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!


January 26, 2008 Ear Training 42 Comments

Ear training tool - version 2.0

Online ear trainer - click to try!This post lists all of the updates I've made to the latest version of my ear training tool. The ear training tool is free to use and contains exercises for intervals, chords, random melodies, call-and-response, jazz improvisation, and more!


If you'd like to learn more about the importance of ear training, especially for jazz improvisers, please read my Learning To Improvise - Introduction and Learning To Improvise - Ear Training articles. Also, the ear trainer itself contains a lot more information.


UPDATE 3/10/13 - Random melodies now includes diminished and altered scale options.

UPDATE 10/25/12 - The ear training tool now saves most (if not all) of the settings from your previous session, so you won't have to re-check your interval, chord, etc options every time you use the ear trainer. Also, Mac users with Java version 7 or above will now use a higher-quality MIDI soundbank.

UPDATE 1/24/12 - Random melodies no longer repeat notes sequentially unless you only have two notes to choose from. I added dozens of scale patterns to the random melody feature. There's a new jazz blues progression on the RSection tab and you can now generate random chord progressions of mixed chord types. For example, if you select one of the "Mixed..." options under the RSection "Randomization" menu, it will generate a single sequence that includes random keys and progression types like "C7 Eb-7 F Bb-7b5" etc. I also tried to fix some of the Mac OSX audio issues, but my research and tinkering suggests that the Java runtime's MIDI sequencer isn't reliable on Macs right now, especially with the long sequences generated by the RSection tab.

UPDATE 4/10/10 - My iPhone ear training application, Play By Ear, saves the various settings after you use the ear trainer. I've become used to that and whenever I return to my online ear training application, it feels tedious to always have to set the key center, the play mode, and some of the other basic options. Well, as of today that's no longer the case! The main options that you set every time are now stored in a cookie so I can recover them on your next visit. I also added some new keyboard commands so you can now press ">" to play the next exercise, "<" to stop, "m" to do a melodic repeat, and "n" to do a harmonic repeat. That was requested in the comments by Sam.

UPDATE 9/12/09 - Thanks to a suggestion from Jean-Francois, the starting cadence now has a "Follow Exercise Key" option. When selected, the ear training tool will play a major cadence in whatever key the next exercise is about to use.

UPDATE 7/26/09 - I added "drop 2" to the inversions shown on the chords tab thanks to the suggestion from a guitarist named Rod. Drop 2 chords move the second highest note of 4-note chords to bottom of the chord voicing.

UPDATE 5/10/09 - I added some new modulation options to the ear training tool's Advanced tab. The new random cycle feature works like the existing Circle of Fourths & Fifths features, however you now have random movement and a shorter 3-time option. I also added a few more tunes to the "Simple Song" option under the Melodies tab.

UPDATE 4/28/09 - The RSection's chord progressions now include Randomization within a single exercise. For example, you could setup randomization so every 4 measures the key changes randomly to one of your selected "Keys To Play." This is a great workout for your ears as you try to improvise over randomly changing chords.

UPDATE 3/15/09 - The ear training tool's Random Melody feature now includes a chromatic scale option which includes more note options (higher and lower notes) than if you select individual notes.

UPDATE 2/6/09 - I added "Cherokee" to the RSection's list of chord progressions.

UPDATE 1/2/09 - I've had several requests for altered chords and finally got around to adding some to the ear trainer. You'll find the new ones on the online version of the ear trainer, on the "Chords" tab.

UPDATE 6/1/08 - As requested by Svetlana, the ear trainer's interval and chord samples now obey your "Root Note" settings. This allows you to specify a specific root note for all of the samples, or you can have random root notes if you select the "Any" option.

UPDATE 5/25/08 - Thanks to a suggestion from George, you can now click on interval and chord names to play a sample. Each sample will adhere the settings you specified in the ear training tool options. For example, if you click on "Perfect 5th" and you have the "Sequence Type" set to "Harmonic" the ear trainer will play the interval harmonically (both notes at the same time).

