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

February 20, 2017 Ear Training 0 Comments

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.


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


  • 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.


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.


  • 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.

February 28, 2015 Ear Training 12 Comments

Ear training tool - version 3.0

Today I launched version 3.0 of my free online ear trainer!

online ear trainer - v3

This new version of my ear trainer runs natively in modern web browsers, without the need for Java or any other type of plugin. It's a nice change of pace from the security warnings and Java installation headaches of my old ear trainer (first created as a Java applet back in 2004).

UPDATE 11/12/22 - Fixed issue where progression highlighting is incorrect after changing the tempo. Fixed timeout issue for audio on some iOS devices.

UPDATE 10/10/22 - Added Drop 3 and Drop 2+4 chord voicings as well as a 1,000-note option to the interval sequences.

UPDATE 5/21/22 - Added a new "Intervals: Key from Note" Sample Exercise, which can help help you to identify a chord's key by using a reference note. The Custom Scratchpad supports new "absolute" tags, which will force the enclosed sequence to play as written, even when you have modulated to a different key (see Scratchpad examples #1 and #8). A new <#chord> tag will speak aloud the currently playing chord key and chord type for Custom chord progressions (see example #11).

UPDATE 4/17/22 - When notes are higher and lower than the displayed range, they will now have a "8va" or "8vb" next to them to indicate their actual position on the staff. The Custom feature now supports tags to prevent parts of a script from appearing in the display. There is also the addition of an ellipsis shortcut to indicate a range of notes in Custom scripts (ex: C...c).

UPDATE 2/1/22 - The display of progressions has been improved to scale better on different screen sizes.

UPDATE 12/22/21 - The Progressions and Custom tabs now have an option for a drum stick count in, to give you a chance to prepare before the exercise starts. Keyboard shortcuts have been added for playing a middle C (period key) and repeating an exercise without also playing the starting cadence (shift+left arrow). More information on keyboard shortcuts is farther down this page. A new Yamaha DX7 piano type has been added. It's a nice quality soundfont, but due to the fluctuation in pitch, it probably wouldn't be my first choice for many of the ear training exercises.

UPDATE 9/28/21 - The Custom feature now supports variables and randomization for simultaneous notes.

UPDATE 8/14/21 - Added two new piano sounds that can be used with any exercise.

UPDATE 4/8/21 - Added ability to share the ear trainer's current configuration via a unique URL. This was you can share an exercise with other people without having to tell them each and every box to check. They can just load your saved configuration's URL and their ear trainer's settings will automatically match yours when you created the URL.

UPDATE 3/1/21 - Added some sample exercises to demonstrate various capabilities of the ear trainer and to help people get started with ear training. Also added stepped sequences to the Intervals and Melodies tab.

UPDATE 2/1/21 - The staff has been updated to support retina displays. The Custom feature now supports repeats and modulation control. Lastly, the bass clef has been improved to show notes in a friendlier octave when possible.

UPDATE 12/16/20 - The Intervals tab now supports longer sequences, so you could specify a few intervals and each subsequent note of the sequence will be within that interval. For this feature, I recommend "Random" for "Note Direction" in order to avoid octave shifts that will occur if it gets out of range. The Custom feature can now support words, allowing you to add note names and other words to your Custom scripts (for a complete list, see example #9 of the scratchpad instructions). The Progressions tab now includes Dom7sus4 and Dim7 chord types. Finally, the ABC notation processing engine has been improved to support more complex rhythms. If any of your scripts no longer sound as you expected, please let me know.

UPDATE 8/31/20 - In addition to a starting cadence, there's now an option for short drone.

UPDATE 8/8/20 - I switched to new mp3 piano sound files which should improve the audio quality for browsers (e.g. Safari) and operating systems that use mp3s (e.g. iOS). I also added an option to repeat an exercise without adding a delay (under Play Mode) and I increased the maximum repeat count to 36. This could be helpful if you want to repeat a chord/note over and over again as a drone.

