I teach freshman music theory and ear training at UNL, and my students are always asking how they can practice for dictation exams and get better at sight-singing. Here’s what I tell them:
1. LEARN TO HEAR AND RECOGNIZE INTERVALS, FAST
I can’t stress the “fast” part of this enough. As a real-life musician, your ability to identify intervals is only useful when you know immediately which one you are hearing. Practice this by making “audio flashcards.” Using your computer or phone, record yourself playing intervals on the piano or another instrument. Record an interval, wait about 2 seconds, then say the name of the interval. Make as many of these as you possibly can, using all the intervals, starting on different notes and mixing up melodic/harmonic and ascending/descending. Create a separate track for each interval (together with its answer), and dump them all into a shuffled playlist. Boom. Instant interval practice you can do anywhere.
Pssssst: Using familiar songs to recognize intervals is okay (a la Perfect 4th = Here Comes the Bride), but it’s better if you just memorize them cold. It’s like when you learned multiplication tables in 3rd grade. Yeah, you can count out 3 groups of 3 and get to 9, but algebra is going to be a nightmare if that’s how you’re doing it every time.
Pssssst #2: There are, of course, many online resources/software/apps that will play intervals at you for practice. But creating the audio flashcards yourself adds a layer of participation to the process that I think is beneficial. It’s like writing out your own study notes for a test instead of using notes that someone else took.
2. PLAY A FOUR-PART HYMN AT THE PIANO EVERY DAY
Pick a hymn and play it four times, singing along with each voice part once. If you haven't done this before, or if your piano skills need work, it will be hard at first. But it gets easier the more you do it, and it's about the best way I can think to develop your ear. If you don't own a hymnal, get one. I recommend Lutheran Service Book, but other good ones are really cheap if you buy them used.
For a more advanced version of this, use Bach chorales. They're more harmonically challenging, and there's more motion to navigate in the voice parts. You can download them all for free here.
3. TRANSCRIBE CHORD PROGRESSIONS FROM POP SONGS
Print off lyrics with space above each line to write the chords in. Then sit at the piano and work it out. You can listen to the song (probably with a lot of starting and stopping), or just try to remember how it goes. Sing the melody and find the lowest notes of each chord first. Beatles songs are great for this.
4. SING FAMILIAR MELODIES TO YOURSELF IN SOLFEGE
You can do this anytime, anywhere - no need for a piano or headphones or anything else. Sing a song you know, using solfège syllables. Don’t prepare anything or write it out beforehand - sing it slowly and figure out the syllables as you go. You’ll know how the song goes, so you should be able to sing the pitches correctly. But singing in solfège forces you to think about the intervals and where each note is compared to tonic. You can also do this by singing scale degree numbers or note names (pick any key, it doesn’t have to be the key you’re actually in).
What's this one? DO, re MI, do MI, do, MI. RE, mi FA fa mi re FAAAAAA.
Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful for you! Happy Ear Training...