Ear Training Exercises

Ear Training Exercises help you hone your listening skills for music and develop a well-tuned musical ear. Expert musicians have always used special methods to help them recognise and identify fundamental musical elements (like intervals, chords, chord progressions, etc.) and so be able to sing, play and anticipate music more naturally.

Whether you get your ear training exercises from traditional methods like books or classroom teaching, use special aural skills websites online, or do interactive exercises using web or mobile apps, starting to exercise your ears for musical skills will help you improve quickly as a musician.


What are ear training exercises?

Ear training is the process of developing your ear for music – and ear training exercises are… just what they sound like! Special repetitive methods you can use to hone your musical ear.

These musical exercises can help you train your ears to recognise notes in music so that your aural skills match your instrument skills and you find it easy to do things like play by ear and create your own music.

Ear training exercises are the “drills” of ear training, used to practice core skills repeatedly until you’ve truly mastered and internalised them. You can start with basic exercises for the fundamentals. There’s no barrier to entry, any beginner musician can (and should!) be using ear training exercises. Once you have internalised the fundamentals, you can move on to more advanced training and testing with more sophisticated ear training drills.

In this way you can develop your ears quickly and transition from hearing the same thing that any random person on the street does, to hearing music the way a professional musician hears it.

Practising ear training builds your awareness and understanding of the underlying components of music and strengthens your ability to relate the sounds to the theory, anticipate what will comes next in the music, and connect it all to your fretboard or keyboard.

Many smart ear training professors will tell you that regularly using these ear training exercises is the best way to develop these musical listening skills and become a confident musician.

Want to identify the elements you hear in music?

Want to sing more confidently?

Want to easily anticipate what comes next in music?

Master the ear training skills and you will master music!

So if these ear training exercises are so powerful,
why don’t more musicians use them?

The truth is that:

  • Many musicians do use them – ask any undergrad student on a music degree or conservatory musician, and they’ll tell you all about their daily ear training exercises
  • The traditional kind of ear training exercise is pretty boring!

Ear training exercises don’t need to be boring though (read on to discover some great ways to avoid this problem) and if used correctly they lead to rapid progress in developing your musicianship.

Because the traditional methods are boring, they have mostly remained the territory of serious musicians, advanced students, professionals and jazz experts. Increasingly though, modern technology is making these ear training exercises more fun and more accessible, so that we’re now seeing them used by teachers in high school and by individual music learners.

The Traditional Approach

traditional ear training

So what are the traditional ear training exercises? Well in the classical era, an exercise would probably mean sitting at a piano keyboard, drilling intervals or chords and using a “brute force” approach to drum the sounds into your ears.

In many conservatories and undergrad music courses, unfortunately the practice of ear training remains much the same as that!

Students are taught by the institution’s staff to practice listening to e.g. intervals, recognising their type, identifying them by ear and by name. The next step is often to reproduce them, either by singing or on their instrument.

The exercises are repeated, drilling the sounds into the student’s head. Often there’s then a corresponding test – either an informal check of their ability or a more serious exam – to see mistakes they’re making. The student listens, guesses their “answer” and finds out if it was correct or incorrect. Based on their mistakes they might be graded, and get feedback on what they got right and wrong. Ideally this is followed by advice and encouragement from the professor to help them keep improving.

By the time they reach their final ear training exam, many music students are bored and frustrated by ear training – a search for “ear training” on Twitter around exam time will quickly confirm this!

This experience of ear training clearly leaves much room for improvement, but the basic process is sound and has worked for hundreds of years:

  1. Learn the fundamental theory and concepts you need to understand the topic.
  2. Spend time listening to repeat examples, building up from the simple to more complex. Sing and identify each example.
  3. At each stage, test yourself (or have a partner test you) to check your progress and identify areas for improvement.
  4. Use this analysis of mistakes to know how to improve.
  5. Continue improving your ears, gradually introducing other more advanced topics.

So how can this process of using ear training
exercises be done better in the modern age?

The Modern Approach

modern ear training

As with so many things today, the answer lies in taking proper advantage of modern technology. Instead of reading notation from a book and bashing away at a grand piano, modern ear training is more likely to involve tapping a touch screen or listening to specially-crafted MP3 tracks on headphones.

Today you can go online with your computer or tablet and find a range of ear training websites which provide exercises that are easier, better and faster than traditional methods. Not to mention the interactive mobile apps like iPhone apps which are so popular because they truly make exercising your ears an engaging experience.

