When someone claims they have “good ears” usually it’s from training our hearing in order to improve the way we identify, listen and produce sound.
Learning these skills is a lot like learning a language. Consider that as children, we communicate our language by listening and replicating the sounds we hear around us. As a result, our ability to speak comes naturally to us. We do it intuitively.
Ear training for music manifests in the same way. By developing our hearing and by sharpening our ability to hear the many different patterns and colours akin to music, over time, and through immersion in music (and for us singers, immersing ourselves in singing and listening to singers), we can develop to sing, play and create music without thinking about it.
So you’re thinking “Okay.. but why does Ear Training matter?”. By taking the time to develop our ears, as singers, we are able to:
Practice Active Listening: Being able to concentrate and deeply understand what you’re listening to. This is in contrast to passive listening meaning to hear something on a surface level (or as background noise) without really taking anything in.
Harness Creativity: Once you understand what you’re listening to you’re able to construct new ideas based on the sounds you can identify.
Develop into a well-rounded singer with a broad range of musical skills giving you more freedom to express yourself.
Okay, so we’ve established Ear Training is important, let's talk about the skills you will acquire by training your ears:
You will be able to identify pitches when singing - If you’re listening to a song and you hear a melody you like, you will be able to quickly pitch the notes in the moment and learn that melody.
Start Composing your own music - Once you can identify pitch you can start thinking about harmony, and how the music works together.
Tune your Instrument - You can make sure your instrument is always in tune by adjusting the pitch based on the correct note you hear in your head.
Interact effectively with other musicians - When playing music with others, being able to sing in pitch and start quickly are great starting points to become a more professional and well-rounded musician (and often leads to more gigs!).
Improvise - Improvisation is essentially coming up with a melodic line that works over functional harmony. It can be split into two groups:
Firstly, It can be a variation of an existing melody e.g An acoustic cover of a pop song where they’ve slightly altered the melody to suit their own style.
Secondly, it is a common element used in Jazz music which can either be instrumental or vocal - we’re going to be focusing on vocal for this example. Known as ‘scat singing’, a vocalist uses quick melodic lines on the spot using ‘nonsense syllables’.
For a jazz singer like me, ear training is essential.
When I hear the chord changes of a jazz standard I know what notes to sing that will either complement the piece or create an interesting sound, this is all thanks to Ear Training!
But don’t worry! It doesn’t have to be that complicated. So where do you start? Luckily there are many resources available to help:
Get Singing Lessons - Having guided lessons will teach you effective exercises that complement your voice, mentor your progress and work with your skillset. Learning new repertoire will constantly improve your Active Listening and allow you to come up with fun arrangements of your own, plus get you performing and interacting with other musicians. At the Sydney Voice Studio, we have many concerts, workshops and group classes that let singers perform side by side and with accompaniment - this helps to develop your overall musicianship skills.
Listen to lots of music and start learning melodies by ear, it doesn’t matter if you play an instrument or not put on your favourite track and try working out some pitches. Remember this takes time, so practice practice!
Use Ear Training software - There are many apps and websites available with helpful short exercises that you can use to help you improve your aural skills such as:
Earpeggio - Phone App, Free
Perfect Ear - Phone App, Free
Auralia Interval Recognition - Phone App, $2.99
Tenuto - Phone App, $5.99
Teoria - Website
Good.Ear.com - Website
I hope this demystifies Ear Training and shines a little light on how to broaden your singing skill set.