A great exercise to develop your ears

There are so many things to learn and to practice when making music: Learning your instrument(s), learning to read sheet music, developing a good sense for rhythm, understanding theory and harmony, developing your voice, practising scales etc. etc… One aspect that often gets overlooked though are your ears. I’m definitely guilty of this and so are you probably if you are reading this article.  

Why should you train your ears?

Training your ears can have a lot of benefits. Some of these include:  
  • Hearing and identifying intervals more easily and quickly
  • Figuring out the harmony of a song just by hearing the bass and chords
  • Identifying rhythm
  • Be more in tune with yourself and others
  • Get better at mixing by hearing frequencies more clearly

Step 1: Intervals

Identifying intervals (the relative distance between two notes) is usually the first step when doing ear training. You can practise it with a partner and a piano or pretty much any kind of instrument. I’ve found though that you usually get better at identifying an interval for that instrument but it can still be difficult for other instruments or settings. That’s why today I want to share with you a method that I developed and used to do a lot during college. You can do this exercise while laying in bed, cycling or while taking the dogs for a walk. It’s a singing exercise! I would recommend doing this exercise because to be able to sing an interval you need to be able to hear it in your head first, and if you can hear it in your head you can pretty much identify it anywhere.  

The exercise

Start with a note that’s easy for you to sing in a comfortable register. Now sing a note that’s a minor second above it. Now sing a note that’s a major second below that note, then one that’s a minor third above that note and so on and so on. Once you’ve reached the octave (or two octaves if you want to go beyond) then start over and start by singing a minor second below the first note. Once you’ve completed both runs you will have sung every possible interval both upwards and downwards. What this does is force you to go through all the intervals without any harmonic context, meaning you never have any reference point. This is not an easy exercise! It took me several dog walks to be able to sing up to 2 octaves, but if you keep at it you will improve!   Here is the exercise visualised in both variations 1.
A great exercise to develop your ears
1 = perfect unison #1 / b2 = augmented unison / minor second 2 = major second b3 = minor third 3 = major third 4 = perfect fourth #4 / b5 = augmented fourth / diminished fifth 5 = perfect fifth b6 = minor sixth 6 = major sixth b7 = minor seventh 7 = major seventh 8 = perfect octave
b9 = minor ninth 9 = major ninth #9 / b10 = augmented ninth / minor tenth 10 = major tenth 11 = perfect eleventh 11# /b12 = augmented eleventh /diminished twelfth 12 = perfect fifth #12 / b13 = augmented fifth / minor thirteenth 13 = major thirteenth b14 = minor fourteenth 14 = major fourteenth 15 = two octaves
*disclaimer: These interval names vary from language and style so don’t take these as absolut. They are just to clarify the intervals shown on the sheet music*  

What do you like to do to train your ears? Let me know by leaving a comment!


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