Simply put, ear training is all about building your ability to recognize different musical pitches, notes and chords and recall them at will.
The great thing about growing this skill is it will influence and improve everything you do musically, giving you more freedom and creative control over what you play. Whether you want to practice ear training for guitar or any other instrument, there are a variety of uses and difficulty levels.
Here’s a very brief overview of some of the things that can be achieved through proper ear training:
Cultivate a refined sense of pitch accuracy, so you don’t play or sing out of tune again.
Elevate improvisational skills for creative and engaging performances.
Forge an innate connection with music and develop the ability to fully express yourself musically.
Accelerate the learning process of musical pieces by swiftly identifying notes, chords and patterns.
Boost overall musicianship, enriching performance and composition abilities, while increasing your reputation and opportunities in the music industry.
As you level up your ear training abilities you will unlock even more useful skills.
There are 6 different stages in the development of ear training skills, it’s quite complicated to explain all of them in a blog post but you can check out this video if you would like to know these 6 stages and be able to assess where you’re at and what you should practice based on that.
Learning how to train your ear isn’t as complex as it seems (if you do it properly), but there are a lot of common mistakes, and misconceptions that you need to avoid.
For example, many people believe that singing in key is something you either have or you don’t, and if you’re tone deaf, there’s nothing that will change it – this is absolutely wrong.
In fact, even something seemingly unrelated like guitar ear training, will passively improve your singing and pitch-matching abilities. This is because using your voice is a huge part of ear training and developing a great musical ear.
When first starting out, your inner musical voice may not be reliable.
In other words, what you imagine sounds right in your mind may not be correct. And the only way to objectively measure this is by externalizing the pitch in your mind – using your voice.
“You mean singing?! But I want to learn ear training for guitarists, not vocalists!”
Relax, the focus here is not on sounding amazing, we’re just using the voice as an output device.
That being said, confidence will grow over time as you use your voice more often, and many musicians end up building a strong singing voice simply through practicing ear training.
Eventually, as your ear training skills develop, externalizing the notes won’t be necessary, but at the very beginning, singing is an important tool for making sure your internal sense of pitch is accurate and improve it when needed.
The major scale is really the foundation for all western music, therefore it should be deeply internalized as soon as possible – again, singing is by far the best way to achieve this.
Learning to sing the major scale will allow you to experience harmonic context. You can begin to distinguish things like tension and resolution between notes of the scale and you’ll start to recognize which notes belong inside the key, and which ones don’t.
Especially beginner musicians often forget that all music is built within a key. Thus the better way to recognize notes, chords, etc. by ear is to familiarize yourself with the sound of the scale and scale degrees so that you can orient yourself properly within the structure of the key and understand the scale degree of each note, chord, etc.
When first practicing singing the scale, use an instrument as a reference point. This will ensure you’re hitting the correct notes and singing them in tune. Playing all the white notes on a piano starting from C will give you a major scale to work to, take it slowly to begin with – accuracy is the most important factor.
Unfortunately, interval-based ear training is the most common approach – and probably the reason so many musicians give up on ear training!
There are a number of reasons why the interval-based method is ineffective, but the main problem with this approach is that it presents intervals outside of a musical context. In real music, intervals are integral components of melodies and harmonies that revolve around a tonal center, with each note serving a specific function and eliciting a unique feeling or aural sensation. Scientific findings have demonstrated that the sonic sensation of each note or chord varies depending on the scale degree it assumes within the key. Interval-based methods, however, entirely disregard this fundamental aspect, rendering them unmusical exercises that fail to capture the true essence of musical relationships.
The most effective ear training methods prioritize tonality and immerse students in a musical context while developing their aural awareness. This approach not only enables students to recognize the notes of a melody or the chords of a song in a realistic environment but also helps them familiarize with the distinct sonic sensations that notes and chords assume within the key, which is the essential building block of our “sense of musicality”. Such a comprehensive method surpasses interval recognition exercises, which fail to align with how we experience music in our everyday lives.
