5 Secrets To Ear Training

Article by Steve Lush

Stuck at home in quarantine? Have you ever thought about training your ears?

While it’s challenging to give ides in a short article, I will be sharing my top five tips on how to train your ears. As a musician, you want those golden ears, so when you hear a song on Spotify or YouTube, you can immediately hear all the parts and notes of the song, and then choose what parts to weave into your own songwriting and performing. This is an invaluable skill, as it will increase your worth as a musician, help you find your own sound, and develop your music tastes. So let’s dive into some tips I’ve discovered that have helped develop my ears.

5 Ways To Train Your Ears, In The Comfort Of Your Home

    1. Listen To Every Song You Hear, Even If It’s A Song You Don’t Like. 
      Why listen to songs you don’t like? This will inform you of what to do and not do when writing or performing your own songs. This is one of the greatest tips I learned from a music publisher, Suzan Koc. In the past, if there was a song I couldn’t stand, I would skip it and play another song. But now, I ask myself, “Hmm, what don’t I like about this song? Is it something about the songwriting, the performance, the recording?” This helps me develop my own taste as a musician.
    2. Slooooow the song down
      When you hear a really cool part of the song that you want to study, you might need to slow it down to figure out what note or chord it is. YouTube videos are great for slowing the song down to really hear the pitches. Within the video, on your desktop, hit the settings button and then select “playback speed.” On your keyboard, “shift”+ “<“ or “shift” + “>” also works. If you can download a song, many computer apps such as VLC work great for slowing the song down. If you can’t slow down the song, the next best option is to play it over and over until you figure out what is going on.
    3. Use Your Voice
      Still can’t figure out a certain note in the recording? Try singing it, or finding it on a piano or guitar. Once you have hopefully slowed down the recording, it still may be hard to find out what the note is. When starting out or developing my ears, I would go to a piano to look for the note. Like the previous step, this is also tedious, but over time, you will start to hear what note of scale it is. The actual note (ie C#, G) usually doesn’t matter as much as what the note is in the scale (1st scale degree, 2nd scale degree; this way you can transpose it to any key). The next step up is being able to sing the note out loud to see where it falls in the key without referencing an instrument. Singing scales and learning scale degrees is a big help for this. The ultimate goal is to get so good at hearing what note of the scale it is, that when you are not by an instrument, you can hear it in your head without singing or referencing an instrument. Tip: Once you have mastered pitch, figure out the rhythms of anything you hear.
    4. Learn Music Theory
      Still can’t figure out the notes, chords, or rhythm? Time to improve that music theory.
      If you combine a deep understanding of studying music theory (my favorite music theory book is a fun and in-depth read: How Music Really Works by Wayne Chase) and listen to tons and tons of music, you WILL improve your ear training skills. Nikhil Korula of the NK Band said being a musician is listening to music 100 percent of the time, whether you’re on the stage, in the studio, or looking for inspiration. Time to become a music theory/listening nerd.
    5.  Get Emotional
      Once you become a boss at hearing anything in a song, investigate how this translates emotionally. Figuring out the emotion of a song is more important than dissecting the technical parts of the song. Yes, we want to hear all the notes of a song so we can play it, sing it, or use it to improve our own songwriting. But for years, I would analyze songs only technically. I eventually realized the general public is evaluating the song from an emotional standpoint, not a technical one. They don’t know music theory or what is under the music hood. They won’t understand all the specific notes and what the chords are, but rather, how the chords, notes, and rhythms make them feel. For example, when I am listening for emotion, I might ask myself, “Did that bass line portray coolness, excitement, fear? Is the vocalist flat on that one note because they are portraying sorrow, or did they just not hit the note? Does that chord portray moodiness, excitement, melancholy? Is that hard-hitting synth in the last chorus there to convey power and energy?” In the most simple terms, “how did that make me feel?”
How will you use these ideas in your music learning journey? I’d love to hear from you.
Article by Steve Lush
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