The Practice of Ear Training

You can’t deny the power of raw talent in music, but it is possible there is an even greater strength in the human capacity for self-transformation, growth, and genius. Some people have enormous natural talent and ability. Some have to work really hard. One way or another we’re all striving to find a true expression in sound, one that touches on something universal, and we all have to strive to find our own path, no matter how gifted or challenged we may be.

For the past decade the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music has been offering classes with names like “Ear Training for Improvisers,” and “Applied Ear Training.” About a year ago Rick G at started asking me to write down my thoughts on ear training. In working on this post I realized why I struggle with that. Ear training is about sound in a given place in a given time. Text can’t capture that, though I have tried a little bit here. If you are not interested in this topic, or not interested in putting in some time working with this, skip this post. It gets nerdy.

Ear training is the most valuable training for any musician, and maybe most of all for an improviser. Improvisation puts a musician on the spot in unpredictable ways — you have only your ears to help you learn what’s going on and decide how to respond to events or initiate them. Basically ear training underlies anything a musician does: melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, form, density, community (who you are playing with), legacy (how you choose to deal, or not deal, with the traditions of music). You name it — to be handled fully it has got to be heard deeply and accurately. It’s as simple as focused hearing.

Ear training takes a lot of time to master, and it seems like the more you work on it the more you see your own shortcomings. It’s slow going, as is the attempt to explain it. What’s more — this topic is almost entirely behind the scenes, off the radar. Maybe it has nothing at all to do with the reception of the music. And yet, to find satisfaction as musicians — to express ourselves — takes a constant inventing and encountering of new challenges, new ways of keeping the music exciting. The new challenges have a lot to do with how we hear sound and process it, how we deepen the experience, and how we can push ourselves to more profound levels of expression. That’s what keeps me playing.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. ” – Mohandas K. Gandhi

Ear training should not be limited to the usual conservatory definition, though that training, too, is absolutely essential. Ear training is a sensory practice and can’t be separated from the real world — what we hear in a specific room at a specific and evolving moment in time. Separate the idea from the sound and you run the risk of creating a sterile approach that’s just generic enough to be precisely meaningless.

So how do you simulate the real moment? The real moment as the crucible of the urgent choice. How do you make the practice environment as crucial, as vital, as the real world? How do you create the real possibility for yourself to make mistakes and learn from them?

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

The fundamentals are no mystery: Singing, playing, and hearing intervals. Tapping rhythms and polyrhythms. Hearing and reacting to chords and/or groups of notes. Some fundamental skills are more associated with improvisation: Memorizing a series of events. Reproducing the series accurately and re-ordering the elements. Learning and responding to the actions of a group of musicians in real time. Being responded to.

Some crucial recommended texts are: The Modus Vetus and Modus Novus by Lars Edlund; Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns; Elementary Training for Musicians, by Paul Hindemith. Also Bach chorales, singing and playing, as any Banff Workshop alumnus knows.

There is a misconception that improvisers can pull what they do out of thin air, with no reference to anything and no study necessary. The old saying that “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” definitely applies here. Modes of study that are more often associated with classical music have deep application in the improvised music world and I discourage students of improvisation from fearing or avoiding them. Find out how things work, find out as much information as you can about all sorts of music. Music that was here yesterday will be here tomorrow. We may not be. So, you might as well find out what it’s all about while you’re here.

Conversely, I would encourage musicians pursuing performance of notated music to explore the practices of improvisers. Improvisation presents additional challenges that are not found in performing entirely notated music. An improvising musician is confronted with the unknown, both in terms of the musical surroundings and in terms of his or her own choices, which are as likely to be informed by emotion and excitement as by objective consideration of musical elements.