UPDATE 3/2/08 - I just added cycle-based modulation to my ear training tool. Cycle-based modulation will play the existing exercise over and over again, changing keys through the cycle of 4th's or 5th's. I recommend that you try this with random melodies, jazz licks, and simple song exercises (all under the Melodies tab). By playing the same exercise through a circle of 4th's/5th's, you're challenging yourself to play something by ear, but you're also giving your ears a chance to become familiar with the new melody, thus making the exercise a little easier. You'll find the new cycle-based modulation option on the Advanced tab of the ear training tool.

UPDATE 1/27/08 - I've been meaning to add compound intervals to the ear training tool for a while now, but George's comment today finally made it happen. You'll now see a new "Compound" checkbox on the intervals page!

UPDATE 1/26/08 - I added a "Starting Cadence" feature to my ear training tool (online version only for the time being). Several people have asked for this feature because it gives a reference point from which other notes can be identified. It also allows you to hear intervals, melodies, etc, within a key. You'll see the "Starting Cadence" dropdown on the "Controls" panel. If you don't want to use the cadence, simply set it to None.


UPDATE 12/25/07 - I added about a dozen more simple songs to the ear training tool's random melody feature. That makes a total of 72 different simple song melodies! You can access these by selecting "Key for simple song" under the "Each box is a..." dropdown on the "melodies" tab.

UPDATE 11/4/07 - Version v2_22 introduces simple song melody exercises to my ear training tool. Right now there are about 25 different simple song melodies that will randomly play, but it's my goal to eventually have over 100! You'll find the new simple song melody option in the "Each box is a..." dropdown located on the Melodies tab. I'll update the offline version of the ear trainer once this new version has had a few solid days of testing.

UPDATE 9/8/07 - Version v2_21 of the ear training tool adds three new features. The first new feature is the ability to change the octave range of the exercises. The new octave options appear in the "Key Center" drop-down. This is particularly useful for bass players and other people wishing to expand the lower (or higher) ranges of their ear training. The second new feature is the ability to toggle between treble and bass clef in the staff. To do so, click on the little blue arrow icon located near the treble/bass clefs. When necessary, "8va" or "8vb" will display beneath the clefs. This lets you know that the notes shown on the staff are being played one or more octaves higher (8va) or lower (8vb) than the staff notation. The third new feature is the addition of Major7th jazz licks for call-and-response exercises.

UPDATE 7/8/07 - Version v2_20 of the ear training tool includes Major7th jazz licks as well as a few more Dominant 7th jazz licks.

UPDATE 6/25/07 - Version v2_19 of the ear trainer contains a lot of little updates and one big update. The little updates are mostly GUI-related, so you'll probably find them on your own. The big update is the introduction of jazz licks to both random melodies and the rhythm section's call-and-response feature. Also, you can now select between a short and long call-and-respnose phrase. So far I've only got Dominant 7th jazz licks going, but I'm definitely going to add licks to Major, Minor, Half-Diminished, and Diminished chord types. This will be an ongoing process, so you can expect a lot of "jazz lick" updates in the coming months.

If you've got some jazz licks handy, feel free to send them over. If I think they're suitable for the ear training tool and for the audience of this site, I'll definitely put them in. For inclusion with the ear training tool, they should be 2 measures of eigth notes followed by a single note and the key should be clearly labeled. Also, the lick shouldn't be over a progression, but rather a single chord type (one of the following: CMaj7, C7, CMin7, C7b5, CDim). Here's an example of what I'm looking for (I used finale notepad for this):

jazz lick sample

UPDATE 5/19/07 - I added interaction between a computer keyboard and the ear trainer's piano. The various keys to press are now shown on the ear trainer's piano. If for some reason you want to disable keyboard interaction, you can do so under the ear trainer's advanced tab.

