You might think that the only way to practice ear training is by drilling intervals, otherwise known as “brute force isolated intervals”. While drilling intervals is good to a point, it has some serious setbacks including…
- Lacks a musical setting, so it doesn’t feel like music. Most drills don’t flow.
- Lacks a tonal context, so drilling intervals doesn’t really give you what you need to play by ear.
- Doesn’t answer important questions within actual music making like, “what note should I play next?” or “what key are we in?”
There’s more to ear training than naming intervals and chords
Ear training should not be brute force isolated intervals. Ear training should always feel like real music making. You want your ears to serve you in training as they serve you in making real music. I’m continually making an effort to create ways for people to experience accelerated and more holistic ear training that they can use right away.
I keep thinking that ear drills with a groove behind them would be an interesting and compelling way to do that. I’ve been running three levels of short term melodic memorization exercises on Instagram and would be very interested in whether you find them… enjoyable at the least. They’re like what I teach in my ear training classes here in Maine, or at least they are in a similar spirit: always trying to connect with the part of music making that brought you to making music in the first place.
Ear Training Should Feel Like Making Music
Drills with grooves, short term memorization, interactive activities like Tone Hole, even my work with elementary school (Kodály) was infused with the sense of play. In teaching elementary school children (in other words, as a specialist who saw the kids 1x/week and always had to keep things fun and tight), I was always looking for ways to make a game out of learning. Often, that involved physical motion (dancing), or framing difficult questions as “puzzles”, and etc.
One important aspect of this is the use of solfege, particularly singing songs you know and love in solfege. A teacher could interactively help you convert lyrics to solfege. Then you replace the words to the song with the solfege. Sing the song in solfege, and really… savor the notes. Slow it down, speed it up. I have students pretend a tone or melodic fragment is like a candy that you want to savor… like rolling it around on your tongue. They look at me like I”m nuts when I use this metaphor, so maybe I need to fish for another one.
Solfege is like a super-mnemonic system
The point is that once you’ve glued the sound of the solfege syllables to the melody, you basically have a super mnemonic. You’ve heard people talk about using mnemonics like “Here comes the bride” to remember a perfect fourth. Well, that’s fine and it’s a really good start. The trouble is that the major scale contains SIX perfect fourths, and each one sounds very subtly different.
Ok, but take the melody you’ve just glued to your symbolic understanding and you’ll have as many mnemonics as you have notes in the tune, AND they’ll be situated correctly within the key. (AS IN: “Here’ comes the bride” goes so,-do-do-do. which sounds right, but if you are using “Here comes the bride” without solfege and you are hearing re-so-so-so it’s going to sound wrong.
Any Melody Can Serve as a Super-Mnemonic
For example, if you take “Are You Sleeping” (Frere Jacque) and memorize the tune in solfege, along with spending time savoring the tune slowly, really getting in there with your ear-mind-voice, you’ll be encoding your ear into these patterns, which happen a LOT:
- The first six notes of the major scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la). Each has it’s own unique flavor.
- Major and minor seconds (throughout)
- Descending major and minor thirds
- The concept of sequence. (The sequences suggested by this tune happen all the time.)
- The concept of canon
- One resolving tendency (fa to mi, which is a cornerstone of most cadences and the basis of harmonic function)
- The outline of the tonic triad (do-mi-so)
- Perfect fourths (that go from do down to so).
You can savor the tune a little more deeply, keeping each of these as a focus when you do. You could even choose to focus on one each day, and chew on it (aka sing fragments of Are You Sleeping) throughout the day while you are driving, walking, stretching, doing chores. This kind of passive attention to musical patterns and understanding buries your awareness of the sound of these tonal relationships deep in your consciousness. So, over time, when you need to access them (either reading or playing by ear), you’ll know what you hear and hear what you know. You’ll play what you hear.