What is Ear Training? Everything You Need to Know
Ear training is an important area to understand as a guitarist and as a musician.
If you’ve ever wanted to be able to play songs by ear, have better jams with other musicians, or develop your understanding of music, it’s worth learning about ear training.
In this guide, I will give you an overview of what ear training is, why it’s worth practicing, and how to get started.
Ear training and reading are the two ways you can learn to play music. If you don’t know how to read music, read this guide here to get started.
When you’re ready to get started with ear training, check out the Best Ear Training Apps for Guitarists here.
What is Ear Training?
Ear training is the practice of identifying different notes, chords, and scales by ear. With enough training, ear training allows you to listen to music and be able to play what you hear without any written music.
In other words, ear training is using your ears to work out what notes, scales, and chords are being played.
To give you a simple example of ear training, have a listen to the following guitar chord:
What type of chord is this?
An advanced guitarist who has spent time working on ear training might be able to listen to the chord and know exactly what type of chord. They might also be able to tell you exactly where on the fretboard it is played.
Note: the chord in the above example is Em7. If you correctly identified it, great job! If not, with some ear training you will be able to master this skill.
Ear Training is a Skill
There is a lot of mystery around ear training and too many people think that it is impossible to learn without some talent you are born with.
The good news is that this is completely wrong. While some people will master ear training faster than others, everybody can improve their aural skills.
Ear training is a skill everybody can learn. While ear training feels hard in the beginning, with enough practice, you’ll be surprised by how effective it is.
This is really important to understand because ear training is hard in the beginning. Just like learning guitar, it takes time to get to a point where you notice your improvements over time.
The more you practice ear training, the faster you will learn the skills and the sooner you will be able to start learning to play songs by ear or identifying chords and scales in music.
Perfect Pitch vs Relative Pitch
If you’re interested in ear training, you may have heard the terms perfect pitch and relative pitch before.
Perfect Pitch (aka Absolute Pitch) is the ability to identify any musical notes without any guides or references.
If somebody played a random note on guitar, somebody with perfect pitch would be able to tell you exactly which note it was (eg: C#).
Relative Pitch is the ability to identify any musical notes when you have a reference note to compare it to.
If somebody played the Open E string and told you it was E, then they played another note on that string, somebody with good relative pitch would be able to identify the second note (eg: G on the third fret).
Can You Learn Perfect Pitch?
There is a lot of debate over whether perfect pitch can be taught or not. While some young children seem to learn perfect pitch skills with ease, others do not.
There are very few adults who claim they have learned perfect pitch. The general perception with musicians is that you cannot learn perfect pitch.
While there are a lot of products that claim to teach perfect pitch (I’ve seen some with ridiculously-fake testimonials), their claims don’t hold up to testing.
While this might seem disappointing, the good news is that everybody can learn relative pitch and it is an extremely valuable skill.
The ear training apps and advice covered below all focus on developing your relative pitch skills.
Benefits of Ear Training
Here are some of the benefits of ear training:
- Identify chords and scales in music by ear
- Learn to play entire songs by ear
- Develop stronger rhythm skills
- Improve your intonation
- Write music without holding a guitar
- Improve your improvising skills
There are many more benefits of ear training, but the above examples show how powerful the skill is to learn.
Let’s say you want to write a chord progression for a song. You have the first two chords, but you don’t know what to do next. If you understand music theory, you could figure out what chords make sense and try each possible option.
If you have developed some ear training skills, you’ll be able to imagine different chords in your head and know which ones will sound the best before you play anything.
This might sound impossible to learn if you haven’t spent time working on ear training before, but it’s how many musicians write music.
Ear training is one of the best things you can do to become a better musician.
Working on your technical guitar skills (eg: picking, bending, legato, etc.) will help you become a better guitarist, but ear training helps you become a better musician.
Let’s say you have the opportunity to jam with a saxophonist as shown in the below photo. With ear training, you will be able to listen to what he is playing on the sax and understand what scales are being used, what intervals and notes he is focusing on, etc.
You’ll be able to come up with licks and rhythm parts that fit better with what he plays.
A major benefit of ear training is how it improves your improvisation and jamming skills. While guitarists with decades of experience gradually learn this skill without spending time practicing ear training, ear training gives you a faster way to develop this skill.
How to Practice Ear Training
Ear training covers a wide range of aural skills, so there are different ways you can practice ear training.
The easiest way to practice ear training is with an ear training app or software. The ear training software will provide you with exercises and gradually improve your aural skills.
The great thing about ear training is that you can practice it anywhere and at any time.
With an ear training app on your smartphone, you can work on exercises while on the train/bus or any time you have a spare minute.
As explained below, spending a little time working on ear training each day can quickly develop your ears.