UPDATE 4/8/07 - I made a few changes to the ear trainer's rhythm section feature today, including a slightly modified layout and some new chord/progression types. New chord/progression types include Half-Diminished 7th, Diminished 7th, Minor II-V7-I, and Minor Blues. Some of these additions are in response to visitor requests, so thank you to all who have helped improve the tool. I haven't had much time to test yet, so please let me know if you run into any problems.

UPDATE 1/24/07 - This past weekend I added a new call and response feature to my ear trainer. I've been using it for a couple of days now and I think it's worth sharing with all of you...

The new feature offers note-limiting call and response with randomly generated rhythms and melodies (there's a new drop-down menu on the RSection tab). When I get a chance, I'll record a clip or two of me practicing along with it, but for now you can listen to examples of similar call and response exercieses in my LEARNING TO IMPROVISE - RHYTHM article. Those clips are done by me with an Aebersold, but they should give you a general idea of how to practice with this new feature.

I have a lot more planned for these sorts of call and response activities. So much so that I'll probably end up creating a new tab just to contain it all. I'll also make it easier to use and control.

UPDATE 1/14/07 - Fixed issue where random melodies were playing notes outside of selected scales. The online and offline versions has been updated with this latest version.

UPDATE 12/5/06 - Fixed issue where Root Note option no longer worked for intervals and chords.

UPDATE 12/2/06 - I've had a few people ask if they can download and run the ear trainer when they're offline. As of today, the answer is YES! Just DOWNLOAD THIS FILE, then unzip and open home.htm.

UPDATE 11/19/06 - Fixed several more bugs, including issues where wide modulations went too high or low. I've now successfully tested the new ear trainer in Firefox 1.0.x (Linux), Firefox 1.5.x (Win, OSX, Linux), Firefox 2.0 (Win), Opera 8.5. (Win), Safari, IE6 (Win), IE7 (Win). Please let me know if you have any problems with different (yet still widely-used) browsers.

UPDATE 11/19/06 - I just added some audio files to my ear trainer 2.0 page. The audio files were recorded during various parts of my daily ear training routine. Hopefully they'll give you a better idea of how I use the ear trainer to practice. Additionally, there are some new auto-configure links next to each audio file which will setup the ear trainer to play the same exercise you hear in the clip.

Also worth mentioning is the new ear training home page. I created it for anyone who wants to link to my ear training tools. On the landing page, you'll see links to both ear training tools, descriptions of each tool, and some background information about ear training.

UPDATE 11/11/06 - Fixed a couple of bugs and added II-V7-I progressions to the rhythm section feature.

UPDATE 10/28/06 - I fixed a couple stability problems that occur when the applet first loads. I can't say for certain, but it might even fix the problem with Firefox 1.0.x. I've also noticed that the rhythm section feature seems a lot smoother under version 1.5.x of the Java JRE than it sounds in 1.4.x. 1.4.x may sound a little choppy...

UPDATE 10/10/06 - A few people have reported that it does in fact work in Firefox on OSX, at least with Firefox 1.5.x. The one instance where it didn't work in Firefox and OSX, the person was using Firefox 1.0.3, so maybe it was just an issue with that early version of Firefox.

UPDATE 10/4/06 - I've heard from a few people that the new ear trainer does work properly with Safari browsers. Apparently there is an issue with Firefox on OSX, however. If you happen to have OSX and a Firefox browser, please give it a try and let me know how it works.

Tonight I also added blues and rhythm changes! I still need to work on the piano part to get it smoother for rhythm changes (especially with leaps in range), but I think the bass is sounding pretty good...

10/1/06 - Today I finished version 2.0 (BETA) of my Ear Trainer. It's hot off the press and lightly tested, so some bugs are to be expected. Also, I've only tested on IE6 (Win), Firefox 1.5.x (Win and Linux), and Opera 8.5 (Win), so I have no idea how well it works in Safari and other browsers.

There are quite a few little new features, and one big one, which I'll let you find for yourself. Please give it a try and let me know if you run into any problems.