UPDATE 6/13/20 - Added a version checker so the ear trainer will let you know when a new version is available. Also, Custom sequences now display the proper notes when transposed into different keys.

UPDATE 6/4/20 - Here's the largest update since 3.0 went online. I fixed a bug which logged you out after a few days, forcing you to reload the page to login. I added the ability to be logged on from multiple devices. I improved the audio for iOS devices. I added support for Major 6 chords in the Custom scratchpad. I improved the responsiveness of the ear trainer, so it resizes better on smaller screens. The initial load no longer produces no audio for the first exercise on iOS. There is now an option to have the note names read back to you. This is handy if you want to have it running in the background while doing other tasks. I was going to use SpeechSynthesis to read back the interval and chord names, but due to an issue with iOS, I had to resort to audio files. As a result, it's only going to read the note names. You can also have the results delay until you click in the staff area. That works best with Manual mode. With all that's going on in the world today, I hope you'll get some use out of this update.

UPDATE 1/4/20 - Added Major 7 b5 chord to the Chords tab. Also, in random custom scripts, accidentals are now cleared after each random sequence. Previously, accidentals would accumulate and carry over to subsequent randomizations.

UPDATE 5/10/18 - Due to a recent change in Chrome's autoplay restrictions, the ear trainer may have stopped producing audio. I put in a quick fix which may need to be altered a bit to improve performance on mobile devices.

UPDATE 5/15/17 - I added a hi-hat and ride cymbal to the rhythm sections used by the Progressions and Custom features. The Progressions section also includes the ability to choose between a single key center and a random mixing of keys when it creates a chord progression. This could be used, for example, to practice a ii-V7-I progression in random keys without pausing in between each key change.

UPDATE 10/4/16 - The custom feature now supports melodies with even (i.e. non-swing) rhythms. To enable this feature, add "R:even" to the top of your custom script. Note that this only applies to stand-alone melodies. Rhythmic accompaniments will still use swing rhythms regardless of this setting.

UPDATE 9/6/16 - This update introduces the concept of custom exercises, where an "exercise" saves the current ear trainer settings. For example, if you like to practice random melodies with a tempo of 120bpm, in auto-play mode, with 3 repeats, and random modulation, you can save that configuration as an exercise. Another ear training exercise might be random ii-V7-I chord progressions with a tempo of 90bpm. Once you save these as separate exercises, you can return to them at any time without having to manually change the tempos, repeat options, etc. You just click on the exercise names and stored configuration is loaded automatically! To use this feature, simply login and then use the "Your Exercises" link at the upper right to create a new exercise.

UPDATE 7/30/16 - Thanks to a visitor's request, I have added Sus2 and Sus4 triads to the Chords feature.

UPDATE 5/12/16 - This update adds randomization to the ear trainer's Custom tab, with a syntax like the following: { randomSequence1 ; randomSequence2 ; randomSequence3 }. As an example, if you want to play a C and then a random note that's either a G, A, or B, you'd put the following into the Custom tab: C { G ; A ; B }

UPDATE 3/6/16 - The melodies feature now includes the ability to play a cluster of notes simultaneously via the "Sequence Type=Harmonic" option. A suggested exercise for this would be to play a C major cadence followed by the note cluster. Begin with a couple of notes, and increase to as many as you can identify. Over time, this should improve your relative pitch. I also added a few new 9th chords to the chords feature. Both of these new features are the result of your feature requests, so thank you for your suggestions!

UPDATE 10/31/15 - I improved the layout of chord progressions for this update, so they should be easier to read. Also, I fixed a problem single-note melodies and and the "Restrict to Single Octave" option.

UPDATE 10/20/15 - This update fixes a few bugs, including an issue where modulation could force the jazz progressions to be played in extreme upper and lower registers. Additionally, the Custom tab's scripts will now respect the specified double bar repeat settings. To round things out, you'll find a few more examples for the Custom tab's scratchpad feature, including a listing of all currently supported chord types.

