Improve Your Ear!

By Carolyn Walter

You may find it strange to see a sheet music-related blog advocating playing music by ear. However, many experienced musicians – including those in our office – would agree that musical proficiency isn’t some stark dichotomy, with “good readers” in one camp entirely separate from people who “just play by ear.” To become a complete, balanced musician, and fully enjoy all that the art form has to offer, a performer must possess sound aural skills right along with a high level of musical literacy.

Start Simple:

Like a lot of things, playing by ear comes most naturally when a young musician is introduced to the concept from the very beginning.  For those lucky enough to be starting off on their musical journey, many beginning method books now feature added emphasis on playing by ear and improvising. The ever-popular Alfred’s Basic Piano Library series includes a corresponding set of books focusing solely on ear training:

Alfred's Basic Piano Library - Ear Training Book

Alfred’s Basic Piano Library – Ear Training Book

As for those of us who have been playing for many years without ever focusing much on playing by ear, the usual advice to start slowly and practice often certainly applies.  Luckily for us, experience and intellect are great assets here! There are quite a few resources out there from the adult musician seeking to improve their ear, and a great many of them are targeted at musicians who already have a strong technical and conceptual command of their voice or instrument.  Berklee Press publishes quite a few such titles geared towards musicians of various levels, including the popular Beginning Ear Training and more comprehensive Essential Ear Training for the Contemporary Musician, both of which utilize the solfege method and include example CDs:

Beginning Ear Training

Beginning Ear Training

Essential Ear Training for Today's Musician

Essential Ear Training for Today’s Musician

Sing Everything:

Even if you consider yourself a stalwart instrumentalist who wouldn’t dream of singing in front of other people, singing is an absolutely crucial part of the internalization process. Try to play even the simplest melody by ear; the ability to sing or hum the pitches accurately, if not particularly beautifully,  makes it much easier to internalize the music and find the notes on your instrument.  Many university and conservatory programs require all music students to take a few years of sight-singing courses, regardless of their emphasis; it is just the best way to develop your ear, hands down. Zoltan Kodaly’s 333 Exercises in Elementary Sight Singing is a classic collection of progressive sight singing exercises frequently used in music education programs.

333 Elementary Exercises in Sight Reading

333 Elementary Exercises in Sight Reading

Practice Everywhere:

In addition to working out of a particular ear training text or method, regular applied practice is essential. Luckily, there are limitless opportunities to work on one’s ear.  Music is nearly unavoidable in this society, and its components: rhythms, melody fragments, intervals, harmonies and dissonances, are found in every nagging cell phone ring, radio jingle, crosswalk signal, scuffling group of footsteps or droning piece of machinery. All you really need to analyze this constant stream of audible material is your ear, your voice and possibly a pitch pipe or other reference tool.  Regarding the last item: these days an app on a smartphone can work almost as well as a pocket chromatic pitch pipe.

Interval Recognition:

Playing a song by ear requires the ability to accurately replicate melodic lines along with harmonic structures.  Luckily, working on one’s interval recognition will greatly improve both skill sets.  A fun and simple way to start identifying intervals on the fly is to associate commonly-heard ascending and descending melodic intervals with familiar songs.  For example: every time I hear a descending perfect fifth, I am unmistakably reminded of the Flintstones theme song. An ascending perfect fourth, on the other hand, all but spells out Here Comes The Bride (more accurately, if less commonly known as the Wedding March from Wagner’s “Lohengrin”). Jazz educator and author Jamey Aebersold has put together a free, reproducible chart containing many of these “interval mnemonics” and there are a few free interval training sites on the web worth checking out.  This free, customizable ear-trainer is a favorite of mine.

Transcribing Rhythms:

It is easy to get hung up on the melodic and harmonic aspects of ear training, and all but forget that rhythm is an equally crucial part of music! The following free ear training widget generates basic rhythmic figures and asks the participant to transcribe what they’ve heard by selecting note values.

Simple Songs By Ear in Every Key:

Rhythmic and Intervallic proficiency are both put to the test when you start playing tunes by ear.  A song does not have to be complicated to present an ear-training challenge. Playing a basic tune such as “Happy Birthday” in all 12 keys is a great workout for one’s ear – or if this is easy, try converting all of them to minor, or even modulating mid-song.  Iwasdoingallright.com has another wonderful tool in its “Online Song Randomizer,” which will suggest a familiar melody and randomly select a pitch for you to start on.  Just select from categories like “Nursery Rhymes,” “Jazz Standards,” or “Classic Rock” to generate a new challenge.

As you can see, developing your ear is a multifaceted process which takes a great deal of time and discipline.  However, within even a few practice sessions, you may find your overall enjoyment and musical proficiency growing along with this new aspect of musicianship.

Carolyn Walter holds a degree in clarinet performance from San Francisco State University, and is an active music educator and multi-genre performer around the Bay Area.

6 Responses to “Improve Your Ear!”


  1. 3 vallennie May 18, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Playing by ear contributes much to memorising a serious musical work too.
    Thank you for reminding us that we have ears, as our hearing is assaulted every day by the din around us.We hear through our head as well as our ears too, and this is tested during hearing assessments.Hearing is a wide experience, musicians need to develop and use it in all ways possible. Many instrumentalists can’t play Happy Birthday,and I think that is sad. Only chords 1,1V, and V needed, and an easy tune to remember. The melody starts a 5th above the keynote, which tricks some players.

  2. 5 Mistheria (@Mistheria) May 26, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Very useful article! Sharing it with my students to whom I continuously repeat (especially to who says that music reading is boring and not necessary, the most of them which are basically just lazy!): “…a performer must possess sound aural skills right along with a high level of musical literacy.” Well said!


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