September 15, 2007 Ear Training 7 Comments

Shredding (and playing) by ear

I receive quite a few emails from people who are just getting started with ear training. Usually they've read a few of my ear training articles and they might have even tried one of my free online ear training tools. They're eager to improve their ability to play by ear, however they're also frustrated by their early attempts at ear training. The simplest of intervals elude them and chords sounds like a mishmash of notes. At this early stage it's easy to give up and so they wonder: do we need to be born with the ability to play by ear, or can we really learn it through practice?

I think it's natural for people to wonder if the ability to play by ear can actually be learned, especially when you consider how few people seem to have the ability. In an average high school band program, for example, the vast majority of students can't play anything accurately by ear. They might be capable instrumentalists, but they can't play any music unless it's written down. I was one of these students myself. When I was in high school, I just assumed that everyone depended upon written music (unless they memorized the written notes). I had no idea I was musically-challenged!

It wasn't until I was a junior in high school that I finally encountered somebody who could play anything perfectly by ear. I discovered his ability one day while I was rehearsing a tricky spot in one of my solo pieces. He was standing about ten feet away from me, listening to me play the same three or four measures over and over again. When I stopped to take a break he picked up his trombone and played the exact passage I had been playing, and it was perfect. I asked him how he was able to figure out the notes without reading the music and he stated simply, “I don't know how I do it, I just can.” Shortly thereafter I then tried to play by ear a few times myself but failed miserably. I couldn't even get close to the right pitches. In the end I figured it was something you had to be born with so I stopped trying. Boy do I wish I hadn't given up...

As I discussed in an earlier ear training article, I believe the reason that most of us cannot play by ear stems from our music education. Most of the people I knew in middle and high school learned how to play their instruments the same way I learned, in concert band class. From day one, everything we were ever asked to play was written down and we never bothered trying to play anything unless we had written music to read from. Unfortunately, since we didn't try to play by ear that ability was never developed and we ended up with poor aural skills. While band classes churn out loads of students who are similarly dependent upon written music, there is a relatively large group of musicians who can play well by ear precisely because they learned to play WITHOUT reading music all the time. To which group of instrumentalists am I referring? Well, I suppose you might guess from the picture... I'm saluting those who are about to rock: guitarists.

shredding by ear

When I attended music school in college, I was surprised to discover that almost all of the guitarists that I knew could play very well by ear. There were plenty of occasions where they'd hear a melodic passage and within seconds they'd be playing it perfectly on their guitar. Similarly, they could listen to a tune for the first time and readily figure out all of the chords by ear. I'm not saying every guitarist can play well by ear, but in my experience all of the good ones could play at least fairly well by ear. By comparison, all of the good trumpet players I knew couldn't play well by ear. In fact, most of the trumpet players and other concert band instrumentalists that I knew in college couldn't play much of anything by ear. So, why were the guitarists so much better at playing by ear? It would have been too much of a coincidence to suggest that they were all born with the ability. No, that wasn't it. They were better because that's how they learned to play.

Guitarists are a great example of how the ability to play by ear can indeed be learned. While us band class students were only playing stuff that was written down, guitarists were learning tunes and riffs by ear from day one. Imagine the budding guitarist who wants to learn the solo from Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Believe it or not, there was a once a time when he or she couldn't readily access the full score to that solo (the horror!). Instead, the "Stairway..." solo had to be learned entirely by ear, note for note, while listening to the original recording over and over. Similarly, if you wanted to learn the Hendrix intro to “Hey Joe,” you didn't look at sheet music. You learned directly from the recording. This continual process of learning from recordings would gradually improve one's ability to play by ear, making each successive tune easier to pick up. In time the ability to play by ear becomes second-nature. Coincidentally, learning by ear is also how the early jazz musicians learned to play jazz. It really is the best way to develop strong aural skills and those lucky guitarists just stumbled into it!