Here are a few exercises for improvisers that I have found I return to, and I’ve found that they also apply, in an interesting way, to the practice of notated music composition and performance. These are not the kind of exercises to master and discard – this is part of a daily practice. Getting on the stage in an improvised context demands a heightened sense of perception, and every day is a battle to maintain perception at the highest level.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” – George Orwell

The Metronome: No matter what materials you are working on it’s important to have a thorough rhythmic awareness. One of the biggest issues I hear in group improvisation is when musicians, both individually and collectively, are not feeling time accurately and/or collaboratively. To work on this, play your melodies (or rhythms or timbres or tunes) with the metronome, but create some challenges by periodically shifting your relationship to the pulse. That is, without changing the metronome setting, play your material faster or slower in relationship to its steady beat.

Start with the metronome around 92 beats per minute. Begin by hearing the metronome’s pulse as a quarter note. Get comfortable with that. Then play your material twice as slow by hearing the metronome clicks as eighth notes. Play it twice as fast by considering the metronome pulse as a half note. Those are three of the most basic relationships.

To practice bebop or tune playing, the most common use of the metronome is to hear it on beats two and four in a bar of 4/4. Again, get comfortable with that relationship using whatever materials you have at hand. This is not about a right way or wrong way to hear. Rather, this exercise is about learning to play rhythm accurately no matter what contradictory or challenging information is put forth as an objective reference.

Once you are comfortable playing written or improvised material alone (or with others) with the metronome in the above relationships, you can add several further layers. Hear the metronome as a dotted quarter note. In 4/4 time, this will create a three bar phrase (in other words, there will be three bars between metronome clicks that fall on the first beat of the bar). However, continue to play the material you are practicing in its own phrases, if necessary against the three bar phrase of dotted quarter notes – the pulse being represented by the metronome. You can also practice material in ¾ time this way, with the bars being subdivided evenly by the dotted quarter notes.

Now hear the metronome as a dotted half note. This again creates a three bar phrase, with the metronome falling on one and four in the first bar, three in the second bar, and two in the third bar. Some of these relationships are tricky. Take your time to make sure you are able to hear this. Slow it down and write it down if necessary. The whole point of this is hearing and playing accurately. There’s no way to do that any faster or slower than you can hear. So be honest with yourself. Make sure you’re doing it for real. Life moves at unpredictable speeds, both unimaginably fast and slow, but also imperceptibly smooth, eternally calm and steady. Bring that into your practice by learning to accept it and work with it.

“Ninety percent of this game is half mental.” – Yogi Berra

These exercises are just the beginning. Try hearing the metronome on the eighth note after two and four. Or the eighth note before two and four. Or the triplet before or after two and four. Try hearing the metronome as a quintuplet in a 4/4 bar. Then try taking any of these relationships and, rather than practicing your material against the metronome, try going with the new phrasing proposed by the relationships. In other words, play your material with the accents of a three bar phrase, all the while holding the actual four bar phrase in your head so you don’t lose the “correct” placement of the notes. If you can hear it you can feel it and if you’re feeling it nothing can throw you.

Remember that the metronome doesn’t lie. There will be moments when you are convinced the metronome is broken. Don’t fall for it.

A frequently asked question is how to practice meters like 5/4 or 7/8 or 9/8 with a metronome. You can use these relationships to get at that, too. Subdivide the bar in half, for example. In 5/4 that would put the metronome on one and the second eighth note of three. Try it. Or hear the metronome as a whole note (every four beats) so that it represents: one and five in the first bar, four in the second, three in the third, and two in the fourth. Use this for any meter.

These exercises are about developing a solid time feel. Part of my motivation stems from the philosophy that each musician in an ensemble should be equally responsible for the time. Part of it comes from a desire for freedom — freedom from being locked into playing something the same way every time, freedom to search for unique and varied means of expression.

“It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.” – Ornette Coleman

Seeing Structures: Another common challenge in improvisation relates to the meeting of structure and imagination. In improvised music one is almost always working with forms, whether created on the spot or preexisting. Part of the challenge is to understand the form and your role in it, and then to bring the power of unfettered imagination into the framework.

