It’s an inescapable fact that great musicians have great ears. Unfortunately most musicians don’t have very good ears – and they’re understandably a bit embarrassed about that. In some cases it’s because they’ve never discovered ear training and they don’t know how to improve. In other cases they’ve discovered ear training but it’s always been a vague and half-hearted area of study for them. So if you want to really reach your potential as a musician, it’s time you did an ear training audit.

What is an ear training audit?

The word “audit” is a bit scary but there’s no need to feel intimidated. You can call it a “check” or “self assessment” if you prefer.

An ear training audit is a simple process you can go through to check how good your ears are.

It isn’t a test. It’s not about pushing you to your limits by throwing really challenging exercises at you. It is simply a tool for you to use, to benefit you in your training.

With an ear training audit you are seeking to answer two questions:

  1. How good are my ears right now?
  2. How exactly can I improve them?

By answering these two questions with an audit you put yourself in a true position of strength for successful ear training.

Why you should do an audit on your ears

An ear training audit is one of those things where after you’ve done it once you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner! And you’ll be keen to do it again in future. It’s just so useful.

There are three big reasons to conduct an ear training audit.

1. To discover where you’re starting from

It’s simple once you think about it: to get to where you want to go, you need to know where you’re starting from. This is true for a road trip and it’s true for ear training. We’ve talked about this before, and the importance of having a Roadmap for finding your destination.

Before you can begin successful ear training you need to know where you are starting from.

2. To remind you what you can do

If you’ve been playing music for a while then you’ll have a vague idea of what your ears can do – but that is probably outweighed by lots of thoughts (and frustrations) about what your ears can’t do.

Part of the value of conducting an ear training audit is that you can probably do more than you realise and it’s good to be reminded of that – and your potential to do even better.

3. To reveal your future

Once you see where you are and go through the audit process described below your head will immediately be full of ideas about what to do next and how you can improve your training to get better results.

Conducting an ear training audit shows you effortlessly the next steps to improve your skills and reach your ear training goals.

How to do an ear training audit

I’m going to share a step-by-step process you can follow. It’s not the only way to do an ear training audit but it is simple and effective.

The important thing to know up front is that is not an ear training test. It is not going to check your skills. You probably already know inside what you can and can’t do, whether you realise it or not.

This process is for you to take a personal inventory of your skills and get clarity on what to do next.

In Musical U we have a dedicated Musicality Status Check which walks you through this kind of ear training self assessment in detail. Below we’ll share a simplified version of this proven approach.

We’ll approach it in these steps:

  • Define the areas which matter most to you
  • Set (or remind yourself of) your goals
  • Check your current skills

You don’t need any resources except something to write with. As you go through the process, take notes on what you decide and learn along the way. You might want to explore the various articles and ear training resources on this site to help you figure out your answers to the questions below.

Step One: Choose your Topics

Part of the problem musicians face with ear training is being overwhelmed by the number of things they want to learn and improve on. For example, you might be a guitarist who wants to play chords by ear, play with better rhythm, and learn to sing in tune. Or maybe you’re a jazz saxophone player who wants to improvise amazing sax solos and join jam sessions without feeling nervous. Perhaps you’re a budding song writer who needs to improve at melody, harmony and lyric writing.

The key point for this stage of the audit process is this:

Don’t let anyone else dictate what you should learn.

It’s up to you to decide which areas matter to you. There is no one best ear training method, and it’s only worth spending time on the areas of ear training which will benefit your musical life.

So step one is to decide what areas matter to you in your musical life. For most people this will turn out to be one to three major ear training topics to pursue.

Once you have this shortlist of your chosen key topics you have completed Step One of the audit.

Now you’re going to carry out the next two steps for each topic in turn.

Step Two: Define your Goals

This step tackles another of the major pitfalls musicians face with ear training: that they dive into a topic without getting really clear on what they actually want to accomplish.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know if you’re getting there or not?

For example, if you set out to master playing chords by ear but you never actually define a clearer goal than “I want to be able to play chords by ear” you are destined for frustration and disappointment. You want a goal more like “I will be able to easily and reliably play the most common chord progressions by ear, across a variety of styles and keys so that I can play by ear the songs I love on guitar.”.

Can you see why it’s important to set solid goals for each area you care about? You can follow this 5 step process to set musical goals.

Once you have a solid goal for each of your key topics you have completed Step Two of the audit.

Step Three: Check your Skills

In Musical U we split our training modules into three phases for each area: Learn, Practice and Apply:

  • With Learn modules you gain the understanding you need of the topic.
  • With Practice you do the training to develop the core listening skills.
  • Then in Apply modules you begin to use those skills for real musical tasks.

We’ll follow the same structure for your self assessment. For each of your goals, ask yourself:

Learn: do you know what you need to?

Do you really understand this topic clearly? Could you explain the basic music theory to somebody else? Do you know how it relates to your instrument and how it will help you in your musical life?

If there are any areas you know you’re fuzzy on, don’t shy away from them! Just make a note that it’s something to look into more in future.

Example: If you want to learn interval recognition, do you know about the different types of interval? Do you understand clearly how intervals help you play by ear or improvise? Have you thought about how intervals relate to your instrument and how you can train them as part of your regular music practice?

Practice: can you do what you need to, in simple examples?

Assuming you have the basic understanding, can you actually do this skill? If there are obvious “difficulty levels” to the skill, what’s the limit of your current abilities? Are there particular cases you find challenging?

Example: If you are trying to play I-IV-V chord progressions by ear, can you do it with simple chord progression ear training exercises? Can you handle root position triads? What about inversions, and different chord voicings? Can you handle different instrument sounds?

Apply: can you do what you need to with real music?

It’s one thing to do it in theory and with artificial training examples. It’s another to do it at band practice or when you sit down to write a song!

So when it comes to real musical tasks, are you still able to successfully do this skill? How reliable is it? Are there certain contexts or applications where you find you struggle?

Example: If you are learning to sing in tune and you’ve mastered the artificial exercises, what about singing in front of people? Have you developed a good voice? When you go along to a group, can you sight read choir music? Do you have the musical confidence to get up on the karaoke stage?

Once you’ve analysed your Learn/Practice/Apply skills for each of your goals, you have completed Step Three of the audit.

Using your Audit

At the end of the process above you should have a page or two of notes, sketching out exactly where you stand for each topic that matters to you. You should know clearly whether you’re mainly in the Learn, Practice or Apply phase, and how strong your skills currently are in each.

Going through this process should already have revealed some clear areas for improvement – and reminded you that you’re probably further along than you thought.

Now that you have clarity you’re in a real position of strength.

Important note: Just because you noticed an area of potential improvement, that doesn’t mean you are obliged to study it!

Now is the time to pause and reflect.

  • Which of these areas for improvement matter most to you?
  • Which will really inspire you in your ear training?
  • Which will most help you become the musician you want to be?

Focus in on these areas and then create a new training plan for your continued musical development. You can learn more about creating an effective music training plan.

Follow this process and you will be clearer and more confident than ever about your ear training. If you want a more thorough ear training audit and all the resources and guidance you need to follow through and get better results than ever before, join Musical U and get full access to dozens of ear training modules and a friendly supportive community of musicians and experts who will help you reach your true musical potential.

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