Ear Training Skill 3: Relating Notes to the Tonal Center

Before we get into the thick of this step, do one of two things by way of preparation:

  • Write out the lyrics to Are You Sleeping, or
  • Print out this handy, pre-written version. (You're welcome.)

Once you have a clear sense of the tonal center of a melody you can start organizing the rest of the notes around it. Since we're limiting ourselves to melodies in major keys for now, the main palette of notes you will be working with are those of the major scale. Think of the major scale as a ladder with each scale degree providing a rung. So the first thing to do is make sure your ladder is secure by singing through the major scale built on the tonic you've identified; that tonic will provide both the bottom and top rungs of the vocal ladder.

Get the tonal center of the key of D major in your ear either by by listening to the audio in the left hand column below or by playing an open D (4th string) on your guitar. Then sing up and down the major scale built on that tonic in scale degrees ("1, 2, 3..." all the way up to 1, then back down again.) Check yourself against the audio version of the major scale in the right hand column of the table below.

The question we'll need to answer again and again as we work our way through a melody is this: Where does the note in question stand relative to the tonal center? Or to put it differently, which rung on the ladder is this pitch? You have two ways of using the ladder of the major scale to answer the question:

  1. You can either start on the tonic and sing up through the major scale 'til you hit the note you're looking for, thus arriving at its scale degree. This may be tricky because by the time you get to the note you were looking for, you may have forgotten it!
  2. Another approach is to start on the unidentified note and work your way up or down the scale to 1. To do this, just use a single syllable for all of the notes in the scale: "Da, da, da, da, da." In this example, let's say you were singing down the scale and on the final "da" you landed securely on the tonic. Assuming you sang accurately through scale, what scale degree did you start on? There were 5 "da's" so if each "da" was a succesive note in the scale, you must have been singing, "5, 4, 3, 2, 1." Et voila, your mystery scale degree was 5. In the key of D, that's an A.

That's the process. Before trying it on an actual melody you might want to test or strengthen your ability to identify individual notes as scale degrees in relation to a tonal center. To do so, follow the directions in the table below.

Click on any note's name in the left hand column; it will serve as the tonal center of all the exercises to the right of it in the same row. Start by making that note the tonic of a major scale, singing through the scale either with your voice or in your imagination. If you need to, check your accuracy by listening to the major scale in the adjacent column. Then, staying within that row, click on the link to any of the other audio files associated with that tonic (for example, C1, C2, etc.). The first of the two pitches you will hear is the tonic, the second is a mystery note. (Then both are repeated.) Your mission is to name the second note as a scale degree of the first. Scroll over the x to see the correct answer.

If you are feeling confident that you can relate a pitch to a tonal center, feel free to move on to the next step below. But if you'd like some more practice you might enjoy some of the ear training resources you can find elsewhere online. A good one focused on this particular skill — relating a note to a tonal center — is at Good-Ear.com. There are actually a number of ear training exercises to choose from there, but the one that is most relevent is under Note Location > diatonic. You'll hear a series of chords that imply a certain tonal center. Immediately after those chords (a bit too quickly, in fact, so listen up!) you'll hear a single note and your task is to identify it as a scale degree relative to the tonal center. It's fun, and great practice.

When you are feeling confident at this skill, let's apply this series of skills to a simple melody.

Applying this skill to a melody.

This might be a good time to recall the point of all this preparation. We want to be able to hear a melody, understand it in some way and then translate that understanding onto the guitar, all with as little guesswork as possible. You may find that when you hear a musical phrase that you just "get it" without much effort. If that's the case, fine — just play it! But having the tools of a more systematic approach will help in those instances when the phrase is not so self-evident. The more you use those tools, the less effort they require, to the point where more and more phrases seem self-evident. What follows is a short, but detailed walk through the steps that will be required to apply the three skills we've been developing to actual melodies, including those of your Community Guitar repertoire. We'll start by retracing some of the steps that brought us to this point.

Remember our old friend, Are You Sleeping? Listen to the melody again by clicking on the left hand box in the table below. Sing or imagine the tonal center in which the melody is played, then check yourself by listening to the audio in the right hand box.

When you are sure you're focused on the right pitch, find it on the guitar by moving up one string, one fret at a time. Match the pitch and name it. When you've done so, read on.

If you said the note was a D, you're right. Now sing or imagine the D major scale. Use the audio below to check yourself if you have any doubts.

We'll need to keep that tonal center in our ear throughout the process so you'll always be able to find it again in the left hand column of the table below. Or, if your guitar is just as handy, the open D string will provide the same service, cheap.

Begin by listening to Phrase 1 (right hand column below).

Now sing only the first note of that phrase using the nonsense syllable of your choice. Got it? Now sing the tonic of our key. If you've lost it, use either of our refreshers. Then sing the first note of the phrase again. Then the tonic. And back and forth a couple times until you can remember both.

If you can actually sing both of those pitches side by side you probably have noticed that they are the same scale degree. That tells us that this melody starts on the tonal center, the first scale degree. So pull out that lyric sheet and write the number 1 over the very first syllable. We're off to a great start.

Moving on, let's now try to figure out the third note of that same phrase. Why not the second note, you ask? Well, the third note is the highest of them, so in tandem with the opening, low note we've already identified, it will give us a frame within which to locate the second note. Play the audio clip of phrase 1 again and then sing the phrase, this time stopping at the third note (the one that would fall on the word "sleep"). Then, as you did above, sing the tonic, then the note in question, then the tonic, until you can vocally (or mentally) bounce back and forth between them.


When you can recall both the tonal center and the note in question, climb up or down the ladder of the major scale to identify the mystery note as a scale degree. When you think you've got it, scroll over the X you see to the right and, again, all shall be revealed.

So now we know that the first note of the phrase was 1 and that the third note is 3. You could go through the entire phrase in this way if need be, but there are some shortcuts. If you can hear, for example, that the second note of the phrase falls between the first and third — which were 1 and 3 — then "2" is the obvious choice for that note. Similarly, if you can hear that the phrase ends where it started, then the last of the four notes is 1. Your lyric sheet should now have the scale degrees 1 2 3 1 above the words Are You Sleep-ing.

The final step is to translate those scale degrees onto the neck of the guitar with zero guesswork, based on your understanding of the D major scale. If you need a refresher on that, you can always find what you need in the Community Guitar Level 1 Theory Primer.

In essence, this is the process you'll be going through note by note, phrase by phrase to learn a song by ear. If the examples we've provided here have been easy for you, congratulations! You will find many of the songs in our repertoire easy to learn this way. Others, however, will throw you aural curve balls in a variety of ways. We'll deal with those situations as they arise on the Ear Training web pags devoted to specific songs. Now that you've finished this intro, it's time to dig into one of them.



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