They still involve repeat practice, finding out what you’re getting correct and incorrect, and getting advice on improving. But they make it easier and more fun and deliver faster results because technology allows for much better feedback. Often you can see your accuracy displayed on screen continually so you know you’re improving. You can check your progress at any stage, and levels, scores and achievements (like quests and stars) can help you stay on track and keep motivated. Sometimes you can post your high scores and share results with other students. The comments posted and encouragement you receive can really keep you devoted to training your ears.

Even if you’re a more private person, the progress tracking, customisation and interactivity can make tech-powered ear training exercises very valuable indeed. Not to mention they help you stay regular in your practice and keep up a daily schedule of ear training, reminding you if you forget and helping you continue your ear training journey.

For more about using these technologically-enhanced ear training methods to develop your listening skills, see the section later on going beyond ear training exercises.

Already know what ear training exercises are and how to effectively plan how you use them?

Jump straight to the exercises themselves:

How to choose and use ear training exercises

There are countless different types of musician in the world and countless different areas of ear training they might be interested in. So it won’t surprise you to learn there are countless types of ear training exercise to help with all of them!

Read on to find out how to choose the ear training exercises that suit your musical goals and instrument, and how to plan your use of these exercises to maximise results.

Step 1: Choose your topic

learn ear training

First things first: Don’t do ear training exercises which aren’t relevant to your musical life. This is probably the biggest reason that ear training courses in music schools result in a class of bored and frustrated musicians. Doing repetitive exercises which don’t relate to the music you love is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

It’s not as simple as only doing whatever exercises you feel like though!

Some ear training exercises will have a clear and direct relation to what you want to achieve in music. For example, if you want to play songs by ear, doing triad and chord progression ear training is a great way to develop the musical listening skills required.

However, other important ear training exercises don’t have such an obvious use. For example, if you want to play melodies by ear, you’ll need to hone your sense of relative pitch and interval ear training is an effective way to do that. If you’re simply confronted with interval training without any explanation of how it relates to playing by ear, it’s going to seem like an odd, abstract, useless skill.

On top of this, one person’s perfect ear training exercises will be very different from another’s! Like we said, there are endless varieties of musician out there… So there can be no single course of ear training to suit everyone. You can take on good recommendations from experts but ultimately must take responsibility for planning your own use of ear training exercises.

That’s why it’s vital that you explore different types of ear training. If you are self-taught you can use this website or ear training apps. If you have a music teacher, be sure to consult them. Either way, you should figure out which exercises are likely to build the skills you need to achieve your musical goals.

Step 2: Create your exercise plan

plan your ear training

Once you’ve identified the areas of ear training which are relevant to you and the corresponding ear training exercises which can help, the next step is to plan your training.

You’ll want to get your attitude set right (and hopefully this article will help with that) to be clear on your objectives and motivations for training. Without that, you’ll find it very difficult to keep to any practice regime you design.

→ Learn more about planning ear training

It’s essential to think about:

  • What are your ultimate musical goals? Keep them in mind at all times!
  • Where you currently are, musically. What are your trouble spots? What do you currently struggle with?
  • What kinds of exercise will appeal to you? Singing? Recognition and identifying? Playing?
  • How can ear training exercises and your training plan get you from where you are now to your goals in an enjoyable way?

With your goals in mind and a clear understanding of how exercises will help you practice, the next step is to schedule your training. Here, regular practice is far more important than length of session. Because of the way your brain and ear learn, spending 10 minutes daily will produce much better results than spending two hours once a week!

Set aside some regular sessions of uninterrupted time to exercise your ears. Don’t hurry. Be consistent.

Ear training is a long-term process not an overnight quick-fix. So be prepared for the possibility that your progress won’t be a nice steady linear increase. In fact you may even find yourself struggling and your accuracy decreasing at times – especially if you forget to practice for a few days!

Knowing in advance that this is somewhat inevitable will help you to stay motivated when it happens, eliminate any doubts you have, and continue improving. You’ll find once you get back on track it’s easy to keep making progress and you can use ear training exercises and tests to verify this improvement.

Plan your training wisely like this and you ensure strong consistent progress developing your ears.

Relative Pitch Ear Training Exercises

Learn relative pitch

One of the main areas of focus for musicians practising with ear training exercises will be relative pitch: the sense which lets you compare how high or low two notes are. This is the underlying musical sense which powers interval recognition, as well as letting you identify triads and other chords, chord progressions, and different scales.

