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To become a better play, I want to figure out how I can train my ears to be able to pick something up by listening/watching to it and then being able to play it.

Or to be able to listen to something that was not intended for a particular instrument (ex. listen to a guitar part and turn it into a brass piece) and turn it into a piece for something else. Transposing one would say, but more or less on the fly.

How are some people able to do that? I am looking to be able to do this for trumpet eventually.

  • 1
    "Ear Training" is a subject taught in music schools and universities. It is usually taught as a component of music theory in a 2-year curriculum. There are textbooks and lesson plans and software programs for ear training. – user1044 Apr 1 '15 at 20:10
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First of all: This will take time! Don't worry or give up too quickly! It is possible to learn - but it will take time!

Training your ear like this usually works best with a teacher or someone you can pair up with. This way you can practice together or a teacher can give you advise.
Fortunately there are also free tools on the internet to train your ear.

One of them is musictheory.net
If you scroll down to "EAR TRAINING" you will find several little tools, that could help you. To start off I would recommend the "Interval Ear Training". You will hear intervals and have to say what they are.
To actually identify the intervals there are several ways that might help. For some people only some of them work, for others a combination of all of them helps them.

  1. Try to sing a scale between the two notes
    When I hear an interval, I hum or sing a scale in my head from one note to the other and count all the notes.
  2. Find beginnings of songs you know, that start with all the intervals. This way when you hear an interval you can keep singing that particular song
    For example: Major 3rd: Beethovens 4th

Another way is to just narrow it down, what you hear and identify the interval that way:

  1. Do the notes sound far away or close to each other?
  2. Do the two notes sound consonant or dissonant?
    Unison sounds the most consonant (obviously), followed by the Octave.
    Perfect 4th and 5th still sound very consonant.
    3rd and 6th sound a little less consonant but still sound comfortable.
    Major 2nd and Minor 7th sound very dissonant.
    Minor 2nd, Major 7th and Tritone sound the most dissonant.
  3. Does it sound like minor or major?
    Then it's probably a 3rd or a 6th.
    Major 3rd and 6th usually sound more like major.
    Minor 3rd and 6th usually sound more like minor.
    This one is tricky though! All these intervals can both sound like minor and major depending on their context. So be careful with this one.
  4. Does the higher note want to be "relieved" in any direction?
    The 2nds don't have strong urges to be relieved. But if I would have to decide, the upper note of the Major 2nd probably wants to go up to become a 3rd and the upper note of a Minor 2nd tends to want to go down and become a Unison.
    A little bit stronger has the Major 7th. The high note leans more towards the Octave (thus up).
    The Minor 7th has a strong urge to be relieved since it is the Dominant interval. Here the higher note wants to go down a Minor 2nd to become the Major 6th.
    Last but not least the Tritone is relieved either by the lower note going a Minor 2nd up and the higher note going a Minor 2nd down or by exactly going the opposite direction.

These are just a few ways, that helped me and my students practice hearing intervals.
Once you feel comfortable with intervals, you can start with simple melodies. Here it is again easier to practice with somebody together, who can just play something for you and you write it down. But once again there are also free resources on the internet:
Teoria.com has a free online tool, that plays music for you and you write down the notes you hear.

I hope this helps. If I remember more things, I will edit this post.

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Jim did an excellent job of describing how to hear intervals and melodies.

There are a couple other aspects of music that can really help you to be a better performer and listener, if you get used to looking for them.

When I'm transcribing or learning a piece, I try to listen first broadly, then in more detail. How much time I spend listening at each stage depends on the density of the music.

Whenever you get a chance, listen with the music in front of you. This will help you learn both how great performers interpret pieces and improve your ear's ability to recognize patterns and intervals.

1. Form

Form is the big picture of a piece. While listening to small examples (like usual in college ear training), form isn't that important, but when you're playing or analyzing in preparation for learning, form is easy to overlook but can make everything "click" together.

You need to listen for themes, repeated sections, and other audio cues of where the music is going. If you have an idea of what the form is, you can think the way the composer did, which usually makes the logic behind the piece stand out. This makes listening more enjoyable and learning much easier.

2. Harmony

Learning to hear harmony will make figuring out the melody much easier, and enable improvisation. Listen for how the bass moves, and listen for the quality (major/minor/diminished/augmented) of the chord to figure out the inversion. If you know what chord you're working with, you can narrow down the pitches that might be going on the melodies and harmonies.

3. Rhythm

Don't forget to listen to the rhythm! Many patterns are easy to play by ear, but it's still good to be aware if you're playing a triplet or duplet, especially if you've got a cross rhythm going on. Of course, if you're percussion like me, rhythms are generally dense and complex so playing by ear is very difficult.

I wouldn't start trying to figure out the melody until I had at least a rough idea of these three. Once you know what's happening in the form, harmony, and rhythm, you have a deep understanding of the piece and the melody should fall into place, with far fewer errors.

A lot of ear training is checked through transcription, so a good practice technique is to listen to a piece that you can find the music for and try to write down all the parts you can hear for a few bars. This is VERY challenging, especially for extended passages. See what percentage of the layers you can transcribe accurately with 5 listens. At first keep the exercises short, and gradually get longer.

In college, we used the Bach chorales for a lot of our early ear training because they follow a very strict set of rules; the same ones used in most music written since the 1700s. They are all public domain so recordings and transcriptions are available easily.

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