Have you ever felt like you were guessing the answers while working on ear training?

Believe it or not, that may not be a bad thing! Find out why in this clip from the archive of live member Q&A calls at Musical U. Enjoy!

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So we had one of the big question come up that I wanted to talk more about because I think it’s relevant to everyone, and we just covered it briefly on the site so far. Carol , in her progress journal, she’s been working on solfa and on intervals. She had a very interesting question that I think is probably going to be familiar to everyone listening on the call at the moment. She was asking about intuition and guessing. Essentially, her question was, is it okay to guess the answer when you’re working on these musical exercises? Often, skills like playing by ear or improvisation, they can seem like guessing the notes. You just know which notes to play. It seems like some people just magically guess right, and other people, maybe yourself included, certainly me when I started, tend to guess wrong. Guessing just doesn’t seem like a good way to do it.

When you start doing ear training, when you start doing the exercises we have at Musical U, you’re learning a very different approach. It’s not like guessing at all. It’s very methodical. It’s very logical. You’re learning about intervals and chord types and chord progressions in a very structured way. So you start using this methodical approach, and when you need to figure out the notes or you need to play something by ear, you use this methodology to, in a very thought through way, figure out what the right notes are. The thing is, there’s a gray area here, and this is what Carol was finding. Sometimes when you’re doing exercises or you’re starting to actually apply these skills in music, you feel the urge to guess.

You might be starting from a methodological approach where you’re using your interval recognition, for example, to carefully figure out what each note is. But then there are moments where you’re like, “Oh, I just know what that note is,” or, “Oh, I know what that chord is.” Carol was finding, she had the instinct to do that when she was … I think she was playing ear training games online, or she was doing exercises, and she felt guilty about this, I think. I know that’s something I’ve experienced when I was first learning, and perhaps you have too. You’ve been training in this step by step approach, this logical approach, and so you feel guilty if you try and guess the answer instead.

The thing is, this isn’t bad is the short answer. This is what I was explaining on Carol’s PJ. It’s natural, in fact. There is a gray area, and it’s not a gray area you should shy away from. So if you’ve taken the start playing by a module of Musical U, you’ll understand that learning these skills, these instinctive skills of music is a trial and error process or a trial and improvement process. It’s a lot like guesswork, but the trick is that you can do exercises. You can train yourself so that those guesses get better and better, faster and faster. So you’re not just blindly guessing the answer, you’re using the skills you’ve learned to make an educated guess about what the right notes are.

So if all you do is guess, if you imagine a musician who’s just starting out, they don’t do any exercises. They don’t do any training modules and nothing like that. They just always try and guess the notes, they’re going to end up very frustrated. Maybe you’ve experienced this. I know I did when I first started playing by ear, or trying to play my ear. If all you do is guess, it’s very frustrating. You don’t improve very quickly. To be honest, you feel a bit stupid because you’re always getting the answer wrong and it becomes very frustrating.

So you don’t want to do it that way, but at the same time, if you never allow yourself to act on instinct, if you completely block yourself off from that guessing approach, you can end up very trapped. In particular, this comes up a lot in jazz and blues improvisation. You find performers who have done the exercises and they’ve learned the theory, and when they come to solo, they solo in a very methodical way, a very logical way. It’s correct in the sense that the notes sound okay, but it’s not inspired. It doesn’t move the listener, and their solos all tend to sound the same. This can happen with playing by ear and improvisation and writing songs in particular too. If you’re working too methodologically, you get trapped and everything feels very rigid. Actually, it can end up being a bit frightening because it means you can never move beyond that framework.

So you know you’ll get the answers right if you do it in the logical way, but you’re restricted to that very strict comfort zone, and so you don’t want to go that way either. You don’t want complete guesswork, but you don’t want complete logic either. So this is the gray area I mentioned before, and this is where Carol was finding herself where what you want is to use the methodological approach. You want to think it through. You want to use the skills you’ve been practicing, but when you get that instinct, when you get that moment of just knowing what the answer is, don’t be afraid to go with it. At first, you probably will still get it wrong a bit of the time. But the thing to understand is that the reason we do these exercises and the reason you do the careful training and the reason we teach things in a very methodological, logical, structured way in Musical U, is that the more you practice in that way, the more you internalize those logical skills and those specific skills. That feeds into your instinct.

It builds your musical instinct, and it means that when you do come to guess, you get in a much more educated way. You don’t need to think that through, and you don’t even need to be conscious of it. You just naturally get better and better at guessing. The only way you’ll take advantage of that is if you allow yourself to. So don’t be afraid to guess occasionally, try and find the right balance between doing it in the careful practiced way and the more instinctive way, and don’t be afraid. You don’t need to feel guilty for guessing. You don’t need to feel bad if you get the guess wrong. As long as you’re doing that core training to give you the structured instinct, to give you the more methodological skills inside, you can be confident that your guesswork is going to get better and better, and you’re going to improve.

You don’t want to lock yourself off from that because really that’s what we’re all working towards. That’s what Musical U is all about. It’s not about training you to be a perfect robot who knows the skills and knows the theory and always gets every note right. It’s about using that training to give you the natural feeling for music, to give you the natural instinct and the ability to relax and guess once in a while and go where your creativity takes you, knowing that you’ve done the training so that your guesswork is going to be maybe 95% correct, maybe 99% correct. But you can combine that instinctive freedom with the core skills that let you get the answers right. So I hope that clears things up a bit for you, Carol, and for anyone who’s listening, who’s wondered about this. The bottom line is don’t be afraid to guess, but do put in the training to make sure that those guesses are getting better and better every day and every week.

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