How can I develop my Ear Training Skills?

Here are 5 exercises for ear training that I did for 10 years of classical piano training:

  1. Identifying Intervals

Being able to identify the distances between notes. If you have perfect pitch, this will be easier. If you don’t, this is still doable. I’ve coached people without perfect pitch and you can definitely develop relative pitch.

We will play you 2 notes, your job is identify the distance between them.

There are 3 main types of intervals:

Major: +
Minor: –
Perfect: P

The distances are as follows:

P1
+2 / -2
+3 /-3
P4
P5
+6 / -6
+7 / -7
P8

C to C would be Perfect 1st (same note)
C to D would be a Major 2nd (D is the 2nd note in the C major scale)
C to Db would be a Minor 2nd (the smallest distance between 2 different notes on the keyboard)
C to E would be a Major 3rd (E is the 3rd note in the C major scale)
C to Eb would be a Minor 3rd (Eb is the 3rd note in the C minor scale)
C to F would be a Perfect 4th (F is shared between C major and C minor, so the F is perfect across 2 notes)
C to G would be a Perfect 5th (G is shared between C major and C minor, so the G is perfect across 2 notes)
C to A would be a Major 6th (A is the 6th note in the C major scale)
C to Ab would be a Minor 6th (Ab is the 6th note in the C minor scale)
C to B would be a Major 7th (B is the 7th note in the C major scale)
C to Bb would be a Minor 7th (Bb is the 7th note in the C minor scale)
C to C would be Perfect 8th (C an octave higher would be the same for both C major and C minor)

These are good ways to help you memorize the distances between notes, but if you familiarize yourself with these distances on the keyboard, you can count the distances and see for yourself how many semitones apart each interval is.

1 semitone is the smallest distance between 2 different keys.
C to D flat would be 1 semitone apart.
G to G sharp would be 1 semitone apart.

No matter what the 1st note is that you start on, you will be able to figure out how many semitones it takes to get to the 2nd note.

  1. Rhythm Clapback

In rhythm clap back exercises, you will clap back the rhythm that is played or clapped to you.

Counting is a must have ability. You must first find the tempo that is played to you.

Try to hum or sing the melody back, and count in your head the beats.

ex. if you count 4 beats, you’re in 4/4 time, and if most notes are 1/8 or 1/4 notes, then count:

1+2+3+4+

Sometimes you will need to count 1/16th notes for more precision:

1e+a 2e+a 3e+a 4e+a

  1. Identifying Chords

You will be able to determine 4 types of chords: major, minor, dominant 7th, diminished 7th

Being able to identify major and minor chords is the first step.

Major = Happy sounding
Minor = Sad sounding

This is a shortcut

The technical way of understanding, is through intervals.

Major chords are made up of 2 intervals: a major 3rd, and a minor 3rd

CEG

C to E is a Major 3rd
E to G is a Minor 3rd

CEbG

C to Eb is a Minor 3rd
Eb to G is a Major 3rd

The best way I’ve found to remember things is to understand them in many different ways.
This is why I highly recommend learning the chords and scales for every key, so that not only can you play them, you’ll know what they sound like when they’re played for you to identify.

If you have perfect pitch. listen for the bottom note, middle note, then the top note. You’ll be able to pick up all the notes in the chord.

Try playing back the chord you hear. This will require lots of practice for some, but it’s a very useful skill to have as a musician. Play and practice enough. and you’ll get a better hang and feel for this skill.

Dominant 7ths are made up of a major 3rd, minor 3rd, and a minor 3rd.

CEGBb is a dominant 7th of F major

Dominant in music means the 5th note of a key.
F G A Bb [C] D E F

In this scale above, the C is the 5th note of F major, so we give it the name Dominant.
(The dominant is also relevant to the Circle of 5ths, a quick shortcut we use to understand key signatures)

With the C being the dominant, we can now form a Dominant 7th with

C to E = Major 3rd
E to G = Minor 3rd
G to Bb = Minor 3rd

The 7th refers to 7th note from the Root of the chord.
The Root is the name we give to the starting note of a chord.

In this case, the C would be the Root.
The names for C, E, G and Bb are as follows:

C = Root
E = 3rd
G = 5th
Bb = 7th

If we were to look at the Dominant 7th (V7) of the key C major, the chord would be as follows:

Dominant means 5 or as denoted in music theory, the roman numeral V
5 of C is a G

G = Root
B = 3rd
D = 5th
F = 7th

With this understanding we can find the Diminished 7th

Instead of starting on the 5th note of the scale, a diminished 7th starts on the 7th note of the scale.

The 7th note of a scale is called the Leading Note
The 7th note of C major scale is B (shortcut, just go down one note from C to B – it’s faster)

Instead of Major 3rd, Minor 3rd, Minor 3rd, the diminished 7th is completely minor 3rds.

B to D = Minor 3rd
D to F = Minor 3rd
F to Ab = Minor 3rd

These distances will be consistent across all other keys.
The best way to supplement your understanding of this besides memorization is to actually play these when you practice your technique.

  1. Melody Playback

Melody Playback involves listening to a melody played to you, and you must play back the same melody at 100% accuracy in notes and rhythm.
This will require all the skills above, especially rhythm clap back and intervals.

We start with playing back simple melodies, with just quarter notes.
Eventually we progress to melodies with eighth notes, sixteenth notes, wider range in notes, adding accidentals like sharps and flats to the mix.

A good way to practice this is using recordings or tools as mentioned next.

  1. Resources for Ear Training Practice

Tonedear.com has a lot of good exercises to develop your ear.
Four Star Sight Reading Series has a good progression in difficulty form Level 1 to 10.

I did the Four Star book series from 2000 to 2008. It helps to have a teacher give feedback, but if you’re learning at home, you can use the CD or online recordings of people playing them to check your answers.

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