It's funny to me how the band geeks (French horn and trumpet players, I'm looking at you) get all high and mighty about how they're real musicians because they can read music and because they play serious stuff like John Philip Sousa marches and tunes by Aaron Copeland, yet it's those devoted guitarists who are more actively developing the skills required to become real musicians. To be fair, though, guitarists do have an advantage. As a guitarist you can't help but want to learn all of the riffs and solos of your favorite rock songs. After all, you hear those songs all the time and the lead instrument is the same thing you play: dude, the guitar! And due to the fact that those riffs aren't all written down for you, you're pretty much forced to learn them by ear. As a French horn player, however, you'll probably NEVER hear your instrument in popular music so you're much less likely want to pick up your horn and emulate something you hear on the radio. That's too bad for us band geeks. We missed out on a lot of free ear training practice. The good news is that it's never too late to start learning to play by ear.

Before I go, I would like to encourage the young guitarists of today to resist the urge to learn tunes from the abundant online tab archives. Sure, it's easier to play something if you've got all the notes in front of you, but doing so will make you a music-dependent band geek just like the rest of us. And that's not rock and roll at all...


For more information about ear training and jazz improvisation, as well as introductions to my ear training tools, check out my Learning to Improvise - Ear Training article.

July 15, 2007 Ear Training 6 Comments

Ear training - supporting evidence


In my Learning to Improvise series and elsewhere on this site, I've written about the importance of ear training and the ability to play by ear. I firmly believe that the ability to play by ear is an essential skill for quality jazz improvisation. Put simply, if you can't play well by ear you'll never be able to play the ideas in your head. You might be able to get by as a "lick" player, playing one pre-learned jazz lick after another, but that's not what I'd call quality jazz improvisation.

While I'm totally confident about my belief in the importance of playing by ear, I'm sure some readers of this site would appreciate a little more evidence before they begin to ear training seriously. After all, I'm by no means a great player (my jazz recordings are testament to that fact) and I certainly don't have a degree in music or music education (I dropped out!). With these facts in mind, it's perfectly understandable that some of you approach my views with skepticism.

To add some additional credibility to my views about ear training and playing by ear, I've created this ongoing article. Here, I'll feature interviews and articles where professional (jazz) musicians and educators discuss the importance of playing by ear. With any luck, their views (along with my own) will give you the confidence and motivation you need to start learning to play by ear. And when you are ready to start, be sure to try my free ear training tools.

If you have any articles you'd like me to add to this page, please send me a message.

Jazz Trumpeter

Richard Scheinin: What do you teach the young players who come under your wing?

Roy Hargrove: I tell them 99 percent of this whole game is about ear training. You have to be able to hear the music and play it on the spot. You don't get a chance to go home and work on it.

Full Article:
mercurynews.com, December 26, 2012

Jazz Trumpeter

Don't sleep on the ear training, because if you can play what you hear, you're about halfway there. Most of the time when people hire you, they just want to know if you can play what you hear. Leaders don't want to have to bother with writing out a lot of music. They want to be able to give you a recording of something, you listen to it, and then you know it. That's basically what they are paying you to do.

Full Article:
jazztimes.com, December 2008

Jazz Trumpeter, Educator

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. It's as simple as focused hearing.

Full Article:
greenleafmusic.com blog, July 7, 2008

Rock Guitarist

Article Excerpt:
I could never overstate the importance of a musician's need to develop his or her ear. Actually, I believe that developing a good "inner ear" -- the art of being able to decipher musical components solely through listening -- is the most important element in becoming a good musician.

Full Article:
Guitar World, March 3, 2016

Jazz Guitarist

JB: A lot of people suffer from the misconception that you begin by thinking, 'If I play these notes over this chord then I'll make some music.' First you make the music and then, later, sure go ahead and analyze it, but it should only be after the fact, after the music's been played

JB: You have to break free from thinking about a certain scale over a certain chord and you have to listen to what you're playing to really understand the nature of the instrument. I find people sometimes are just moving their fingers and not really listening. -Rick's note: this is definitely one of problems with knowing theory but not knowing how to play by ear. You end up rambling your way from one safe note to the other but you don't how things will sound until after each note comes out.