UPDATE 8/29/15 - With this update, you can click on the notes in the ear trainer's staff in order to hear a specific note. I also added a sight singing "Play Mode" where the ear trainer will show notes without playing audio. Once the notes appear, you can click on individual notes to hear their pitches or you can click the repeat button to hear the entire sequence.

UPDATE 7/31/15 - This update focuses primarily on the Custom tab. New options have been added for modulation within sequences via double bar lines ( || ). This is handy if you want to do ear training over an entire song. By adding double bar lines periodically within the song, you can repeat and modulate a series of measures.

UPDATE 5/2/15 - I added a new soundfont which greatly improves the piano sound for Safari and other browsers that don't support Ogg files. With this change, I think my new ear training application runs almost as well on Safari as it does on Chrome and Opera.

UPDATE 5/1/15 - This update fixes several bugs, adds keyboard support for controlling playback (left arrow=repeat, right arrow=next, space=play/stop), and it includes a few new chord progressions (jazz blues, minor blues, etc). The biggest change is the addition of accounts. Once you register for your free account, you can save your custom melodies and chord progressions. I still need to improve the documentation and examples for the custom markup, but hopefully the existing samples will give you enough to start customizing your ear training exercises.

March 23, 2014 Ear Training 8 Comments

Ear training breakthrough

In 2002, when I started playing the trumpet again, I couldn't play anything accurately by ear. If I wanted to play something simple, like "Happy Birthday," I'd either need to have written music in front of me, or I'd have to work my way through the tune, picking out each note through trial and error. Mostly error.

During the next year or two, as I continued to rebuild my trumpet chops, I read several jazz interviews and jazz biographies, hoping to gain some insight that would help me to become a better jazz improviser. I learned a lot during that period, most of which you'll find distilled into my learning to improvise series. The most important lesson, however, was the importance of being able to play by ear. To help improve my ability to play by ear, I eventually built some ear training tools and I added at least a few minutes of ear training to my daily practice routine, which I've stuck to for the past nine years.

Over the past nine years, I've made noticeable progress in my ability to play by ear, but until recently that progress wasn't especially evident in my playing. That's because I couldn't do much with the earlier stages of my development. For example, the first time I could play "Happy Birthday" by ear in any key, I could only do so very slowly and with an unsteady rhythm (i.e. hesitating between notes). That was a major accomplishment for me, but it wasn't something I could really use in a jazz setting where I have to play at faster tempos and in time with a band.

Within the past few months, however, I feel like I've made a huge leap in my ability to play by ear. I can now listen to a jazz recording, and more often than not, I'll pick up my horn and accurately play the tune's melody or a phrase that I heard during somebody's solo. I can also listen to the rhythm section and enough notes will jump out (either from the bass or piano) that I can land on a chord tone or play something else that sounds good over the chords. I still need to improve my consistency and overall accuracy, especially at fast tempos, but I'm finally at a point where I can hear something in my head and confidently play it by ear while improvising.


I recently traveled to Chile, where I spent five weeks, culminating with seven days at Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. Traveling is still relatively new to me, but so far Patagonia is the most mind-blowing place that I've visited. It's so beautiful and remote that I felt like I was on a different planet.


Adding to the beauty of the region, we met several other travelers and guides who made us feel like we were at a home away from home. One day, while hiking to the base of the towers (torres), I told one such guide that I play the trumpet. He asked if I had my trumpet with me, and when I told him it was at the hotel, he said, "We should have a jam session! One of the other guides plays the guitar!"

Normally, I might have panicked or made excuses to get out of the jam session. After all, I'm not that good, I didn't know what kind of music they were going to play, and I hadn't been practicing that much during the preceding weeks in Chile. Any one of those excuses would have gotten me out of the jam session, but at that point I was so inspired by Patagonia that I said, "OK, let's do it!"