Another common, yet ineffective approach that many guitarists adopt is the "trial and error" method. This is when we try to find the right notes by randomly hitting frets until something sounds right. We’ve even seen guitar lessons online where this method is encouraged, but it really is a bit of a dead-end for your musicality.
While this approach may help musicians recognize what they're hearing (and develop basic pitch-matching skills), overall, it’s an extremely inefficient method. Relying on the use of musical instruments leaves students struggling going beyond basic skills, unable to fully develop their musicality. This limitation hinders their ability to recognize notes and chords by ear, stifles improvisation, and prevents them from experiencing the true benefits of ear training (as listed in the initial section of this post).
Although your focus may be on learning how to play guitar by ear, an effective ear training method should enable musicians to identify notes and chords using only their minds and ears, without the need for an instrument. We recommend avoiding the trial and error approach as much as possible as it doesn’t really build your pitch recognition skills or musicality.
Okay, let's check out an example.
For the best results we recommend following along with this video exercise but here’s a quick overview first:
We play a drone chord which only contains the tonic and the 5th – this sets our tonal center to which all other notes will relate.
We limit the options of what you have to recognize to make it easier. In this exercise, you will only hear either the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree (across various octaves).
Upon first hearing the drone chord, try to sing the major scale up from where you consider the tonic note.
Being able to perform this task will confirm your foundation for note recognition is set, and that you have recognized the tonality correctly.
Once that has been confirmed you’re ready to move on to the actual note recognition exercise.
When first trying to identify a note, feel free to pause and give yourself more time – it’s not about speed at this point, but accuracy.
Upon hearing the note we will utilize the second mechanism of note recognition. This is basically thinking/singing through the major scale from the target note and counting the number of steps it takes to arrive back to the tonic.
This may feel like a slow process at first but will get faster and faster the more you practice.
Check out how students have successfully developed the ability to recognize melodies by ear, starting from zero, following this and other exercises included in the Use Your Ear method.
Not sure where to learn ear training for guitar? You’re already in the right place.
Our innovative, science-based approach has already helped loads of musicians develop a refined ear, and give a huge boost to their musicality – we're really excited to help you do the same!
We believe it’s time for ear training to evolve past those traditional, slow, and ineffective methods. Our step-by-step approach tackles those fundamental issues that people face when trying to improve their ear training skills. Our Relative Pitch Video Course is extremely popular with our students, and for good reason! It lays out a step-by-step plan for you to follow that’s tailored to your specific level.
Even if other ear training methods have failed you in the past and you currently consider yourself totally tone-deaf, don’t worry – we’ve been in the same situation and have had hundreds of students like you, and we know exactly how to get you on the right path to hearing and identifying notes with accuracy.
If you want to try before you buy, sign up for our Free Ear Training Workshop and get a free introduction to our method – no strings attached!
You'll receive access to our exclusive exercises that you can start using immediately, and will also gain a deeper understanding of the scientific findings related to our unique method. By following our guidelines during the workshop, you'll be able to assess your current level, and based on that, we'll provide exercises and tailor made practical direction on how to practice ear training, and more importantly – which exercises to avoid!
If you prefer the engagement and instant feedback of a private tutor, we also offer 1-on-1 Lessons with qualified Use Your Ear instructors. They’re more than happy to answer any specific questions you may have, conduct a detailed assessment of your skill level, give you a list of tasks and exercises that will help you progress and personally guide you through every aspect of our method.
We teach ear training for guitarists, pianists, vocalists – you name it! No matter your instrument, skill level, or goals, we’re confident we can help you develop an outstanding musical ear.
Sounds good? Let’s get started!
The key things to remember are that ear training practice should always be within a musical context, and your progress should be measurable – if you’re not seeing results you will quickly lose motivation!
Make sure you follow a method that has proven results of success. The number one reason most people never develop a great musical ear is due to giving up after following ineffective approaches for a while and experiencing little to no improvement.
This article covered a little about guitar ear training for beginners, but we’ve only really scratched the surface of what’s possible.
Hopefully after reading this, you feel a little less confused, and inspired to take up this exciting challenge!