How Long to Practice Ear Training
Practicing ear training for 10 minutes per day can be enough to develop your aural skills. If you are able to increase this to 15 or 20 minutes per day, you will see results sooner.
If you want to get the best results for your ear training practice, aim to have short and regular practice sessions.
Having four 5-minute practice sessions is significantly more effective than one 20-minute session.
Both have the same total practice time, but splitting your practice time up into short sessions is more effective from a learning point of view.
Short practice sessions improve your memory retention and recall. The more times you open up an ear training app or software and work on some exercises, the sooner you will start noticing an increase in your aural skills.
Ear Training Apps
The great news about ear training is that all you need to start learning the skills is a free app on your smartphone (or PC/Mac).
Practicing ear training with an app means you can practice it at any time and anywhere (if you use headphones/earbuds).
There are a lot of ear training apps, but they all follow a simple method.
An audio example will play (eg: a chord) and you need to answer what you just heard.
In the below screenshot, you can see that the exercise will randomly play either a major triad (a triad is a three-note chord) or a minor triad and you need to identify which you heard:
To say that these apps are helpful is a huge understatement.
You can start training your ears right now with an ear training app. The good ones are designed so you will find it easy to get started on simple exercises, then gradually move you to more challenging exercises.
Check out the Best Ear Training Apps for Guitarists here. I go through each app and explain why they’re worth using to develop your aural skills.
Ear Training FAQ
Here are some common questions you might have about ear training.
Is Playing by Ear a Talent?
Playing by ear is not a talent. Playing by ear is a skill you develop with practice. While some people learn these skills faster than others, everybody can learn to play music by ear.
The important point to remember is that it takes time and effort to learn this skill. If you practice every day, you’ll gradually develop the ear skills needed to play music by ear.
How Long Does it Take to Learn Ear Training?
How long it takes to learn ear training depends on what skills you want to learn. Some ear training skills can be learned in a couple of months and others take years to master.
If you want to learn how to identify different guitar chords, you can learn that skill within a couple of months.
If you want to learn how to identify intervals and scales in music, it could take anywhere from 4-8 months because there are a lot of different intervals to practice (learn about intervals here in this music theory lesson).
How long it takes to learn ear training also depends on how often you practice.
If you only practice once per week, then you’ll never develop ear skills. On the other hand, if you practice ear training exercises every day, you’ll speed up your rate of progress.
If there is an ear training skill you really want to learn, don’t worry about how long it takes to learn. If it is important to you, practice it every day. You will gradually see improvements in your aural skills.
Is it Better to Read Music or Play by Ear?
Reading music and playing by ear are two very different skills that aim to achieve the same goal: giving you a way to play music.
If you want to know which one is better, it depends on your situation. There is no clear answer because it depends on your goals.
A guitarist wanting to play in an orchestra would definitely need to learn how to read music because their job will depend on it.
A guitarist wanting to jam with friends might find that learning to play by ear is a better skill to learn.
Both skills are valuable and many serious musicians learn both.
If you want to learn how to read music, read this guide to learn the different ways music can be written for guitar.
Can You Learn to Play Guitar by Ear?
Yes, you can learn how to play guitar by ear from the very beginning. But it’s a terrible way to start learning guitar because it will be significantly harder in the beginning and your rate of progress will be slower.
Guitar (or any other musical instrument) is hard to learn in the beginning. You need to learn how to correctly position your hands on the guitar and where to place them for different notes and chords.
Learning to play guitar by ear adds another layer of difficulty on top of this. When you learn to play by ear, you also need to listen to an example of a chord and figure out what you are meant to play.
Instead of looking at a simple chord diagram, you have a lot you need to figure out by ear.
A guitarist who learns to play guitar by reading sheet music, chord diagrams, and written learning materials will learn significantly faster than a guitarist trying to learn by ear.
While learning to play guitar by ear is a worthwhile skill to learn, don’t learn it in the beginning. Learn to play guitar by ear after you have develop fundamental guitar skills. Then you can turn your attention to ear training.
How Long Does it Take to Develop Relative Pitch?
It can take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to develop relative pitch. The wide difference in time depends on what relative pitch skills you want to learn and how often you practice ear training.
A guitarist who works on ear training exercises every day will develop relative pitch significantly faster than another guitarist who only practices ear training once per week.
The time it takes to develop relative pitch also depends on what aural skills are important to you. Maybe you don’t care about being able to identify all the different intervals and you just want to be able to identify chords and their inversions.
In that case, it will take you significantly less time to develop these aural skills than somebody wanting to master every aspect of relative pitch.
Aural skills are like muscles and the more you work on them, the stronger they get. This means you can decide how far you want to develop these skills. Some guitarists may be completely happy with basic relative pitch abilities, while other guitarists may want to completely master every aural skill.
When you’re ready to get started with ear training, check out the Best Ear Training Apps for Guitarists here.
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