I don't know about you, but I'm a view guy. I'm captivated by beautiful views, and I can gaze at them for hours without a care in the world. With my pocket trumpet in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, I emerged onto the hotel's outdoor patio, took one look at the mountains you see in the above photo, and any fears I might have had about the jam session instantly vanished.

As we settled into our places, I introduced myself to the guitar-playing guide and another hotel guest who had brought his ukulele. I was still looking at the mountains when the guitarist asked us what we wanted to play. Transfixed by the view, I replied, "Whatever you want," to which the guitarist replied, "How about a blues?" I didn't pay attention when he mentioned the key, but once they started playing, I relied on my ears and played a passable solo over concert E blues. The ukulele player had a tougher time with his solo, but he hung in there and made it through the tune.

After the blues, the guitarist started to play a Chilean song that neither the ukulele player nor I had ever heard before. The ukulele player asked the guitarist for the chord changes and they spent a few minutes going over them. Once we started playing, though, the ukulele player was having difficulty remembering the chord changes and we had to stop once or twice. When we did finally get going again, I just closed my eyes and played another decent solo by ear.

By the start of the third tune, I was feeling confident about my ears and had decided to just play everything by ear that night. Unfortunately, the ukulele player wasn't faring as well. He struggled with the changes again on the third tune and I could tell he was getting a little frustrated. It didn't help that by this time we had a small audience of hotel guests and staff watching us! After three or four tunes, the ukulele player decided to call it quits and he took a seat next to his wife in the audience.

What began as a trio had now become a duo. The guitarist and I continued playing for the next hour or two, never discussing keys or chord changes. He'd start playing, I'd listen for a few measures, and then I'd accompany him, playing everything by ear. To be honest, I don't know if I actually sounded good that night, but our audience clapped after every tune and everyone seemed to enjoy a wonderful evening in paradise.

The next morning while strolling along the shore of a nearby lake, I saw the ukulele player and his wife. After exchanging pleasantries, the ukulele player mentioned how he was struggling to keep up with us at the jam session. His wife then chimed in, telling me that her husband was feeling discouraged about his playing. After three years of playing the ukulele, he thought he was getting pretty good, but he was totally unprepared for the jam session. And then he said, "Yeah, I can't play by ear..."

I smiled and said, "Please allow me to introduce myself." Ok, so I didn't say that. I did, however, tell him that I too couldn't play by ear at one point, however I greatly improved my ability to play by ear after several years of ear training practice. I then told him all about my site and my ear training tools. He was so excited that he downloaded my Play By Ear iPhone ear training app as soon as we got back to the hotel.

I have to say, it was amazing enough to experience the culmination of so many years of ear training practice at a jam session in Patagonia. To then have the opportunity to get somebody else started on their ear training journey -- wow, how cool is that?!

January 15, 2012 Ear Training 4 Comments

Willie Thomas on ear training

willie thomas - MJT+3Below you'll find the first and only guest post to my jazz blog. I wouldn't normally accept guest posts, but this one is special. The author, Willie Thomas, is a jazz trumpeter and educator with over forty-five years of experience playing and teaching jazz. Over the years, he has performed and recorded with a wide variety of jazz greats, including the Woody Herman Orchestra, the Slide Hampton Octet with Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman, and the MJT+3 which also included Frank Strozier, Bob Cranshaw, Harold Mabern, and Walter Perkins. And in 1994, he was inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame thanks to his contributions in the field of jazz education.

On a more personal level, Willie Thomas, is indirectly responsible for my introduction to jazz. When I was learning to play the trumpet, my trumpet teacher was a jazz musician named Bruce Staelens. Bruce introduced me to jazz improvisation and before long I was hooked. Well, guess who introduced Bruce Staelens to jazz when he was a kid? That's right, Willie Thomas was Bruce's first trumpet teacher! He even gave Bruce his first trumpet; the same trumpet that I always admired and finally got to play when I reunited with Bruce in 2009.

