We never really think about how we learn. In a way it’s something we take for granted. However, it’s important to at least have a general understanding of the learning process so that you are not working against yourself, making the task harder than it needs to be. This is essential in learning anything new, and in our case, ear training.

Ear training is a vital part of any course of music study. The ability to distinguish intervals, chords and pitches is crucial to a musician. I like to think of ear training as being similar to learning a new language. In spoken language we learn to identify the sounds of vowels and consonants; then we learn to recognize various groups of these sounds that make up words; finally, we learn how these words form sentences.

Ear training works the same way. First, we learn to recognize the smallest building blocks of music—intervals, or the distance between two notes. From there, we learn to recognize both successions of intervals (melody) as well as combinations (chords). Ultimately, we learn to recognize complete progressions of chords. It is evident, then, that ear training possesses many similarities to learning spoken language.  For the musician who has not developed their ear to recognize the different parts of the musical language, it is like hearing someone speak a language they do not understand—the language may sound pretty, but they have no idea what the person is saying!

How we learn

The process of training the ear to recognize and distinguish musical sounds is partly just that: training the ear. Virtually everyone can hear a difference between two tones, but for most, an integral part of ear training is the gradual “awakening” of the ear to hear aspects of music it is not accustomed to hearing. Directly connected to this process of fine-tuning the perceptiveness of the ear is the mental process behind it all. This is perhaps the most important concept to understand – yet it is often the part left out of any ear training course. At least, this has been my experience thus far.

The process by which we learn, not only in ear training, but in anything, can be summed up as follows:

“All learning involves a process of automatizing, i.e., of first acquiring knowledge by fully conscious, focused attention and observation, then of establishing mental connections which make that knowledge automatic (instantly available as a context), thus freeing man’s mind to pursue further, more complex knowledge.”

(Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology)

Simply put: learning works like building blocks. It takes a conscious, focused resolve to learn anything new, but eventually what we learn becomes automatic to the point that it’s almost effortless. For example, think of the time it took as a child to learn to do basic arithmetic—addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Now, it’s hardly necessary to think about it. From there, we move to the next thing, which in turn, builds on our previous knowledge, and so on. There is literally no end to the limits of learning.

Apply this to ear training: at first you must focus to learn to distinguish the different musical intervals, but, eventually, the recognition of them becomes automatic, effortless. From there, the next step is to learn to recognize the succession of intervals that make up a melody, then chords, and so on. This may seem elementary or even obvious, but, consciously knowing how your own brain is learning is a vital step in successfully learning anything. Furthermore, that is the key, it is not the ear that is learning anything—it is the mind.

Tips for effective ear training

Here are a few tips that help me in my own ear training exercises:

How we learn - Tip 1
Practice ear training every day. Training the ear is no different than learning a musical instrument and consistent repetition will make the process go faster. For me, it works best to do short sessions of 15-20 minutes daily. Sometimes, I might squeeze in an extra practice session. In the end, the length you decide to practice is determined by what you are comfortable with – just do it daily.
How we learn - Tip 2
Don’t try to practice ear training when you are in a rush or have many things on your mind. Both these things will work against you. When my mind starts wandering off in the middle of ear training practice, I instantly notice that I start doing poorly. You have to find a time when you can give a “fully conscious, focused attention” to it. Trust me on this one. It will make the process go quicker, easier, and more enjoyably.
How we learn - Tip 3
Finally, don’t rush the process itself. You are no doubt going to struggle with some part of ear training at some point. We all do. Take your time with it and move slowly. Realize that you are learning and making progress. Finally, be sure you have thoroughly learned each exercise before moving on. Make sure it has become automatic.

Once again, it can’t be stressed enough just how vitally important ear training is for the musician, no matter what area of music you are involved in. I hope these tips help you as much as they have helped me.

Have any great tips for training, or insights into the learning process? Share them below, in the comments!

Want to become more musical?

Musicality ChecklistWe can help!

Whether you want to sing in tune, play by ear, improvise, write your own songs, perform more confidently or just make faster progress, first you need to know where you're starting from.

The Musicality Checklist will quickly reveal your personal musicality profile and how you can improve your natural musicianship.

Available FREE today!

Get the Checklist

Musical ULearn More inside Musical U

Musical U provides in-depth training modules, an easy-to-use personalised planning system, a friendly and supportive community, and access to expert help whenever you need it.