I tell my students that ear training is “strength and conditioning” for musicians. I love this analogy - serious athletes don’t just practice their own sport, they also run and lift weights. You might sing or play your instrument beautifully, but that’s not enough. Working musicians need EARS that are “fast” and “strong.”
How do we build this aural athleticism?
I started thinking about this again last week. One of my vocal jazz altos asked for some ideas about how to practice ear training over the summer before our fall auditions. Here are some exercises I suggested. Some of these are specifically for jazz and some are more general.
1. Play piano. Work through a hymnal or the Bach chorales. Do one hymn or chorale every day, and sing along with the different voice parts while you play. If your piano skills aren’t great, don’t worry, that’s why you’re doing this. The best thing you can do to improve your ears is to get better at piano. Play and sing slowly and deliberately every day, and you’ll start to develop a stronger connection between your ears and your brain and your fingers.
2. Transcribe jazz solos by ear. Listen to jazz singers and instrumentalists improvise. Listen deeply and repeatedly to a solo until you can sing along (or until you CAN’T NOT sing along). Start with something simple and do a few bars at a time. Pick music you really like so this is FUN and not a chore. There’s an endless number of great recordings to choose from, but here’s a good list of easy-ish solos to start with.
Side note: I’d also recommend this book, an incredible resource from Darmon Meader. It has tons of stylistic jazz solos notated for voice, and includes great recordings in different keys that you can sing along with.
3. Sing crunchy intervals against the piano. With the sustain pedal down, play any note repeatedly while you sing the pitch a half step away. Can you keep it in tune? Repeat with different dissonant intervals.
4. Two different scales together. Sing a C major scale while simultaneously playing a different major scale. For example, when you sing C major and play F-sharp major, it makes a tritone between piano and voice at each scale degree. Can you get up and down the whole scale without ever losing the tritone? Work through lots of different intervals between your voice and the piano. Then try using other scales.
5. Planing piano and voice together. Play a C major triad and sing an F against it. Move that entire voicing (piano and voice) up and down by half steps. Then move by other intervals, then do the same thing with different voicings. You might want to start with something easier (for example, play C and G at the piano, and sing E).
6. Sing a simple song and accompany yourself in a different key.
7. Seventh chord shells. Play a random note and call it the root of a major 7th chord. Now sing the 3rd and the 7th (sing “third” and “seventh,” or sing the actual note names). Pick a new random note for the root, do the same thing. Get really fast at this, doing only major 7th chord shells (“shell” = R37 only). Then work through dominant 7th chords and minor 7th chords the same way.
8. Transcribe the chords of songs you know. Pick literally any song you like -- jazz standards, top 40, musical theater, motown, Disney ballad, etc. Print out the lyrics (double space), then use piano or guitar to figure out the chords of the song by ear, and write them in as lead-sheet symbols. Check your answers by playing along with the recording, or by singing the melody and accompanying yourself -- do your chords sound right? Again, start with something easy and gradually build up to more harmonically diverse music.
These exercises are all meant to be flexible, so adapt them as needed for difficulty level and depending what you want to work on. I’m a big fan of using piano for ear training because of how the keys lay out visually, but you could do some of these exercises with other instruments as well.