We’ll focus on relative pitch here, but you should be aware that there are many other types of ear training exercise with are not about relative pitch. For example, you can use exercises to improve your sense of rhythm and following the beat of music. You can also train your ear for audio frequencies and audio effects using dedicated exercises.

Let’s look in depth at some of the relative pitch exercises you can do.

Pitch ear training exercises

Improve your sense of pitch

As the name suggests, relative pitch exercises train you to identify the pitch of notes in music: how high or low they are. This means that pitch ear training exercises are often focused on your sense of tuning, i.e. is a note’s pitch exactly what it should be, or is it a bit too high or low. Sometimes this is about identifying errors (e.g. the strings of a guitar being out of tune) and sometimes it’s about musical expression (e.g. a singer using pitch slides and vibrato for an intended emotional effect).

Whichever type of pitch skill you want to hone, developing your aural sensitivity to pitch – meaning your ability to accurately and reliably judge the pitch of a note – is key to developing further relative pitch skills such as intervals, chords and progressions. It’s also vital to be able to sing in tune – and get past any fear that you might be tone deaf!

Interval ear training exercises

Learn intervals

An interval is simply the pitch difference between two notes, so interval ear training exercises are about learning to recognise the different distances between notes. Depending on the pitch distance we assign intervals different names. Even if you haven’t done any interval ear training before you’ve probably heard of intervals such as thirds, fourths, fifths, octaves, and so on.

As well as a type, each interval has a quality: major, minor or perfect. Some advanced music theory exercises may also feature augmented or diminished intervals. Intervals can be ascending (pitch going upwards), descending (pitch going downwards) or harmonic (both notes played together).

Interval ear training exercises generally consist of a series of intervals played, either to train your ear or to test your ability to identify the type of interval. The most effective interval exercises will also incorporate singing, or playing the intervals back using your instrument.

In isolation, intervals are abstract and useless. It is essential to connect your interval recognition skills with the rest of your music practice. For example, use interval ear training exercises to help you:

  • Learn to improvise on your instrument
  • Bring musical meaning to the fretboard patterns on your guitar
  • Understand the role of different notes in the scale of a piece
  • Sight-sing more easily by hearing in your head how pitch leaps will sound before you sing them

Here is an example of an interval ear training exercise. First listen to some examples of major and minor thirds. Then use the test track to see if you can tell the difference.

Hint: Major thirds sound bright and happy compared to the darker, sadder tone of minor thirds.

These intervals are particularly useful ones to get familiar with, as they are the intervals used to build triad chords, the most common types of chord. Learning major and minor thirds will help you to recognise the different types of triads and strengthen your ability to hear and identify these chords in music. Simply singing examples of thirds regularly will get you off to a strong start and sharpen your ear for triad chords.

As you practice interval ear training you will broaden the exercises you use to include all types of intervals (sixths, sevenths, and even compound intervals such as ninths and elevenths), in their ascending/descending/harmonic forms, with the root note being in a variety of pitch ranges, and on different instruments. You will also extend your skills from correctly recognising the intervals in isolated examples to reliably identifying them in use in real music you listen to.

→ Learn more about interval ear training

→ Try some interval ear training exercises

Chord ear training exercises

Learn chords

When you combine three or more notes it forms a chord. Chord ear training exercises train your ear to recognise different types of chord.

One way to analyse types of chord is in terms of the intervals between their notes, so you can see how this topic closely relates to interval ear training. Both types of ear training exercise will contribute to your overall harmonic awareness and sense of relative pitch.

A chord is built from a root notes and the most common type of chord, the triad, has two extra notes along with the root, forming a three-note chord. Chord ear training exercises often start out with you learning to recognise the four different types of triad chord: major, minor, augmented and diminished.

From here, chord ear training exercises may extend to:

  • Different forms of these triads
    e.g. inversions, where the root note is no longer the lowest note
  • Four-note chords
    e.g. seventh chords common in jazz and blues music
  • Different ways the chords are played
    e.g. arpeggios and broken chords

Learning to identify these chord types when you hear them, and ultimately singing them or playing them back on your instrument, is the main goal of chord ear training.

Here’s an example of chord ear training exercise tracks which first teach and then test you on major and minor triads: a great place to start!

→ Learn more about chord ear training

→ Try some chord ear training exercises

Chord Progression ear training exercises

Learn chord progressions

When you hear more than one chord in a sequence it’s called a chord progression. Chord progressions ear training is about learning to recognise commonly-used progressions, which then allows you to play songs by ear or use these progressions in your own music-making. Chord progression ear training exercises gradually introduce a variety of popularly-used progressions, building up your harmonic awareness and ability to recognise these progressions when they’re used in real music.

