Ear training: the bane of so many music majors existence.

Why though? Ear training, when properly learned and acquired, completely transforms the way music is heard, analyzed, and appreciated. One would believe that any musician would greedily and quickly absorb as much of this skill as possible.

It boils down to this one main problem: the methodology in which ear training is taught. Now, before I continue, I must point out that I am not aware of how every music department in the nation (let alone world) instructs and conveys ear training. I speak from my personal experience and the experiences that have been passed on to me through friends, colleagues, mentors, teachers, etc.

At UTA, our primary ear training activities boiled down to six tasks:

  1. Interval training – This means that our professor would play an interval (anything and everything between a half step and two octaves once we reached the most advanced level), and we would have to identify it using only our ears. Certain tricks were employed to make this easier (i.e. the first two notes of “Here Comes The Bride” dictate a perfect fourth while the first two notes of the three note NBC theme reveal a major sixth).
  2. Chord identification – Different triads and seventh chords would be played in different shapes and positions, and, again, our ears would have to provide an answer.
  3. Melodic dictation –  A single voice melody would be played multiple times, and we would have to dictate this melody onto staff paper using the interval training, from above, to help guide us through the process.
  4. Harmonic dictation – A series of four note chords would be played, and we would have to identify the types of chords (in relation to the given key signature) as well as the highest and lowest pitches of each chord (the human ear is naturally most drawn to high pitches followed by low pitches – any pitches in the middle are easy to lose and difficult to identify).
  5. Rhythmic dictation –  Our professor would tap out a rhythmic pattern on the lid of the piano while we would write it down.
  6. Sight singing – This required us to sing a short melody (just with our professor in his/her office – luckily not with the rest of the class) in solfege (Do Re Mi, etc.) with only the beginning pitch as a reference.

Now I have nothing against these six features of modern ear training. I do, however, have two suggestions.

First, hold the students to a higher standard. Ear training, by far, required the most effort on my part, but that effort only went as far as to achieve an A. I find myself wishing they would have forced us to go farther while we were still in the school, so the real world would be that much more open in terms of how we perceive it.

For those of you who have been (or are) in ear training, you are likely cursing the ideas in the previous paragraph. “Harder ear training?!? Never!” I understand your reservations. This is where part two of the modified equation begins.

Second, give us some context. Everything in ear training, at the moment, revolves around Do (the tonic or first note of a scale). This is all well and good in practice, but go to the real world and suddenly Do carries a lot less weight.

Here’s a short example: in class, Do to La (the first two notes in the NBC theme from earlier) might come quite naturally. Major sixths seem like a piece of cake. Then one day, you listen to a song and want to figure out a riff or solo. That riff or solo might have a major sixth in it, but it might not be from Do to La. If that first note isn’t a Do, then you suddenly have lost all of your grounding that has been repetitively beaten into you back in class.

For those of you who would like a less theory intensive example: imagine you’re learning a foreign language. Ear training would represent the process of learning single words and phrases. Helpful, but it won’t get you very far in when you travel across the seas to a new land when you need to carry on entire conversations and survive.

So how would this extra context work in ear training? Simple: have the students play along with other music. This could come from one’s personal music collection, the radio, or even as an assignment from a professor (i.e. go home, listen to this sonata, and try to play along as best as you can).

Going back to the foreign language comparison: it would be the same idea as moving to a foreign country and completely immersing oneself into the language. People always say that that’s the quickest and most successful method in becoming fluent. Why couldn’t the same be said for training one’s ears in a musical fashion?

So, if you find yourself in an ear training class, do yourself a favor: turn on the radio and start jamming. You’ll be thankful you did.