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This question: What are the most effective ear training methods has an excellent best answer.

I'd like to zoom in on its conclusion:

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.

Is it possible to elaborate on this conclusion and break it down in small steps or point to a resource where this is done? Is there any progressive method? Now I'm a bit lost.

I'm aware of software that can help, but those I know don't provide a good method that can guide me from simple excercises to more advanced.

For example when learning to recognize intervals, which intervals do you start with?Which are easiest and provide a good base for the next intervals? The same for chords and keys and note dictation and... what am I forgetting?

  • This is a good question that I don't feel got enough attention (two of the existing answers are basically 'take a class', or 'read a book'). I've been meaning to give a more in-depth answer for months, so I finally got around to it! – Caleb Hines Jul 10 '15 at 4:13
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There's a lot to learn, and a lot of ways to learn it and practice it, so of course, there's no single answer that will give you the best way to learn, but here are several things to work towards, not necessarily in any particular order.

Active Listening Always ask questions about whatever you are listening to. What instruments are playing? What is it's structure? Which instrument(s)/vocal(s) have the melody? Are there any notable countermelodies, or harmony parts? How does the bass line go? Does the melody (or any other line) have a lot of repeated notes (maybe with other notes in between), or does it jump all over the place? Where are the high parts, and the low parts? When are the notes moving faster or slower? Can you tell when chords sound like they are changing? When there's a chord change, does it sound like an expected change, or something out of left field? Does that chord sound like a sad minor chord or a happy major chord (that's a vast oversimplification of the difference between major and minor, but it gets the point across)?

Singing Try singing various parts. Not just the melody, but the bass line, and any harmonies you hear. Learn to focus on different lines of music. By reproducing them vocally, you'll also be reproducing them in your head. Eventually, you can try cutting out the audible singing, and just sing along in your head.

Pitch Memory You want to be able to hold on to one pitch while others are sounding, so that you can compare the two. Even better if you can imagine two pitches in your head, either simultaneously, or nearly so. Singing helps here as well, as it gives you a chance to actualize what you hear in your head.

Think about scales numerically Every note in a scale can be represented by a number that describes where it is in the scale. It's much easier to hear that a notes is a "1", "5", "3", "7", or even "4♯" then it is to tell what the actual letter name is. If you can figure out the numbers, you can always translate back to letters once you figure out what the key is. Some people prefer solfege systems instead of numbers (do, re, me, etc...). That's fine too, if it works for you. I find numbers easier, but YMMV. The key is to avoid tying yourself to any specific notes -- most people don't have and can't learn absolute pitch, but relative pitch can be learned with a bit of practice. The converse of this is to make sure that you know all the notes in each scale, and what their numbers are, so that you can translate back and forth easily.

Landmark Pitches The easiest pitch to determine is usually the "tonic" (the first note of the scale, '1', or 'do'). This is usually the note that the piece wants to end on, and even individual phrases (or pairs of phrases) will feel like they want to gravitate to it if they were to come to rest. I like to ask myself, if the song were to end right now, what note would I want it to end on. A second landmark pitch is the "dominant" (the fifth note of the scale, '5' or 'so'). The melody will often hover around this note, and it can sometimes be tricky to tell apart from the tonic, as it is also somewhat stable. I like to think of it as a sort of "plateau" that overlooks the tonic. It's a nice place to visit, but it isn't home.

Also, notice that with the exception of the third note of the scale, every other note is either the tonic or dominant, or is adjacent to the tonic or dominant. So if you can find the nearest landmark pitch, and determine whether you're above it, below it, or right on it, then you can figure out any note of the scale.

Unisons, and Directions This is sort of obvious, but the first "interval" to learn to recognize is the unison, in other words, a repeated note. Most people can already do this. Assuming two notes aren't the same, you want to make sure that you can recognize which one is higher and which one is lower. Is the melodic line ascending or descending? Many people can already recognize this as well.

Scales Mark already mentioned the importance of learning seconds (m2 and M2). These are notes that are considered adjacent in a (diatonic) scale. Starting out, I wouldn't even focus on learning the difference between them, just learn to recognize this adjacency. If two notes aren't adjacent, then you know its a bigger skip or leap. But if you can sing a scale of adjacent notes, then you can find any interval by singing a scale between the two notes and simply counting the number of scale degrees between them (including both endpoints). You won't be doing this in real-time, of course, but that's what practice is for. When you're starting out, you probably won't be recognizing much in real time anyway.