The simplest progression has just two chords, sometimes called a cadence so the most basic progression training exercises will often focus on recognising these two-chord progressions. From there you learn to recognise the different chords in a key, in terms of their degree in the scale. For example, chord progression ear training exercises will teach you to recognise the “four chord” (a.k.a. subdominant) and “five chord” (a.k.a. dominant) which are based on the fourth and fifth notes of the scale.

It takes only a small amount of practice with chord progression exercises to learn to recognise the chords used in thousands of so-called “three-chord” songs, so chord progression ear training is often a top priority for musicians who want to play by ear.

Because the relative pitch skills all build each other in a very complementary way, you will find that triad ear training actually helps you recognise the chords in the progressions, and your interval ear training helps you to follow the movement of the root note in the progressions. So combining each of these three types of ear training exercise is a particularly effective way to improve your ears!

Here is an example of a chord progressions ear training exercise which demonstrates different sequences of the I, IV and V chords using triads:

→ Learn more about chord progression ear training

→ Try some chord progression ear training exercises

Scale ear training exercises

Learn scales

Underlying all the relative pitch skills are scales. Most musicians know scales just as patterns of notes to be played endlessly, used to pass exams and perhaps to guide fretboard improvisation. But scale ear training reveals the true significance of scales in music and brings a new appreciation of their power.

Scale ear training teach you to:

  1. Recognise the different types of scale and mode
    e.g. major, melodic minor, dorian, phrygian, etc.
  2. Recognise the different degrees (notes) of a scale
    e.g. the root, the fifth, the seventh, etc.

It is probably this second skill which is most important, as training your ear to appreciate the musical “role” of each note in the scale makes it far easier to transcribe music and play it by ear, to understand how melodies are put together, and to come up with musically-effective improvisations easily.

Scale ear training exercises are often neglected, with the exception of musicians who practice solfège. Most musicians think of this “do, re, mi” system as an obscure technique or something for children, but in truth it is a strong way to associate the sounds of notes in the scale with a useful name, and so be able to identify the notes when you hear them used. It also connects your ear to your voice, helping you sing passages of music which would otherwise be very challenging.

Note: In fact, this approach of singing to sharpen your ears is not a solfège speciality! Your own voice is one of the most powerful tools you can use to train your musical ear, and practising ear training by singing examples and trying to sing back musical elements you hear before identifying them is a great way to ensure fast progress.

If you want to really give meaning to the frets on your guitar’s fretboard, or to each key on your piano’s keyboard, or each fingering on whatever instrument you play: scale ear training exercises could be just what you need.

Beyond ear training exercises

Now that you have an idea of some of the types of ear training exercises that can benefit you as a musician, and how to plan your ear training to make best use of them, let’s discuss the actual tools and resources you can use to learn, create or access these kinds of exercise.

In traditional music education, ear training exercises were printed in books using score notation. Guitar players might have the benefit of tablature instead. But now these books are increasingly being replaced by online ear training. The big advantage of these is that an eBook can included embedded audio clips right inside the modules so you can directly listen to the exercises after you read the necessary explanations. These kinds of audio-enhanced trainings are giving new life to ear training books.

Traditionally ear training exercises were found written on paper. Now they’re more likely to be provided as files for your notation editor.

Example: The free GarageBand software included with most Apple computers and available as an iPad app allows you to easily create your own ear training practice tracks.

These kinds of tools for bringing ear training exercises to life don’t require you to be rich or spend large amounts of money. Many are available for free, or provide an introductory demo before you purchase.

jazzadvice logo
Example: The jazzadvice.com website provides free ear training information for jazz musicians and they cover their costs by accepting donations on the website.

Practice ear training online

The fact that you are reading this article is a clear demonstration that ear training is now something you can learn online! Online ear training can provide an immersive and engaging way to train your musical ear.

Some of these ear trainer websites require you to create your own login – the advantage being that you can then set up your profile, track your progress, train with a partner, and help other musicians who are training their ears. Others allow you to simply show up to the website and start training immediately. Listening to clips through your computer speakers or headphones and using your keyboard or touch-screen to give answers, these online ear training exercises can be a fun way to learn the skills you want to.

