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

June 10, 2007 Ear Training 0 Comments

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.

February 5, 2006 Ear Training 1 Comment

John Murphy - ear training interview

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

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

And now, on to the interview…

Q: What classes do you teach at UNT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 28, 2006 Ear Training 8 Comments

Suzuki method - music education

suzukiI just finished reading "Nurtured by Love," a book by Shinichi Suzuki that introduces the Suzuki method of Talent Education. The main concept behind Talent Education is the idea that talent is NOT merely an in-born trait. Rather, we all have the ability to learn, and the skills that we develop (i.e. our "talents") are the result of our upbringing and experiences in life. Through talent education, any child can develop a talent for music.

While most people think about the Suzuki method in regard to musical education (specifically violin and piano), Suzuki sees Talent Education as "life education." The same principles that help children to become talented in music, will also help them to become good people for the rest of their lives.


If you've read a few of my blog entries, you probably know that I'm displeased with my musical education. My main gripe is the fact that ear training and developing the ability to play by ear wasn't even remotely discussed until I entered college. Honestly, I had no idea that anyone *could* play something entirely by ear (boy was I clueless). Even though I was one of the best high school trumpeters in the state, I couldn't even play a simple song by ear. Too bad I didn't have my ear training tools back then!

I didn't really appreciate the necessity to play by ear until I began college. That's when I'd finally meet jazz musicians who could play effortlessly by ear. They were phenomenal. By comparison, I was terrible. Even though I would soon begin to take ear-training classes in college, those classes were solely focused on identifying sounds. In two years of college ear training, we never discussed, nor did we practice, playing by ear. Due to this omission, and due to the fact that I still couldn't play by ear, I had resigned myself to the idea that it's a talent you're either born with or not. Since I didn't have it, there was no point trying.

I now believe that we can all ABSOLUTELY develop the ability to play by ear. I also believe it's one of the single most important skills for an improviser, or any master musician for that matter. If this is true, why didn't any of my music teachers try to develop this ability in me, or in any of the other students I knew?


And this brings us back to Suzuki… I first became interested in the Suzuki method several months ago, while researching alternative methods of music education. Among other things, I read that Suzuki believes children should learn to play their instrument before they learn to read music.

Suzuki advocates playing before reading because that is precisely how children learn their native language -- children learn to speak before they learn to read. By the time children do learn to read, they are already able to speak fluently in their language (or in multiple languages!) as they have internalized all of the skills required to speak. Even subtle nuances such as dialects and inflections are already mastered before reading enters the picture. Children learn all of this because they are immersed in speech by their parents from the day they are born. Suzuki applies this same mother-tongue approach to teach music. In essence, children learn to speak music before they learn to read music. Makes sense to me.

Suzuki's Talent Education School started in the 1940's. It was brought to the U.S. in 1959. "Nurtured By Love" was published in 1983 (1983 is when it was translated to English). So, these ideas have been around for a while. They make a lot of sense to me and I think they would have helped fill in the gaps from my own musical education. So why weren't they adopted by more educators? Why is music education today strikingly similar to the way Suzuki describes it to be in the 1940's? Why are we taught to read music before we can "speak" it? No, I'm not really looking for answers to these questions. I'm just looking for a change in music education…


While Suzuki focuses mostly on child education, that doesn't mean adults have missed their window of opportunity. It just means it will take longer for us to develop similar skills because we have to retrain ourselves. Suzuki gives the example of learning how to sing a scale in tune. If you've sung it out of tune 3,000 times, you will need to repeat it correctly more than 3,000 times in order to retrain yourself. That means you might have many years of retraining ahead of you (as do I), but at least it's attainable.


SuzukiTalented.org - read the History and FAQs sections

SuzukiAssociation.org - Suzuki Association of the Americas. Includes a teacher directory.

January 5, 2006 Ear Training 1 Comment

John Murphy - musical fluency

A recent visitor to my site is a professor at the University of North Texas. His name is John Murphy, and among other things, he happens to teach jazz aural fundamentals (ear training!).

We've already exchanged a few emails, and I hope to interview him in the near future so I can learn more about his ideas and experiences with ear training. In the meantime, I thought I'd share a couple short articles he wrote, which fit in nicely with my message of ear training:

"Do you speak music?" by John Murphy

Suppose you had studied a second language. You can read well-formed sentences composed by someone else if they are given to you in writing, but you can't converse easily. You can understand spoken phrases if you can listen to a recording of them repeatedly and write them out, but you can't deal with them quickly enough to have a conversation. You can make phrases yourself, but not in real time. You have to write them out and make lots of revisions. Would you call yourself fluent?

Rick's note: Unfortunately the rest of this article isn't available online anymore. Basically, it went on to compare how being able to play music accurately by ear is the same thing as being able to speak fluently in a second language. If you can't play by accurately ear and/or must rely upon written music then you aren't fluent in music.

"Subtitles" by John Murphy

Ever get the sense, when you watch a film in a foreign language (especially one you have studied a little) with subtitles, that you are picking up enough of the language to be able to follow it without the subtitles? In most cases, unless you are really fluent, you can't.

We can think of fake book charts, lead sheets, and transcribed solos as the subtitles of jazz playing. Many musicians could not function without them, even though they would like to consider themselves fluent enough in the language of jazz to hear the changes of the tune without the lead sheet or figure out a soloist's line without writing it down.

Update Feb 5, 2005: My interview with John Murphy is now online!

Update Jan 28, 2006: For more on speaking music, read my article on the Suzuki method.

January 1, 2005 Ear Training 12 Comments

Ear trainer - major update

Online ear trainer - click to try!I just finished a major update to my ear trainer software. This is the version I've been thinking about for some time. Finally, after many late nights and early mornings, it's ready!

I also updated the accompanying text with new exercises and instructions.

Try It!

UPDATE 10/11/06 - I recently finished a version 2.0 (BETA) of my ear trainer! There are several new features, including a new rhythm section that you can use for play-along purposes. Click here for more information.

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