Willie Thomas found my website a couple of years ago and sent me some encouraging emails about my playing. I didn't even know who he was at the time (he didn't sign the email with his full name), and I know he didn't know about my connection with Bruce Staelens. Small world, eh? Most recently, Willie and I have traded a few emails regarding his Jazz Everyone website. The site includes dozens of jazz lessons in the form of online tutorials, audio files, and videos. Use this link and you'll get a free ten-day trial: www.jazzeveryone.com/i-was-doing-alright. As you might imagine, when Willie offered to write a guest post on my site, I gladly accepted.

Without further ado, here's Willie Thomas' guest post about ear training.

HEAR IT, FIND IT, PLAY IT - by Willie Thomas

As a young trumpeter in 1945 with a penchant for playing jazz, my ear was glued to every Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or any other record I could beg, borrow or steal. At 14, I was a respectable player for my age, with four strong years of private lessons and band under my belt. I had plenty of written music for my lessons and band, but back then there wasn't anything written that could help a young or old jazz wannabe. Jamey Aebersold was only 6 years old! So for jazz, it was get it off those records, hope you could find some cats that would let you try it out at a jam session and then head back to that turntable for more listening, imitating and memorizing.

That process still plays an essential role today in the process of learning to play or improvise jazz music. Jazz is a language that has been aurally acquired since its early disciples began searching for the right notes to play with the chords they heard in church. However, a vast amount of material has been researched, developed and published to help the young and older jazz players build their jazz chops. "Ear-training" at some point along the way, became a pedestrian term for the process of learning to play what you hear. As I've experienced in my some 40 plus years as a jazz educator and author of the modestly successful Jazz Anyone Classroom series, it's not so much about training your ear as it is about training your fingers to find the notes to play. (Rick's note: in other words, the goal of ear training is to be able to play what you hear on your instrument. It isn't enough to be able to hear an interval and say it's a perfect fourth, fifth, etc. This is why my ear training tools focus on call-and-response with your instrument.)

For most students at various ages and ability levels, the trouble is not about hearing the music, it's all about finding those notes on your instruments and controlling them at various tempos. For sure, if you can't find it, you ain't gonna play it, dude! So, at the tender age of 80, after a lifetime of playing jazz with some of the best players in the world, i.e. Slide Hampton, Freddy Hubbard, George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Bobby Cranshaw, Harold Mabern, Wynton Kelly and the list goes on, I have discovered that you can listen all day long and not get a lot better as a player until you can quickly and automatically find all of the notes on your ax and play them with good time in every key.

Through continued research, I've discovered that constant repetition with small groups of notes around various tonalities starts building the kinetic responses that make it easier to find and connect notes, ultimately leading to better replication of patterns. It's the fingers that have to be trained to quickly find the notes you're hearing. One of the incredible qualities of Charlie Parker, Dizz, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and the rest of those early pioneers was their ability to initiate and craft new ideas with a new language (be-bop) as it was being created. This was a result of having certain patterns down so cold that when a new idea came to mind their fingers were trained to automatically find those notes and play them. The neural response that controlled their fingers were so well conditioned they were able to play almost anything they heard. This came through constant playing and experimentation. They lived the music.

This provided the surety of pitch relationships that enabled them to manipulate this basic vocabulary into an endless variety of ever fresh ideas every time they played. This was their genius. I have recently tapped into a system of practicing what I hear or have heard and building it gradually with a practice routine that is continuously varied. I randomly pick difficult things I hear, repeat them over and over until I get each little fragment of a that jazz lick under my fingers once and for all. I practice everything with an Aebersold Play along rhythm section, playing with a metronome is like learning to dance with a broom. Part of the eternal quest is finding and playing everything with impeccable time. My daily routine starts with Cherokee in all keys, Volume 61, then there is a variety of things I do with each tune in every key on Volume 68. I'm very close to putting a series of these hear it, find it, play it exercise on my JazzEveryone.com web site. So, if you're intrigued by any of this, stay tuned. And by the way, the only time you own those fingers is when they get slammed in a car door! Ouch!