Some popular ear trainers are “flash-based” or “Java-based”, meaning you need Adobe Flash or Java installed to use them. This isn’t a problem for most desktop computers, but they won’t work on all mobile devices or tablets, and notably the iOS range won’t support them. More modern ear trainers use “HTML5” technology and work well across all devices.

Although some of these websites offer just a simple practice app, the best of these online ear trainers provide not only the “ear trainer”, but also the background material and explanation you’ll need to understand what you’re doing. We recommend trying several to find the online ear training that best fits your own training plan.

musictheory logo
Example: One popular site for online ear training is musictheory.net. They offer lessons and practice exercises for many key topics.
Example: Another of the long-standing ear training websites is Teoria which offers music theory tutorials and ear training exercises.
theta music
Example: One website we often recommend for fun online ear training is Theta Music, who offer a range of ear training games – which can be more fun that more traditional exercises. Once you’ve played some of these games you may never go back to the old ways!
Example: Musical U is a website providing a more all-encompassing solution for becoming more musicalThe flexible training system offers modules which include a variety of ear training exercises and courses to develop your musicality.

Mobile ear training exercises

Of course it’s not only the desktop computer and the web which provide modern interactive ear training exercises. You can download a range of ear training apps for your phone or mobile device, and practice your exercises whenever it’s convenient. Load up your favourite app and in seconds you can be training your ears and improving your musicianship.

There are two small caveats when it comes to ear training apps:

  1. Many apps are not particularly high quality, especially those provided for free.
    They can be useful for getting a taste of ear training but often they use low-quality sounds, try to teach too many different skills in a single app, and (like mentioned for the websites above) may not provide the kind of structured progression, background material. or lessons to really help you develop your ears.
  2. The convenience of training your ears wherever and whenever you like has a downside: it can make it too easy to forget your training and lose the discipline of regularity and consistency that actually delivers results.
    Simultaneously playing around with an app while watching TV once in a while is not going to improve your ears much! Make sure you use these ear training apps in a way that integrates with your overall training plan.

With those warning in mind, do explore the wonderful range of ear training exercises available on your phone, whether it’s iPhone, iPod, Android or Windows Phone, you’ll find there will be apps which can help you train your ear and they can form an important part of your ear training toolkit.

Exercising your ear with real music

Ear training exercises generally begin with simple, isolated examples. These are very good for training your ear on the basics, but if you want to make practical use of your new aural skills, you should connect your exercises with real music as early as possible.

On one side, this means connecting ear training to the corresponding music theory: understanding how the musical elements’ sounds relate to the staffs, clefs, notes and other notation, and the underlying theory concepts behind it all. To some extent, this is about connecting your eyes to your ears, so that you can imagine the written representation of what you hear.

On the other side, this means connecting ear training to your instrument, or however you express yourself in music: understanding how the musical elements relate to your fretboard, keyboard, or other instrument’s controls so that you can instinctively play what you hear in your head. This is about connecting your ears to your fingers, so that you can reproduce or improvise the music you imagine through your instrument.

Attempting to use ear training exercises without addressing these two additional dimensions would be a big mistake. Our most recommended approach for working on ear training is to give special care and attention to how every exercise you do relatives on the one side to music theory, and on the other to your instrument. Doing so will ensure your training is always interesting, useful and ultimately rewarding.

How to Start Ear Training With Exercises

When you’re just starting out in ear training, the sheer variety of ear training exercises and types of training you can do can be overwhelming. Here’s our recommended step-by-step process:

  1. Choose your topics
    As discussed above, this should relate to what you want to accomplish in music, and take into account which exercises will develop the skills you need
  2. Explore those topics to understand the big picture
    Before you can sensibly plan your use of ear training exercises, you need a basic grasp of the topic and the way ear training works for it. Our Ear Expansion course can help you do this for 10 of the most popular topics in ear training.
  3. Plan your training
    This includes setting goals, chunking down those goals, choosing the kinds of ear training exercise which will help you reach those goals, and scheduling your use of the exercises appropriately.
  4. Start Exercising!
    Once you’ve chosen your topics and exercises and made a plan, it’s time to begin training. Remember you can always find further resources, including a variety of ear training exercises right here on EasyEarTraining.com – start from our topics page.
  5. Check your progress and adjust your plan regularly
    As you continue practising with ear training exercises, it’s important to keep checking that you are improving, and that this improvement is moving you closer towards your goals. Don’t be afraid to adjust your plan if necessary.

So: It’s time to start using ear training exercises!

If you have any questions or need help, please leave a comment below.

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