Start with a small cell of information and memorize it. It could be a series of textural or timbral instructions. It could be a sequence of dynamic symbols. Or it could be a short melody or a series of chords. Some of the short exercises found in the Modus Novus work well. Make the cell short enough so that you can easily remember it. After performing it several times in a row, begin making up your own counterpoint to the cell, immediately returning to the original after one improvised repetition. Staying faithful to the length and parameters of the cell, begin to create new material based on the source cell. Eventually learn to come and go freely with the material. This is a fun exercise to practice with another musician; each one taking turns playing the original or improvising around it.

Try playing the cell backwards, or rearranging the elements in unpredictable ways. Remember, this is about practice, not performance. You are training your ear to accommodate the unknown, so that when the unexpected happens you are standing there working with it. Learning a piece of music inside and out, backwards and forwards, is the only way to thoroughly digest all the material.

Start to make the cells longer and more complex. Spend some time writing your own cells and learning them. Also, use the music of Thelonious Monk as a template for practicing these structures. Make sure to learn all the parts and develop them on all levels.

Remember that learning structure is a way to not become a prisoner to structure.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more
beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein

Learning through the keys: “Playing by ear” is a phrase that I have trouble with — I don’t see any other way of playing. Playing by ear commonly means the ability to pick out a melody and or a phrase and play it without referring to written materials. Also it means to respond and react to musical input by echoing it in a literal or transformed state. It should be obvious that this skill is important in improvisation because it entails, essentially, the removal of barriers between the musical imagination and the musical instrument. But I think all musicians play by ear regardless of context. Using the ear (inner and outer) is the only way to evaluate the sound you are making.

Let’s call the challenge here “learning to play melodies without written notes.” To learn that you would simply need to be able to play a melody freely, starting on any given note. Since there are only twelve possible starting notes in most music that means you have a finite amount of information you need in order to do this. (For those who protest and argue that a lot of music uses microtones, with as many as 48 notes per octave – I encourage you to go ahead and learn melodies using all of those starting notes! I am reserving my next lifetime for that).

Start with something you know and build on it. Take a tune you know (it could be Also Sprach Zarathustra, Nefertiti, or Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, always a good one) and learn to play it in each of the twelve keys. Write it out if you have to. Start to identify the melodic movement in terms of intervals as you work on this. Ultimately you become so familiar with the intervals that you are able to identify them and reproduce them without reference to the starting note or key.

Begin to use this approach with any material you are working on. Learning music in different keys trains your ear to be more objective about the nuts and bolts of the material. That gives you the freedom to improvise and not get lost in a void of your own (or someone else’s) making. It also gives you the freedom to get lost at the time and place of your own choosing.

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” – Igor Stravinsky

What should I practice? So often students say that they run out of things to work on. The above has kept me going for a good number of years. And it’s fun and creative. Taking material through pitch, time and structure relationships remains, for me, what most musical performance is about. Of course these are far from the only things to practice. For example, transcription of compositions and solos is another valuable way to work on training the ear.

I just feel that an improvising musician has to be prepared for anything. And the only way to do that is to develop sensory perception and awareness. The ideas I talk about above are geared towards that pursuit. I believe every musician needs these skills. Here’s the thing. Without the sensory experience of sound, these ideas are only ideas. Each time I work with musicians I learn something new about sound, and each time I hear a group grapple with these exercises I hear new possibilities–new challenges and new opportunities. But I find that without adapting living strategies to each moment of practice, they become sterile — “exercises” in the worst meaning of the term.

I guess that’s one reason I keep going back to Banff. We can deal with the issue of hearing deeply, at length and in real time. Plus, stuff sounds good up there. Every time I hear the tone I find myself considering it differently. In that sense, the people I have probably learned the most from are my students.

Without the power of actual sound in the moment, ear training is almost impossible to describe. This post is really just a few ideas thrown into the wind. To really work on this you need to practice it in the real world, and to do that you need to experience the sound with complete awareness. Then music becomes part of life: taking off from the printed page, resonating the richness of human existence, where bar lines, chords, and scales are superfluous.

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” – Oscar Wilde