JB: ...the other point I want to make, is that with all the 'real books' and 'fake books' available today, while people learn tunes from them, you can never develop an ear for music with them. If people learn music from CDs they have to really listen, to hear the music. When I was younger we'd all play records over and over again and figure out what the guitarist was playing -- note by note. It really doesn't take that long if you sit down with a CD player and figure out music the old way. Within two years, most people would have developed a fairly good ear. The education thing is a double-edged sword. The books are great sources for people who can already play guitar, but I think they're a detriment to someone just starting out...

Full Article:
modernguitars.com, February 3, 2005

In addition to stressing the importance of using your ear, Jimmy also touches upon motifs, note limiting, and the importance of learning by listening. It's well worth the read.

Jazz Trumpeter, Educator

CS: The jazz musician needs two basic abilities in order to improvise a solo: You must be able to play what you hear. You must be able to hear something worth playing.

CS: Ideally, all music should be taught by ear. Explaining to a student that a C7 (b9) chord calls for a diminished scale is virtually useless until she not only recognizes the sound of that chord and scale, but also has heard it used in context. Every day you should learn something by ear, simply trying to reproduce on your instrument what you hear. This is the way all the great jazz musicians learned to play, and even today, when most jazz musicians have had the benefit of jazz education, most will tell you that they really learned to improvise by listening and copying, rather than by reading jazz improv texts or practicing scales and patterns.

Full Article:
trumpetguild.org youth site

I have to say, when I first read this article by Chase Sanborn I was really surprised to discover the importance that he places on playing by ear. The surprising part wasn't the message itself (since I obviously agree with it), but rather I was surprised by the person delivering it. I say this because I've read Chase's book "Jazz Tactics: Jazz Explained" from cover to cover and not once does he even remotely mention the importance of ear training or playing by ear. Not once! Instead, it's just another book on theory. This is a real shame since I know "Jazz Tactics" is a favorite among many beginning jazz musicians, especially trumpet players. All of those people would benefit tremendously to learn about ear training and the importance of playing by ear, but they won't read a single page about it in "Jazz Tactics"...

Jazz Saxophonist, Educator

In 2006, I interviewed John Murphy on the subject of ear training. Follow are a few excerpts from that interview:

JM: Very high levels of aural skills are necessary. Hearing well is fundamental.

JM: 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.

JM: 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.

Full Article:
John Murphy - ear training interview

Jazz Saxophonist, Educator

GF: The academic approach I've seen used in a lot of schools is one that trains students by sight, rather than by sound. In other words, students are taught reading - looking at dots on the page, moving your fingers based on those dots on the page, and figuring out how to count. These are definitely valuable tools. However, I feel that there is not really enough emphasis on what the student is hearing in his head. Students look at the chord on the page and they have been trained that it is "appropriate" to play an E or a Bb when they see a C7 chord. Those are fine note choices, but if you just play them because you're "supposed" to, that's not a good enough reason. You need to hear them for yourself.

GF: Some students learn to play a diminished whole-tone scale when they see an altered dominant chord, and so they are going to play it because it is the "correct" thing to do. The problem with that is that it's meaningless if they arrive at those note choices by theory alone, and not by ear. I call this phenomenon "empty note playing." These are notes without specific harmonic intent. The notes may be technically correct, but they won't be as convincingly played as the same notes arrived at by a gut-level, emotional feeling to play those particular sounds.

GF: Many of today's players learn to play jazz in college. As a result, I think that a lot of them have more of an academic approach to the music. Many of the older musicians didn't have much academic training, and I think that's why they had much more of a "gut level" approach. I call it a visceral approach to playing. This approach relies much more on the ear and gut-level feeling than on intellect.

