How to Train Your Ear Without Your Instrument

article ear training practice Nov 04, 2019

Imagine you’re in a bookstore one Sunday afternoon and, for whatever reason, you happen to notice the music playing in the background.  Maybe it’s a classic rock song that you haven’t heard in awhile or a jazz standard; the genre doesn’t really matter. Can you listen to the song and know what the chord progression is? When the guitarist is soloing do you instantly recognize the scale being played or what specific notes make up the melodic riff?

If you’re hesitating to say ‘yes’ to these questions, then keep reading because I want to share a simple concept with you that will have a profound impact on your ability to recognize chords, progressions, and scales by ear which you can implement today.

To start, there are two kinds of pitch recognition: perfect pitch and relative pitch recognition. Having perfect pitch is the ability to recognize the exact note being played and having relative pitch is the ability to recognize the interval between notes or chords. Only around 0.01% of the population is born with perfect pitch, although that skill can also be developed, and those with perfect pitch and some form of musical training almost inevitably have great relative pitch as well. The concept I’ll be describing is intended to help you develop your relative pitch recognition, which in many musical settings is actually just as useful as having perfect pitch. 

I first heard of this ear training concept from my jazz guitar professor Barry Greene at the University of North Florida. One day in my weekly lesson, I asked him for some tips or exercises I could do to train my ear, since that has always been a weakness for me. In addition to teaching me a bunch of great ear training exercises to practice with my guitar, he made a suggestion that seems so incredibly obvious but took me time to fully appreciate. I call it “Barry’s Present Awareness Concept” and it is:

Become aware of the music in your present environment, even when you are away from your instrument.”

Well, duh.

Right now you might be thinking that you already are aware of the music that’s playing around you. When you’re listening to music in the car, you’re jamming along and paying attention. If you hear a song playing in the grocery store, maybe you pay attention for a few seconds, and then go back to your grocery list. But, this concept challenges you to focus your awareness a little deeper.

In the same way that a mindfulness meditation practice would have you focus on the sensation of your breath and keep returning to that feeling as your mind will distract you with thoughts, we can practice becoming mindful of the music around us in our daily life. Besides connecting you even more with music in your life, this idea is powerful for developing your ear because you will be drastically increasing the hours that you spend training your ear, instead of just the limited time when you're with your instrument.

Apply this concept when you hear a song come on the radio, the intro to your favorite podcast, waiting in line at a restaurant or coffee shop, or anywhere other than your practice space. Focus in and analyze the music. The truth is that most of the time your mind will be busy with many other thoughts and you'll forget to be present and deeply focus on the music, but with practice it can become second nature.

Once you're aware of the music in your environment, how do you actually go about training your ear though?

The simplest way is to ask yourself questions about what you’re hearing.

Here are some example questions to get you started, but the list is endless.

  • What chord, progression, or scale am I hearing?
  • Do I hear anything out of the ordinary, chord-wise or scale-wise?
  • If I do, what do I think the chord or scale is?
  • Is the chord progression made up of basic triads, seventh chords, or something more complex?
  • Does the chord, progression, or scale remind me of a part of another song?

This last question has been particularly helpful for me because when my mind recognizes a certain chord or pattern in what I’m listening to as being from another song, it makes future recognition of that nearly instantaneous. 

If you are making a guess about a specific chord or scale, remember the song and check it later as part of your practice with your instrument. 

You may wonder if this sort of constant analysis ruins the general enjoyment of music? The short answer is ‘No,’ if you use the idea for its intended purpose -- as a tool for developing your ear away from your instrument.

"Barry’s Present Awareness Concept" helps you quickly develop your ability to identify chords, progressions, etc. by giving you a way of improving your listening when you don’t have your instrument with you. So, if training your ear further is one of your current goals (and, if you’ve read this far, I assume it is), then employ this idea when you are out in public on errands or not specifically listening to music for relaxation. I personally find that I end up enjoying songs that I already like even more if I have analyzed them by ear and really know the song inside and out.

What ear training tips or exercises have helped you the most? Leave a comment below and be sure to sign up to our email list to join the #JazzMemesFam and receive our best and exclusive content first.


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