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

June 10, 2007 Ear Training 1 Comment

Ear training - reader email


As I've mentioned before, it wasn't until 2002 that I really started to think about the importance of ear training and the ability to play by ear. I was certainly aware of these concepts, but I hadn't yet realized that they were primarily responsible for my success or failure as an improvising jazz musician. By 2004 I was very confident in my beliefs about ear training, yet when I first began writing about ear training I was really worried about the responses I'd receive. Since I had never met anyone with the same thoughts and experiences, I half-expected to get a bunch of nasty letters from jazz educators and theory purists: "Playing by ear is a bunch of garbage!" "Theory is king!" "Who do you think you are anyway?!" But, just the opposite happened.

Over the years I've received hundreds of messages from visitors of this site, and I've been delighted to hear your experiences and thoughts about ear training. Many of you have also had that eureka moment where you ask yourself "If I can't play a simple song by ear, how can I possibly play the ideas in my head?" And many of you have seen dramatic improvement as a result of ear training.

Below you'll find some of the email messages I've received from readers of this site on the topic of ear training. Hopefully they'll give you that extra bit of encouragement you need to start ear training yourself. Or if you have already started, maybe these stories will give you the motivation you need to stick with it during those inevitably frustrating practice sessions. Remember, you are not alone!

If you've got an ear training story that you'd like to share, just send me a message.

ear training mail


I just wanted you to know that I think your posts concerning ear training are SPOT ON. I am a guitarist experiencing a comeback myself. After a 6-year hiatus from the instrument (after 6 yrs of experience), I have made a strong commitment to doing things right this time, both technically and musically. My ability to improvise has always been so mechanical based on various scales and licks that I've learned, that I've always felt that the tail was wagging the dog (ie, my fingers were doing the leading instead of my brain!).

It took some deep thinking to realize that I too was unable to play simple well-known tunes on my guitar by ear. It dawned on me that what was required was a systematic and disciplined approach to doing playbacks on one's instrument of increasingly complex melodies over a long, sustained period, as well as to play simple songs with well-known melodies. As you have mentioned, it is really curious that no one ever talks about this! I realized this independently of discovering your website a couple of weeks ago.

I've been back at learning the guitar for about 10 months, having included ear training (for the first time in my life) in about the last 8 months. Around 4 months ago I moved from 2 note intervals to random 3-note melodies and am gradually increasing the number of intervals in scope (currently up to tritone). Reading your various posts, including your anniversary posts has both validated my approach as well as given me something to look forward to in terms of progress.

Of course our progressions will vary based on our genetics, experiences, commitments, and instruments, but we are truly on the same path. I will read your updates with interest, and you should certainly feel free to bounce any ideas off me.

Chang K. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)


I chanced across your website today, and wanted to thank you for FINALLY clearing up something about playing musicial instruments that I'd been wondering about for years. I've played the violin on and off for about 10 years now (still not very good, but getting better recently), but no matter what I studied, I just never felt like I UNDERSTOOD the instrument. I've always felt like I was simply memorizing whatever it was I was trying to play. There was no spontaneity. I always wondered why, despite being able to read music, and knowing my scales and music theory, I couldn't just pick up the instrument and just PLAY along with a song, like I can do with singing or whistling. I kept looking for that magic book that would show me how to do it by focusing on particular scales or rhythms, but that never worked.

The missing element was learning to play by ear. I suppose it seems rather obvious, now that you've pointed it out to me, but in order to learn to play my violin spontaneously like I can whistle, I have to practice playing it that way. Your stories about the students in the master class who couldn't play a simple 6 note melody by ear really drove the point home. The answer isn't more books. The answer is to spend some time every day PUTTING DOWN THE BOOKS, and just playing by ear.

Anyway, I just thought you'd be interested to hear that you really helped me understand something about my violin that I've been struggling with for years.