Full Article:
Greg Fishman interview at saxontheweb.net

The Greg Fishman excerpts shown above begin near the bottom of the second page of the interview. Greg's description of "empty note playing" closely resembles my experiences with jazz theory as explained in my Learning to Improvise - Jazz Theory article. Like many aspiring (and struggling) jazz musicians, I was using theory as my primary method for choosing which notes to play in my solo. The notes may have fit in with the chords, but my ears weren't guiding their selection. Consequently, my solos sounded like I was just playing one random note after another, with no melodic interest whatsoever. Theory is a useful tool for jazz improvisation, but to successfully play the ideas in your head, your ears need to be the primary guide for note choice.

Jazz Guitarist

The following is an excerpt from Mickey Baker's Complete Course in Jazz Guitar, Book 1, which has remained a popular guitar instruction book since it was originally published in 1955.

MB: Before we go into this I want to make a few points clear to you, and you should always keep this in mind. It is impossible for anyone to teach you how to feel music, this is, to stand up and play solos one after another. This has to come from your soul. Now, in order to develop a soul for music, these are the things you must do constantly. Practice playing your guitar with records, listen to solos by horn players, learn to steal solos from records. Anything that you hear another musician play, try to play it yourself. Strum the chords to any song that you like and hum ideas, - then apply the ideas to the guitar. This will be hard to do at first and some of it may sound silly, but if you keep doing this long enough you will develop an ear for music, and once you have an ear you'll be stealing solos from everybody and building your own ideas around them. You will also develop a beautiful soul for music which will in time enable you to play anything you want to at will.

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!


August 21, 2006 Ear Training 1 Comment

Whistling by ear

whistlingIn my ear training guide I discussed the dichotomy many of us face when it comes to singing and playing by ear. When singing, we can effortlessly match the pitches of any tune. We get the notes right, we blend in with the harmonies, we can sing improvised solos, etc… and we do it all by ear. On the flip side, when we pick up our horns, many of us can't play anything accurately unless we have written music.

While I don’t think anyone would argue with this reality, I do think there are many people out there who justify their inability to play by ear with the belief that playing an instrument is so complex that you absolutely must have written music in order to get the notes right.

Well, it just so happens that there is another fairly complex instrument that most of us can play with ease, and we can play it totally by ear. That "instrument" is whistling. The next time you whistle, think about the complexity behind each note. Even the simplest of melodies requires you to raise and lower your tongue to change pitches, alter the force of your breath to hit high and low notes, and move your lips to dynamically change the size of the opening/aperture. That sounds a lot like playing an actual wind instrument, doesn't it?

Since we've mastered the ability to whistle by ear, and since whistling shares many of the same mechanics needed to play a wind instrument (really, the only difference is valves/keys), then it stands to reason that we should be able to play by ear on our instruments with the same ease with which we can whistle. Of course, for many of us this is easier said than done.

Fortunately, the same things you did while learning to whistle can improve your ability to play by ear on your *real* instrument. When you learned to whistle, you listened to pitches, or you had a pitch in mind, and you adjusted your mouth until you were able to match that the sounds you heard. As time went on, your accuracy improved and you got to the point where you could readily whistle any pitch or melody by ear. Guess what? You can do the very same thing on your horn with the aid of my free ear training tools. And, yes, you really will improve your ability to play anything by ear!

July 1, 2006 Ear Training

More of my ear training articles

A couple of my (best) ear training articles are located in my Learning to Improvise series under the IMPROVISATION section of this jazz blog:

Learning To Improvise - Introduction: This article discusses my jazz education and the odd absence of adequate ear training.

Learning To Improvise - Ear Training: This is my main article on ear training and its importance in jazz improvisation. If you're going to read anything I write that discusses ear training, this is the article to read!

I also discuss my progress with ear training in my various "anniversary" articles.

And last but not least, you'll find a lot more ear training accompanying each of my free ear training tools.

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