional)


Security Code: type the numbers you see in the image shown above
Note: Your email address will be used to send you notification if/when your comment is approved for public viewing. Additionally, I will use your email address to contact you if you ask me a direct question. Your email address will not be displayed online, nor will it be used for marketing or any other purpose.