Ear Training: 4 Guaranteed Ways to Turbo-Charge Your Ears

training your ear

When it comes down to it, great jazz improvisation requires a great ear. Otherwise, we end up doing what Jamey Aebersold refers to as “letting our fingers do the walking.”

Without a properly developed ear, instead of creating music that’s truly unique, authentic, and powerful, we tend to fall into what naturally falls under the fingers.

Not exactly a recipe for touching hearts and blowing minds from the bandstand, is it? So that you can escape that dreaded fate, here are just a few methods we can use to take our ears to the next level:

1) Practice playing simple songs in all twelve keys.

Although your family and your neighbors may find your musical taste a bit corny as they overhear you utilizing this technique, playing “Brahms Lullaby” or even “Row Your Boat” in all twelve keys with nothing but your ear to guide you can work wonders for your ear.

If you’re more advanced, you can go for melodies with bigger intervallic jumps. Don’t laugh, but the sax solo from “Careless Whisper” in all twelve keys is not as easy as you might think (ok, you can laugh a little).

But seriously, keep doing this and you’ll eventually find yourself being able to easily crank out modern classical melodies by the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

And with that kind of ear, you won’t have to shake in your boots next time you’re at a jam session and some clown calls Cherokee in A.

(Special note: We have a 2 hour masterclass how to easily transpose songs, licks, patterns, and chords in all 12 keys inside this jazz training program)

2) Learn solos directly off of the recording.

A bit of a variation on the previous technique, this is what Joe Henderson used to do when he was coming up, and it’s what he had his students do as well.

It’s one thing to write down a solo and then read it off of a piece of paper. But having to learn the solo in real-time (even if you’ve got to start, stop, and repeat the recording every two seconds) will take your ears to places you’ve never dreamed they’d go.

If you’re not at that point yet where you can hear all your solos in real time I recommend you use this great slow down and transcribe program. It really can help your ears too!

3) Play along with play-alongs minus the sheet music.

Who among us doesn’t enjoy a good session with the aforementioned Mr. Aebersold from time to time?

And sure, it’s great to jam along to the tunes we already know and love, but what about putting the book away and soloing over the tunes we don’t already know?

And perhaps you know the melody well enough to sing it, but not well enough to play it. Well, that just won’t do.

Try playing through the entire tune, melody and solo, without sheet music.

Not only will this lessen the gap between what you’re hearing in your head and what’s coming out of your instrument, but it will prepare you for the very real experience of being on a gig when someone calls a tune that you don’t really know.

Trust me, it’ll happen, and when it does you’re going to want to be prepared.

From there, you can take it to the next level by soloing over classical music. Nail the changes on Chopin or Debussy, and you’ll be ready to burn through that Chick Corea tune as though it were a medium blues in Bb.

4) Practice picking individual notes out of a “non-chordal” group of notes.

Of course, almost every group of notes can be interpreted as a chord of some sort. But the technique here is to take four notes that are not obviously related, and hold them down simultaneously, listening very closely, and singing each note individually.

Try to avoid groups of notes that clearly imply a “common” chord such as a major seventh chord or a dominant seventh chord.

So for example, hold down D, Eb, G. and G#. First, sing the D and then, to confirm that you’ve hit the correct note, re-attack the D on the piano.

Follow that with the second note, which would be the Eb followed by the Eb alone on the piano to make sure you’re on the right note.

And you can go through all of the notes in this “non-chordal” group of notes one at a time, mixing up the order of the notes to keep you on your toes.

If this doesn’t give you big old elephant ears, then I don’t know what will.

(When you’re ready you can also check out this great guide to ear training for chords.)

We’ve Only Just Begun

Of course, there are a countless number of things you can do to get your ears working in effortless overdrive, but these four techniques alone should provide you with all the ears you need to make some serious musical magic.

The key is to make ear training challenging, but fun.

And if you can’t have fun playing the sax solo from “Careless Whisper” in all twelve keys, then I really don’t know what to tell you… But seriously, try putting the crutch of sheet music away for a bit, and give those ears the workout they’ve been craving. You’ll be glad you did!

What are some of the ear training techniques that have made the biggest difference for you? Please leave a comment below to let us know.  

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Los Angeles-based saxophonist Doron Orenstein has performed around the globe with groups such as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra as well as his own jazz-meets-electronica project, Monkey Bars. His his online saxophone magazine, www.BestSaxophoneWebsiteEver.com receives over 12,000 unique visitors per month and features saxophone tips, techniques, and reviews along with interviews featuring the likes of Bob Mintzer, Dave Liebman, Bob Sheppard, and many more.
His latest endeavor is the highly acclaimed instructional program, “Bulletproof Saxophone Playing” which includes an e-book plus nearly 6 hours of audio master class interviews with Rick Margitza, Walt Weiskopf, Dr. David Demsey, Bill Plake, Sam Sadigursky, and Tim Willcox.

Steve Nixon