Intervals With experience, you'll start to recognize larger intervals more readily. Initially, I'd stick with smaller intervals (3rds, 4ths, and 5ths), since they're both easier and more common. Maybe throw in octaves too, since they're faily easy to recognize. I also wouldn't worry about distinguishing major vs. minor intervals at first either. You can add in that distinction once you're comfortable determining the more general classes of intervals. Some people like to think of specific songs to help with varioius intervals, while others point out that this is tied to certain scale degrees. I occasionally like to use it as a way to double check my assumptions, but I rarely need to do so, and find it just as easy to sing (or imagine) a scale. It may be more helpful to a beginner, but YMMV of course.

Chunking It may seem daunting to think of working through figuring out what every single note in a piece is, but it becomes easier once you are able to recognize certain gestures. It's often easy to pick out the last note of a phrase, then work backwards to figure out the series of notes that led up to it. For example, If you count five ascending notes which are all adjacent, and end on the dominant, then you know that the notes had to be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. You can also simplify the music line by recognizing, then removing/ignoring small things like "neighbor notes" (where the pitch goes up a step than right back down, or vice versa), or bits of scale that ascend or descend by a third, which are easy to hear, and often serve to decorate an otherwise-sparse line. Some of this will involve becoming familiar with certain idioms that are used in various genres as well.

Chords This is already long, so all I'm going to say about chords is that the tonic and dominant (especially dominant seventh) are usually the easiest to recognize, as is the difference between major and minor chords. Look for back and forth progressions between two chords. Also, if you can figure out the bass line, it is often playing the root (and less often, the third) of chords.

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Your recognition of intervals needs to be done in reference to tonality. It is pointless and ineffective to try to train to train your ear by picking "random intervals" that don't have any relationship to the movement of a melody or a chord progression around a tonal center. With this in mind, the best way to begin your ear training is to pick 20 or 30 simple, well known tunes (folk songs, Christmas carols, children's songs) and to identify the melody by ear and then to harmonize the melody with basic chords from the key that the song is in. This should be done by ear. As you do it on song after song in the same key, your ear for the intervals in this key naturally progresses and improves. Then repeat the same set of songs in the next key around the circle of fifths. Training your around tonal centers prepares you for the next stage - tunes and types of music that are still tonal, but include melody tones and chords that are outside the key.

  • Somewhat true, but what about atonal music?! – Mark Jan 6 '15 at 19:57
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    improving your ear in tonal music lays the path for atonal music. Have you ever heard Hal Crook play trombone? He started out as a regular jazz guy before moving to free jazz. – Michael Martinez Jan 6 '15 at 23:59
  • Of course, but when you arrive at atonal music, you don't have a tonal center to rely upon. All that is really left are intervals at that point. So there is some point in learning intervals. – Mark Jan 7 '15 at 4:50
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I had a great experience as a TA for Dr. Gary Karpinski. His method, which I truly believe will always work for any diligent student, went roughly as follows:

  • Learn to identify m2 and M2 intervals (these are the only two intervals that he teaches students to memorize, and this skill leads to a functionally harmonic ear training education based on movable do)
  • Solidify musical fundamentals such as key, clef, and meter
  • Begin singing exercises in movable do, from simple to more complex
  • Incorporate a dictation system
  • Sight-read using a movable-do syllabic system (These last three items are done at the same time.)

His methods assume that the student does not have any background in ear training. The anthology of melodies, which are used for sight-singing, is enormous, and is broken down so that each chapter has relevent melodies that correspond to the chapter's topic.

And so to answer your question directly, I really recommend that you see Karpinski's book and take note of all the small, sequential steps that he teaches.

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I learned to recognize intervals by associating each of them with a different melody. For example:

Minor second - Jaws theme

Major second - Do Re Mi

Minor third - Greensleeves

Major third - For He's the Jolly Good Fellow

Perfect fourth - Yankee Doodle

Augmented fourth - The Simpsons Theme

Perfect fifth - Star Wars theme

Minor sixth - Love Story

Major sixth - My Bonnie lies over the ocean

Minor seventh - Blues scale

Major seventh - Take on Me (A-ha)

Perfect octave - Somewhere over the Rainbow

Hope that helps!

  • Can you clarify what "Love Story" is? Who is the artist? – Todd Wilcox May 10 '16 at 16:36
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I would suggest investigating college music school ear training textbooks and course material. All students in music college around the world take one or two years of ear training classes, typically for one hour, two or three days a week. Any college textbook or method will give you lessons in careful, methodical order from the easiest progressing on to the most complex lessons.

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Get a stringed instrument.

Master going from fundamental tone to one octave up by pressing down fret 12.

Get a really good grasp of the intervals from 0-x and x-12 where x is a fret within the octave...

Then one day, get a fretless instrument. Although the excerpt you wrote says "atonal" I think it more as unrestricted pitch or continuous pitch.

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