I found your web site through a link from [some other site]'s ear training web site, and just wanted to thank you for putting it all together. I've read through most of your articles and found a lot of it very interesting and useful. I play jazz clarinet and recognize the truth in so much you're saying from my own experience. I have always been convinced that the ability to play anything by ear is by far the most important skill I need for being to play any kind of improvised music, not just jazz, in a confident and convincing manner. I have a reasonably good ear, and can play most simple tunes by ear without making too many glaring mistakes, but complex tunes and phrases like you often find in jazz are more challenging for me. As an example, I can play How high the moon without making too many mistakes, but find Ornithology, which is based on How high the moon, a lot more difficult. I have always felt that while jazz theory is important, it is really only a rough guideline, framework or map for what I want to do in an improvisation, something to fall back on if things get out of hand. If I try to stick only to jazz theory, playing only on the chords/scales on any given tune, I tend to lose touch with the music within me, the ideas I get, which is what I want to play. What I hear inside me, the ideas I get, are what I want to be able to play, effortlessly and easily, and I do believe I can get to point where I can do it, provided I can execute it technically on my instrument.

I guess the thing about ear training is that you have to stick at it, day after day, year after year, so in a way it is harder work than learning jazz theory, but I believe it's more useful in the long run. I have also found that rhythm and phrasing are most important, in fact, I feel that as long as I can keep on top rhythmically and get my phrasing right, whatever notes I choose to play tend to sound right, or at least not like a total disaster. Anyway, thanks again for the info and the inspiration provided on your web site, and let me just add as well that I have enjoyed listening to the recordings you've made of yourself playing. It makes me smile, because it reminds me so much of myself and the process I am going through while improving as a musician.

Best wishes,


Rick, about the ear training.... I can't believe how much improvement is possible if you work on it just a little every day. I suspect our backgrounds are similar from what you've written.... as a teenager, I seemed to be able to advance very quickly in terms of sight reading, tone, technique, leading to all state band and that kind of thing. But I had absolutely zero in terms of my ear, and I do mean zero!!! Now, I can pretty much play along with any tune I know in any key, with very few mistakes on the first try.... absolutely amazing.



Thanks so much for your website. The ear trainer has had a huge impact on my playing. I play jazz piano and have a library of books on improvising, but for years it eluded me. I now see the key to improvising is the ear. The ear trainer has not only helped me with intervals, etc., but has also increased my creative melodic development as well. Keep up the good work.



I just wanted to send you a quick "hello!" and say many thanks for your website. I too have been a "victim" of jazz theory/bad ears, partially due to university's methods of teaching jazz..and also my lazyness. But it was your articles that finally got me to dig into the recordings of the greats and put my ears to use. It's been a few months now and I'm already astonished at how effective transcribing/playing by ear is..of course I have a long way before I can ever play jazz with anyone competently. Anyways, thanks again! and keep writing and playing that horn!


Comment by Becky Reid


I can't thank you enough for just collecting these stories and putting them together somewhere on the internet. I'm a classical percussionist turned aspiring UX/UI designer and jazz vibist and I want to do my capstone project on ear training, and I'm being tasked with doing "secondary research" from existing writings before I go out to do primary research on the topic like surveys and interviews. It's SO helpful to me to have this anecdotal data gathered in one place. I thought "well don't I have to prove that ear training is important beyond the claims by all my teachers that it is, and my own personal experience? And what about everybody who isn't majoring/didn't major in music? Can I find any evidence it's useful to them and that it's valued by this group too?"

To reciprocate, I also found ear training to be useful to me, even when I was not playing pitched percussion parts. I found that connecting my gut feelings that came from harmonies and melodies to the names and conventions we have for Western music helped me keep up with the form and not get lost, even when I had to count hundreds of measures of rest waiting for my big important cymbal crash. Dictation practice has made it easier for me to write down and then repeat things I might hear and want to share with someone else. And of course sight singing makes for easier sight reading and faster learning, which is always a plus.

Now that I'm learning jazz and playing in an open adult combo class, I feel like I'm horribly unprepared to play good chord voicings or improvise much beyond obvious choices, but am told I'm an asset to the ensemble, and I think it's these basic musicianship skills and aural skills that make me seem a lot better at jazz than I know I am. I'm trying to get back into ear training now so I can keep up with all this material that's less familiar to me like what chord extensions go with what chord qualities, what chord did I even hear just now, etc. I always had a hard time with block chords back in school and I don't think I can really progress much further without tackling this issue head on.

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.