November 9, 2010 Ear Training 4 Comments

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!


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.


  • 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.


March 17, 2010 Ear Training 13 Comments

iPhone Application - Play By Ear

Over the past few months I've been working on an ear training application for the iPhone. I finally finished the application last week and I'm pleased to report that it's now available for download from the iTunes App Store!

play by ear

My iPhone ear training application is called "Play By Ear" and like my other ear training applications, it's free! If you've got an iPhone I hope you'll give it a try and let me know what you think. This is my first iPhone application and I think it's pretty cool. Hopefully you'll agree.

download from iTunes


You'll find a list of the basic features and some tips at my iPhone ear training application's homepage. It's similar to my Java ear training applet, but there are some significant differences. For starters, the iPhone ear training application is a much simpler application. It doesn't have the rhythm section feature, nor does it have stuff like the jazz licks and song-based melodies. The iPhone ear trainer does have one nice feature, though, that my Java ear trainer doesn't: pitch recognition.

Unlike my Java ear trainer, my iPhone ear training application uses pitch detection to listen to the notes you play. It then displays the correct notes as you play them, coloring them red or green depending upon your accuracy. I spent a lot of time tuning the pitch recognition to work with a variety of instruments (trumpet, piano, voice, guitar) and I'm sure I could spend even more time, but in my experience it works pretty well for pitches within an octave or two of a piano's middle C. I tested on both an iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, but I don't really know if it works on an iPod Touch since it requires a headset to use the microphone. At least that's what I've read.

That's all for now. I just wanted to get out a quick message about my new iPhone ear trainer so you can start using it. Please let me know how it goes!


August 9, 2009 Ear Training 1 Comment

Gransden & Gravish master class

Last week I attended a master class hosted by jazz trumpeters Joe Gransden and Andy Gravish at Carere Music. As you may know, Joe Gransden is one of the best jazz trumpeters in Atlanta. You can hear him at a variety of Atlanta venues including the wildly popular big band concerts at Cafe 290 (1st and 3rd Monday of each month) and the Tuesday night jam sessions at Twain's. Joe�¢����s also the owner of that beautiful Monette trumpet that I played a couple of months ago. You'll see that horn in the photo below (Joe is on the left, Andy on the right).

joe gransden and andy gravish

No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. They're both playing Monette Prana 3 trumpets.

Perhaps less familiar, at least to my Atlanta readers, is Andy Gravish. Andy Gravish is a New York City based jazz trumpeter who has toured throughout the United States and Europe, playing in bands with notable leaders such as Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw, Paquito D'Rivera , and Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Joe Gransden met Andy Gravish several years ago, when they both lived in New York City. The two became fast friends and would regularly get together to practice jazz improvisation. In a typical practice session, they'd spend hours trading solos, with one person improvising while the other plays a counter melody or bass line. Or sometimes, the person not soloing would simply listen and absorb new ideas to incorporate in his next solo. Which reminds me, I actually had the opportunity to do this very same type of thing with Joe Gransden about a month ago. For about 30 minutes we improvised over the chord changes to Cherokee, without any accompaniment. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was happy to have (barely) been able to keep up with Joe. And by that, I mean I didn't fall flat on my face. Well, except for a couple of times. But I digress...

Joe and Andy began the masterclass with a demonstration of their old practice sessions. For about ten minutes they played, bouncing ideas off of each other as their solos intertwined. When they finished playing, Joe asked the master class audience to name some of the prerequisites for that type of improvised jazz soloing. A variety of skills were mentioned including having good time, knowledge of the changes, and good trumpet chops. All of these skills are important, but Joe was looking for a different answer that just so happens to be one of my favorite musical topics. Ear training!


