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Ear training is a very important ability for any musician to develop. From intonation when singing or playing an instrument to playing and transcribing by ear.

What is the best way to improve this? Is software like EarMaster or GNU Solfege any effective? Or is it a non natural way to train your ear?

People have been learning this skill for centuries without these tools.

Some people say you should just sing or play a lot, but what if you can't hear that your out tune and keep practicing incorrectly? Should you sing or play then with an electronic tuner to get some feedback or is this also a bad idea?

What is the correct approach based on studies, experience, own learning or teaching?

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3 Answers 3

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I break ear training into 3 different categories:

  • The ability to identify notes from hearing them. This includes hearing intervals, hearing what the note is within a key, or hearing notes from memory.
  • The ability to tune pitches by telling if they are sharp or flat.
  • The ability to imagine what the music will sound like from notes before ever having heard it or played it.

There are a lot of methods to attack each of these areas. These do all relate, but I found that it helps to treat them differently as I found that ability in one does not always mean ability in the other.

Identify notes from hearing them:
The main method for this is dictation and transcription. You listen to music, or tunes and or harmonies generated by program or just recordings. It helps to start with simple things and build on this as you get better.

The ability to tune pitches:
Singing with a drone really helps with this. You really feel how a tone fits against the tonal center drone by doing this. Also, playing something like a bass line on the piano and singing the melody, and the other way around, can help with this. A lot of intonation comes from the ability to hear the tonal center of the music and the harmonies. When you can internally hear harmonies and the tonal center you can tune accordingly.

Ability to "hear" music form looking at sheet music before it is played:
I believe sight singing is the best method for this. I strongly believe in using solfege, and fixed do solfege (as most people start to develop some sense of perfect pitch over time) is one of the best ways to do this.

You can first learn to sing intervals, and then simple melodies. When you can't "hear" an interval in your head before singing it you can fill in the notes between the current note and the next notes with scale notes (best to do them as quick grace notes if you can). If you are lost, you sing the tonal note (the note of the key that the music is in) and then do a scale up to the interval. Eventually, you won't need to sing these in between notes any more.

The above method of singing the tonal center or filling in notes is important. Don't play the notes on a piano before singing them because it should be coming from you and not the instrument. Worst case scenario, play the tonal center note on the piano if you get lost, and build up from there. Everything when you are learning this relates to the tonal center, not the previous pitch -- this keeps you from getting off among other things.

Be Patient:
All of these skills, like playing an instrument, take time. Don't get discouraged, start with the basics in each area and move up as you get better. You start with simple intervals and scales. Then move on to navigating a key fluently. You then learn how to do transitions between different keys. Lastly, if you get advanced you work on stuff that is either atonal or near atonal. This process will likely take years, and is often something musicians work on throughout their whole life.

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Very nice! Do you know about software helping in the 3rd category, i.e. hearing the music while reading it. It's easy to find software for the other two types of training. Ideally, I would like an online application. Should I start a separate question about it? –  Raskolnikov May 11 '11 at 12:10
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Raskolnikov: Can't think of anything off hand. Honestly, with the method I think of for this I software might be more of a hindrance than a help. I recommend the three volumes of Dannhauser starting with volume 1 (amazon.com/Solfege-Solf%C3%A8ges-Book-1-Dannhauser/dp/…). Remember, don't play the tunes before singing them. Just get the root note of the scale from the piano (as infrequently as possible) and find all the notes based off of that. –  Kyle Brandt May 11 '11 at 12:20
    
7 is just building on what the student already knows, which is good teaching. Eg. in Kodaly methodology you get the children infused with the quality of,say,a minor third (soh -mi)from numerous songs. Later, when learning intervals, the children usually say unprompted, "Oh, it's like the beginning of..." They've so internalised the interval from repertoire that they can always recognise it. The technique described in number 7 above is a sort of cart before horse approach for those of us who didn't have this childhood training, but it gets you there, which is what matters. –  Marian Jun 9 '12 at 20:30
    
@Marian: I believe your comment ended up under the wrong answer. :-) –  Ulf Åkerstedt Jun 9 '12 at 21:05
    
Thanks, Ulf. I've now added it under the relevent question. –  Marian Jun 11 '12 at 22:26

I have playing music for long. most of the time I play by myself and I found out that it is so important to practice ear training when playing in a band with a song that you never heard of. I apply my ear training like the first day I learn the music note by note:

1/ play a note, memorize it This best practice on piano: Close your eyes and put one finger on anywhere of a key on your piano, hear it and try to guess what note it is.

2/ Interval Same as above technique but with two note playing (not the same time) 3/ Chords Best use of a program or an app on your iphone or smartphone 4/ Help of a friend Let them play and ask you 5/ Repeat your brain while you not at your instrument Just imagine in your head the sound you played: C, D, E, F....F#, Bb whatever.... 6/ Your own technique that can help or explore want to share with me ? :) 7/ Good luck and play like a pro

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Solfege is good. I find it very useful. If you have any other method, still solfege could be a neat supplement.

My teacher suggested me this:

  1. Should practice the notes by singing them, even if you play an instrument.
  2. There should be a drone/fixed note in the background, should try to sing that tone followed by the minor 2nd.
  3. Next: Tone followed by the Major 2nd.
  4. Notes should be sustained. Shouldn't be short.
  5. Should give a small pause between tones. (Bit difficult than continuing a tone from while singing some other.)
  6. Should try to hit the note straight away, shouldn't sing an adjacent tone and glide to it.
  7. Shouldn't try to figure out an interval by recalling a familiar piece. It's cheating!

I wouldn't suggest using a guitar tuner, but it's ok to refer to a keyboard or guitar occasionally. I couple this idea with solfege; for the the melodic intervals exercises in solfege, I sing the notes along before answering.

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4  
Really, I don't see why 7 is cheating. We're not talking about having a contest, we're talking about using whatever means possible to help train the ear and I think that is an effective method. I don't know, maybe I'm missing something here from a pedagogical point of view. –  Raskolnikov Apr 27 '11 at 17:55
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Ability to sing an interval directly is a basic skill. Using some tune as a reference will prevent us from mastering that skill. (Do you look down your keyboard while typing? You can, but one should learn to type without looking, right?). –  ananth.p Apr 27 '11 at 18:03
    
I know associating a familiar tune to a particular interval is a widely used idea. But it should be avoided while actively working out the exercise, because here the idea is to develop the ability to hit any note directly with the same ease as a touch typist hits a letter, automatically, without needing to think much. –  ananth.p Apr 27 '11 at 18:10
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...But we look at our keyboards when LEARNING to type. It's very important at the beginning. We just make sure we're not using that as a crutch, only as a first step. Using familiar tunes for interval recognition is a GREAT trick for beginners--just wean yourself off of it as you advance! –  andyvn22 Apr 28 '11 at 0:27
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7 is just building on what the student already knows, which is good teaching. Eg. in Kodaly methodology you get the children infused with the quality of,say,a minor third (soh -mi)from numerous songs. Later, when learning intervals, the children usually say unprompted, "Oh, it's like the beginning of..." They've so internalised the interval from repertoire that they can always recognise it. The technique described in number 7 above is a sort of cart before horse approach for those of us who didn't have this childhood training, but it gets you there, which is what matters. –  Marian Jun 11 '12 at 22:26

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