I came across an interesting essay on playing by ear, in which the author describes a method he called "Call and Response Teaching" (section 2 in the article).

The description is thus:

The easiest way to learn to play by ear -- and probably the best way, for that very reason -- is using a method known as Call and Response instruction. Using that method, the teacher plays a few notes, and you repeat them. The teacher repeats those notes and listens to your response. until you've "got it", and then the teacher moves on.

At the very beginning, you may only repeat one note at a time. But within a day or two you'll be repeating pairs and triples more easily than you would have imagined. After a while, you'll find yourself easily acquiring a phrase at a time. One day, you find yourself learning entire parts, and possibly entire tunes!

This sounds great. It persuaded me to try to learn to play by ear and not just from sheet music.

I'd like to know more about the technique (and I'd love to find software that takes on the teacher's role), but when I look up Call and Response, the standard meaning seems to be:

  • one person plays a phrase
  • another person riffs off that and plays a different phrase in reply

How can I find out more about "Call and Response Instruction" as described in the extract from the essay above? Does it go by another name more commonly, perhaps?

  • 2
    This sounds like Suzuki method for me. An important difference is, that Suzuki pupils learn notes substantial time after being able to play complex melodies. The technique you describe is used in any woodwind or fretless string instrument ( e.g. during warm-up) simply to improve hitting the correct pitch, despite melodies are played from standard sheets within the same lesson
    – guidot
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 19:44
  • Note that you can do this on your own! You simply sing some notes and see if you can play what you just sang. Some jazz musicians learn to improvise this way. Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 0:49
  • There is an element of Suzuki teaching which involves the teacher playing a short figure and the student playing what he hears. But I've only heard it as a way of demonstrating something (mainly focusing on the sound quality) and allowing the student to try to imitate it, without muddying the waters with a lot of talking. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 4:17
  • Another term for this is "tonal memory".
    – user1044
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 3:54
  • This is "teaching by rote." Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 5:04

3 Answers 3


Each week I conduct a small learner brass group. As part of our warm up I ask the drummer to play a rock beat (or waltz or swing beat or whatever) and then on my trumpet I improvise a series of very simple one-bar phrases. After I've played each one the band plays it back to me staying in time. I deliberately limit the range of pitches and start off doing really straightforward rhythms, very gradually increasing in complexity.

Then I invite a member of the band to improvise phrases that the rest of the band can copy. I tell them to listen to what the band plays back, and if it's not quite right, then they have to play their improvised phrase again. So when they improvise they can't just waggle their fingers - they must know what they're going to play before they play it.

I will also ask the drummer to mark quarter notes with his kick drum whilst clapping rhythms for the rest of us to echo. Drummers are good at this sort of thing. It's important he claps the rhythm to be copied, because if you allow him to play with sticks he'll likely play unclappable phrases.

Also, as we have a mixture of Bb and Eb instruments and trombones, I tell the band they can't rely on seeing what valves I pressed. I suggest instead they try to keep track of what note they're currently playing, and judge the intervals between notes in the phrase. I also suggest they try remembering the phrase by mentally drawing a graph of pitches and then recreating the shape of the graph.

These are vital skills for brass players and any other instruments where most of the technique happens invisibly inside your body. My goal in these exercises is to improve the band's sense of the geography of their instrument, to inspire them to create interesting and fresh phrases and to improve their listening and performance accuracy.

Although these are band exercises, you could do them with just two people - alternating between the improviser and the echo.


Many resources are available under the search terms "perfect pitch training" although Perfect Pitch means knowing the 12-semitone-octave-western-scale-really-well, the basic concept is the same: repeat what was played (or identify it on a given instrument).

I am not affiliated with the following: http://pitchimprover.com/

but it has exercises similar to what you are talking about.


Another term for this is "tonal memory". It's a part of ear training for all instrumentalists and singers. Tonal memory training consists of an instructor playing a melodic fragment, typically on piano, and then asking one student to sing the melodic fragment back exactly as it was played. In this manner both instrumentalists and singers can learn to recognize and memorize sequences of pitches and internalize the relationships "inside the head" without reference to fingering an instrument and without reference to reading sheet music.

Tonal memory tests are also usually a part of auditions for singers joining a choir (along with sight-reading from sheet music, and singing scales and modes accurately and in tune with no instrument playing along.)

A typically tonal memory test or audition starts out with the instructor playing two or three notes in a simple diatonic relationship, asking the student to sing them back, and then going forward with successively longer and more complex melodic fragments with more elaborate and chromatic melodic leaps. This continues until the singer reaches their limit of being able to remember the melodies and sing them back. It's one way to measure singing skill and the ability to learn new material quickly.

Do a Google search and you can find resources for teaching and developing tonal memory, as well as ear training apps that teach the skill.

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