Intro To Ear Training

There are extensive written materials provided for every song we cover in a Communiy Guitar class, which has an upside and a downside. The upside is that you can use those written materials as a reference as you learn and later try to recall the songs in your Community Guitar repertoire. The downside, however, is that you can become overly dependent on written music. A jam just isn't a jam if everyone's noses are buried in sheet music.

A lot of guitarists say they "play by ear", but I would most often call it playing, not by ear, but by feel. What's the difference? Let's say you hear or think of a musical phrase and you want to play it. The way most guitarists would approach this challenge would be to start noodling on the fingerboard and with any luck they would eventually find the notes. That's playing by feel. You feel your way around on the fingerboard 'til you find what you're listening for.

Really playing by ear, on the other hand, involves two things:

  1. Recognizing the phrase you want to play—that is, understanding it in some way—while it's still just knocking around in your ear/mind, before you've played a note.
  2. Knowing enough about your instrument to translate that understanding onto the fingerboard.

I'll use a simple example to illustrate what I mean by both of these things, and how the two together enable you to learn and play by ear. To start, click on Audio Demo 1 in the table below.

So, speaking to the first point above, do you have some way of understanding what you just heard? Most people with a little music in them would recognize this series of notes as a major scale, often sung using the solfege syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. That's what I mean by "understanding". The line makes sense, somehow, intellectually.

Given that understanding, we then move to the second bulleted point above, namely, do you know how to play a major scale on your instrument? If not, then your understanding won't help you much; you'll still need to feel your way around to patch together a major scale. But if the answer is yes, you do know how to play a major scale, then there's really no quesswork involved. Of course, you need to find the starting pitch, which—unless you have absolute, or "perfect" pitch—will involve a little playing by feel at the outset. But once you have that starting point all you need to do is launch into your major scale and it will sound just like the audio demo. That's what I would call truly playing by ear: you hear it; you recognize or understand it; you play it.

For most of us there will often be a certain amount of guesswork involved when we play by ear on the fly, as you would in a jam should somebody launch into a song you'd never played before. But there's a huge difference between "a little guesswork" and a whole lot of aimlessly poking about in search of simple melodic phrases. This is a skill you can develop, and the payoff of just a little effort is terrific for anyone who aspires to creative self-expression on guitar. So let's talk about ear training.

Ear Training

To play something by ear, you need to know how to learn it by ear. I suggest you use the recorded melodies and rhythm parts in your Community Guitar course packet to develop this capacity just as you are using them to develop other skills. With practice, you'll get so good at playing by ear that it will seem to come quite naturally to you. But at first it will look and feel like real work—because it is!

Different melodies may "make sense" in different ways, so you may tackle learning them by ear using slightly different approaches. What follows is an approach that will serve you for most of the songs we'll be learning, which we can modify as need be for special cases. It involves three related, but distinct skills:

  1. The ability to recognize pitches.
  2. The ability to find the key and tonal center of a piece of music.
  3. The ability to relate the notes of a melody to that tonal center as scale degrees.

The next few pages of this Intro to Ear training are devoted to testing and, if necessary, developing each of these three skills. If you're ready, let's start with Skill 1: Recognizing Pitches


The links below will help you navigate the Ear Training section of the website should you need to.