The Big Secret about Ear Training

aural skills May 15, 2013

Ear training is a subject that makes people either shrug their shoulders or shudder. The many different approaches breed confusion and the methods inspire fear.

I should know. I taught ear training at the Curtis Institute for 19 years. I was the mean solfège harpy that made Catholic school nuns look like Mary Poppins. Ok, not really.

But ear training is no student’s favorite subject. It takes time to practice the assignment. You have to perform it in front of the class. It takes time away from practice. But it’s essential to any musician’s education.

Ear training develops what I call the Sensory Triangle: your eyes, ears and fingers. It doesn’t just train your hearing. It teaches you how to hear what you see, play what you hear and play what you see, all of which are the skills that help you sightread, memorize, improvise and just learn music faster and better.

When eyes, ears and fingers work together, they can process all the musical information together. The links become so strong that when you look at a piece of music you can hear it, or when you hear a piece of music, you understand it. And while studying ear training doesn’t automatically give you the abilities of a prodigy like Mozart, it will make you the best musician you can be.

So what’s the big secret about ear training? There is no big secret. All you have to is pay attention. Instead of just playing the notes in front of you, you need to truly know what they are and begin to explore the patterns and relationships between them.

You can pursue formal solfège studies with a tutor or by taking a class, or you can start doing some ear training work on your own. Here are three quick ways to start:

1. Say note names for everything you play. Anything you can play, you can say. Note names are the identifying label for a pitch, a dot on the staff and a string. When you play a note and say it, you begin to create the sensory connections between all three. Those connections are the foundation for ear training. Set aside a portion of your practice time to say and play some of your music.

2. Sing arpeggios and scales. Singing is another invaluable way to link pitches, notes and strings. Singing your arpeggios and scales teaches you to hear and reproduce the most important building blocks of music, the fundamentals of melody and harmony. And by singing while you play your scales, you will double up on the benefits. Now that’s efficient!

3. Learn your key signatures. Keys provide the context for understanding the notes in almost everything you play. If you don’t know these by now, what are you waiting for!

What you could do better if your sensory triangle were stronger?

Try my ARS Musica Course: Strengthening Your Sensory Triangle.


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