Thursday, January 23, 2014

Playing by Ear is not Optional

"I want to play exactly what I have in my mind."
"I wish I could play my instrument with complete freedom."
"I'm stuck. I want to be able to improvise."
"I wish I could hear chord changes and figure out chord progressions."

What's the often overlooked skill that will help you become a better overall musician?

ALL musicians need ear training to improve aural skills. Nobody is exempt from this practice. Beginners and professionals alike must work to keep their ears in shape.

No doubt about it, ear training will improve your musicianship. I have read that it is one of the most undeveloped skills in musicians. Many of us believe we're either born with an innate ability to "hear" music, or not. Who amongst us has not declared, "I have a terrible ear!" without ever attempting to do something about it? Aural skills do tend to develop as other musical skills develop, but may be improved with intentional practice.

What is ear training? It is the process of learning to identify - solely by hearing - pitches, intervals, melody, scales, modes, chords, chord progressions, rhythms, and other basic elements of music. In the past, ear training has required pairing up with a study partner … one person to doing the testing, the other to take the test, so to speak. Feedback on accuracy of identifying intervals, chord character, etc, etc would be key to the student's progression. Today we are able to use technology as our music buddy. That's right … there's an app for that!

The more we train our ears to recognize musical elements and how they're related the better we get at playing music. It's called improving one's relative pitch … a long term project for sure, but essential for mastery of an instrument. We learn to understand what we are playing, what others are playing, how it all fits together in the moment, and what might be coming next. Training relative pitch takes time and patience, but pays off in the end.

Areas that will benefit from ear training:

  • Tuning your instrument
  • Singing on pitch
  • Playing with improved musicality
  • Playing with better rhythmic skills
  • Transcribing melodies and chords by ear
  • Arranging / Composing music
  • Interacting with other musicians
  • Playing backup
  • Improvising

I admit, I've put it off long enough! I'm adding ear training to my regular practice, and I challenge you to do the same. If you do, please share your experiences and outcomes. How's it going? What works? What apps do you like / not like? What results do you notice? I'll let you know how it's coming in my corner of the world. Good luck!

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