If you’ve begun ear training according to an old-fashioned, theory-heavy syllabus or you have only tried it to pass an exam, you may well wonder “Does ear training actually help you as a musician?”

The answer is: yes – IF you do it right.

In fact, with the right approach to ear training, this question becomes nonsense! Your ear training is driven specifically by what will help you in music, so every practice session you do helps you towards your real musical goals.

Great Musicians Have Great Ears

If you want to be a good musician, it’s not enough to train your fingers. Performing notes accurately from a written score may impress an average listener, especially if your fingers fly across your fretboard nailing a killer solo on stage.

But to the discerning listener and other musicians, it’s not enough to simply play the right notes with accurate timing. You must imbue your performance with musical expression, and this relies far more on your ears than your fingers.

  • Your fingers may know how to bend a note a semitone upwards – but when should they do that to really emphasise the emotion of a melody?
  • Your fingers may know how to play louder and quieter – but which passages should you increase the volume of to have musical impact?
  • Your fingers may know how to run up and down a particular scale – but how can you improvise from that scale in a way which moves the listener?

These kinds of skill are what differentiates a musician from a robot. That may seem like a silly comparison, but just listen to a simple MIDI music file, the synthesiser in your favourite score editor, or the kinds of mechanical musical instrument which were all the rage in the Victorian era. These may seem musical, but there is a lifelessness to them. The performance is always the same, and though the notes are technically “correct”, the music fails to truly excite the listener in a human way.

If you want to be a good musician therefore, ear training is essential. You must develop your ears in parallel with your fingers and instrumental prowess, so that your performances can have the kind of human impact that makes music worth playing.

Great Ears Make You Feel Like a Musician

There is a more emotionally rewarding aspect to ear training too. However much you perfect your instrument skills, unless you also develop your ears, you will never feel truly musical. Indeed, you will be left feeling like a robot, or a trained machine.

It may be enough to pass exams – but it will not leave you feeling like a musician.

Ask the average person:

“Who is more musical?
The child without formal training who can play any song by ear,
or the formally trained violinist who has passed his Grade 8 exam?”

and the answer will always be the same. The formally-trained exam-passer may impress with their instrumental expertise, but it is the child with musical ears that the listener will be in awe of.

Think back to times when you have felt most like a musician. Was it when you finally played a repertoire piece up to speed? Or was it when you sat down with friends and just made up a song together based on what sounded good? You might have felt more “accomplished” doing the former – but it was almost certainly the latter which brought a smile to your face and made you excited about your instrument.

Ultimately, your confidence in music and feeling that you “are musical” comes down more to your ears than your instrument. This is why those people who feel and seem most “musical” are the ones who play several instruments and feel confident picking up a new one for the first time.

If you want to be technically qualified as a musician, by all means focus on the instrument learning and passing exams.

If you want to truly feel like you are a musician – the place to focus is your ears.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • How does ear training relate to instrument learning?
  • How can I use ear training for actually playing music?
  • Is there a point to ear training apart from exams?