As any guitarist or bassist will tell you, creating music has as much to do with listening as it does with playing notes.
Though many musicians have a natural knack for differentiating and connecting sounds and rhythms, developing listening skills through ear training can help anyone become better at their craft, regardless of prior formal training or experience level.
“Ear training is the practice of listening closely in order to identify different aspects of music like pitch, intervals, bass lines, melodies, chords and musical qualities like rhythm, timbre and tone,” says Nashville-based experimental pop/folk artist Ariel Bui. An accomplished musician who formally trained in piano and piano pedagogy, Bui began teaching herself guitar as a teenager, and has been playing ever since. In 2012, the Nashville-based artist founded Melodia Studio, where she teaches lessons to students of all ages.
We recently asked Bui to chime in on how ear training can positively impact guitarists and bassists and some tips for musicians of any level to improve their skills:
Why ear train?
Musicianship… By developing keen listening skills, you can learn what it is you like about your favorite songs so that you can develop your own voice and your own style. Ear training is essential to musicianship, whether it be while playing guitar, performing, or songwriting. Music is an art form that relies on the essential act of listening, so when creating or performing music the ultimate goal is to be able to replicate, execute, or create sounds intentionally, expressively, and musically for yourself and others to listen to.
Guitar playing… I taught myself how to play guitar by ear, so ear training impacted my guitar playing in a huge way. Ear training allowed me to learn guitar parts, picking patterns, strumming patterns, chord progression structures.
Songwriting… My ear training has affected my songwriting because I listen to the way songs move from section to section, how many times each section repeats, how and when they change, when main musical ideas return, how the tonal center moves and modulates, and more.
Performance… Learning to critically and objectively listen to yourself comes with time, and once you develop the ability to hear yourself and/or your band, the better you will be able to confidently perform live or in the studio, especially in situations where you can’t really hear yourself on stage that well, or when you are under pressure and nervous. Also, the ability to critically listen to your favorite performances allows you to learn and draw inspiration for how you would like to improve your own style.
Ear Training Tips and Exercises:
Learn Covers: Learning covers is my favorite way of improving my skills. It isn’t until you try to replicate something that you will catch details about the music you probably would not have realized without actually trying to play it. I teach myself songs by using a combination of tablature and learning by ear… Even when using tabs, I will defer to my ear, taking the tabs as a suggestion and figuring out if there’s a more comfortable chord placement, or any wrong notes or rhythms. Learning covers by ear is how I learned to play guitar and essentially how to write songs.
Start Simple: I would recommend starting out by listening to songs that don’t have a lot of other instrumentation on them to be able to hear your instrument of choice more easily. I started out with songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” that have just guitar and singing at the beginning.
Find main pitches and melodic lines: From there I would listen for a distinct line, usually a bass line or sometimes a melody, and try to figure out the starting note or pitch. If the bass line or melodic line has too many notes, I will just listen to the first few seconds or minutes of the song to hear what note seems to be recurring and sticking in my head the most. This usually ends up being the key or scale that the song is in. Try to find it on your instrument. From there, it can be like playing a game of Simon Says. The first note is this, the second is that. Okay what’s next?
Keyboards and pianos are handy: If you are having trouble with identifying pitch, keyboards and pianos are always handy to have around because they should hopefully be in tune and can be a less cumbersome tool to feel around with for matching pitches. At a piano, you don’t have to worry as much about your guitar technique which can be especially challenging for beginner guitarists.I would highly recommend doing something as simple as quizzing yourself with pitches, listening to a tone and seeing if you can match it. If figuring out melodies or bass lines is difficult, I would also practice being able to identify when notes are moving up or down in the scale, or in other words, being able to hear if the notes are moving higher or lower, and eventually what the intervallic distances are between the notes.
Listen for different voicing within chords: First, I’ll try to follow the bass line (and if you are playing the guitar, remember, guitars have their own bass lines, too). I played a lot of finger picking music to start off with, with folk music or classical guitar music performed by Andres Segovia, so it was important I isolate the thumb’s picking patterns before trying to add in all the other notes.
After identifying the bass line of the guitar part, you can start isolating perhaps a middle line (similar to an alto line in a choir) and then a higher melodic line. By listening over and over, I usually will isolate one line within the guitar chords at a time, to hear the melodic and chordal qualities of the song. It’s also helpful to listen for open strings (more resonant sounding) versus strings that are fretted, so you can figure out a chord’s placement on the fretboard.
Listen for chord quality: You will eventually want to not only listen for the specific notes within a chord but for the chord quality. Does it sound like a major chord (often described as happy sounding), minor (described as sad sounding), or something else like a 7-chord, augmented, diminished, etc.
Get Rhythm: When it comes to strumming chords, it’s also good to be able to listen for strumming rhythms and patterns. Does it sound like a series of strumming down? Or does it go down-down-up-down? Do you strum all the strings or only some? Do you do a combination of picking and strumming? What rhythmic patterns are present in the picking and/or strumming pattern? Listen for overall tempo and tempo changes, if any.
Record Yourself: This way, you’ll be able to hear when you sound awesome and why. You can pinpoint areas where you can improve. In the case of songwriting, I recommend recording your ideas so you can step out of yourself a little bit and see the forest for the trees. Listen to your song structure or transitions, chord changes or tone, or whatever it is you feel you need to work on. Recording myself was especially helpful to me in the case of singing while playing guitar, and singing in general.
Educate Yourself: Though it is not necessary to be formally educated in music, it is so helpful to learn as much as you can about the subjects that you love. For example, I never received a formal education in guitar theory or performance, but studying piano, voice, music theory, and so much more, really have helped me to understand different aspects of music I may have guessed at before but couldn’t put my finger on.
Listen to what you love and keep playing: When it really comes down to it, ear training begins with listening to music! I like listening to whatever I’m into over and over again, simply because I love it, and because I realize there’s something I want to learn from it.
Once you start learning parts from songs with fuller instrumentation, it is really important to be able to distinguish the timbre, or distinct sound, of different instruments (which one is the guitar, the bass, the drums, the back-up vocals, the main vocals, etc). This way, you can more easily hear details about what each instrument is doing and how the instruments are interacting with each other. There are plenty of ear training tutorials on the Internet, but I assure you, you can still learn all these listening skills without it, if you want. Just keep on listening and figuring out what you like about what you love! And keep on playing!