The ear training discussion started with a brief recollection of Joe Gransden's early days in New York City. Fresh out of college, with a degree in jazz performance, Joe was hoping to make a name for himself among the best jazz musicians in with world in New York City. Unfortunately, things didn't go quite according to plan. Try as he might, he couldn't keep up with the New York City jazz musicians. The disparity was especially noticeable when he was forced to play unfamiliar tunes and/or tunes in non-standard keys. For example, if somebody asked Joe to play Cherokee in F#, he would have to transpose the changes in his head from Bb (the standard key). That might be doable at a slow tempo, but I think most of us would struggle if we had to do that in real-time at ~300bpm. Yet, the great NYC jazz musicians could do that and more because they were able to play accurately by ear.

The turning point for Joe Gransden came during a discussion with the great jazz trumpeter, Joe Magnarelli. Gransden mentioned that he owned several transcription and jazz pattern books and was looking for some pointers on how he could use them to improve his playing. Magnarelli's advice was simple and to the point. He told Grandsden to throw the books away. Magnarelli saw the books as a crutch that would hinder Joe's ability to play by ear. In other words, if we aren't exercising our ears by forcing them to guide us through music, then we're likely not to develop them. So, instead of reading from written music, Magnarelli advised Gransden to listen to recordings and learn jazz by ear. And that's what he's been doing ever since.

During the years that followed, Joe has spent many hours playing along with recordings, practicing call and response with other musicians, and testing himself by playing along with random notes he hits on a piano. He can still work with written changes if he needs to, but when he solos it's pretty much all by ear.

As I've mentioned before, I used to be one of those players who are totally dependent upon written music. I was one of the best high school trumpet players in the state of Florida and more than anything I wanted to be a professional jazz musician. It might have been an attainable goal, except for one thing. I couldn't play anything accurately by ear. There simply wasn't any way I could have succeeded as an improvising jazz musician without the ability to play the ideas in my head. So, I quit playing the trumpet. It wasn't until several years later that I realized how foolish I was for not working on ear training when I was younger. Although I guess it wasn't entirely my fault since nobody ever told me about it until my freshman year of college. The good news is that when I finally started playing the trumpet again, I created some ear training tools and have been making steady progress with ear training ever since.


At the end of the master class, Joe Gransden and Andy Gravish played some call and response ear training exercises with the master class participants. About 30 trumpet players were in attendance, with the youngest being high school age. They were all serious about playing the trumpet and a few of the audience members were professional trumpet players who give trumpet lessons. Keep that last part in mind as you read on.

The call and response exercises consisted of Joe or Andy playing a short phrase followed by the entire audience playing the phrase back on their trumpets by ear (i.e. without written music). To keep things simple, the phrases were all based on a concert Bb blues. I was really impressed during the first few attempts since it sounded like most of the people were able to play back the phrases accurately by ear. That changed, however, when Joe asked them to do it with their eyes closed so they couldn't look at his fingers. Since I didn't have my horn, I looked around the room during the closed-eye attempts and noticed that most people were stumbling through the notes as their fingers moved frantically from one valve to another after guessing incorrectly. And it wasn't just the young players who were fumbling. Even some of the professional musicians, the ones giving private lessons, were unable to play blues phrases accurately by ear.

In truth, the professional musicians in the master class don't actually need the ability to play accurately by ear. To my knowledge, none of them are jazz musicians and I'd assume that just about everything they ever need to play is written down. But that doesn't mean they should neglect ear training studies with their students. On the contrary, their students absolutely deserve exposure to ear training. And the sooner the better. You never know, one of those students might dream of becoming a professional jazz musician someday...


To close things out, here's a video clip of Joe Gransden and Andy Gravish playing at Churchill Grounds on the final night of Andy's visit to Atlanta. The clip begins with an energetic drum solo by Kinah Boto. At the two minute mark, you'll hear Joe and Andy as they engage in a friendly trumpet battle (to the DEATH!!!).

Thanks guys!


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