If you’ve ever taken an ear training class, struggled in an ear training exam, or failed the “aural skills” section of your ABRSM instrument exam, you may be left wondering:
“Why is ear training so hard?”

There are several solid answers to this question:

  1. You’re doing it wrong
  2. You are training the wrong skills
  3. Your ear training goals are unsuitable or too vague
  4. You haven’t connected ear training with the rest of your musical life
  5. You are expecting results too soon

Let’s look at each of these in more detail and see how you can fix them if they’re the root of your ear training problems.

1. You’re doing it wrong

If you find yourself getting bored of ear training – or it feels like a big burden to practice every time – you are doing it wrong.

This tends to happen if you are using the traditional (i.e. bash away at a keyboard) methods, or don’t spend any time planning your training (e.g. just continually testing yourself and hoping to improve).

In the 21st Century, there is no need for ear training exercises to be boring, repetitive, or frustrating.

If you plan your training, set appropriate (and personal) goals, and use the latest tools and resources, every ear training session can be enjoyable and you can see results quickly.

2. You are training the wrong skills

If you have started ear training according to a syllabus which somebody else has defined, the chances are small that it truly suits your musical aspirations.

For example, music degree students often find themselves learning intervals solely because they have been told to learn intervals, and studying obscure classical cadences with no relation to their own love of music. This means that even if they study hard and pass their test they are left frustrated and disappointed because there is little benefit to their musical life.

Instead, start from the question of “what kind of musician do I want to be?”, work out which listening skills will support you in becoming that musician, and then design your ear training practice routine to specifically develop those skills.

3. Your goals are unsuitable or vague

Planning your training and maintaining motivation requires you to be clear on your goals, and have goals which you are excited about achieving.

If your goal is just “pass the exam” you will never get excited to practice ear training!

On the other hand, if your goal is closely tied to a musical accomplishment you truly have your heart set on, it will be easy to put in the effort to work towards that goal.

Choose goals which motivate you and set them down clearly on paper. Only then can you hope to plan appropriate and enjoyable ear training.

4. You are training in isolation

One big problem with many ear training courses is that they are designed as an addition to a music theory course. This results in exercises being abstract and unconnected to the world of real music.

Practicing listening skills in an abstract way can be useful, as it simplifies the challenge. For example, recognising intervals when they are an isolated pair of notes is much easier than recognising them in the midst of the melody of a song.

However, you must bring ear training out of the abstract realm of music theory if you want to see real results. There’s no point passing a test if it doesn’t actually help you to be a better musician.

Connect each ear training exercise you do with something meaningful in music. If you are practising chord ear training, follow each set of drills with some examples from songs you’re currently working on. If you are learning to recognise the degrees of a major scale, spend some time analysing the melodies in your current repertoire to see how they use scale degrees. And so on.

Connecting ear training with the rest of your musical life is the most reliable way to ensure it stays interesting and useful.

5. You are expecting results too soon

As much as we all wish there was a way to get incredible ears overnight, the reality is that training your ears and brain to perform the kinds of musical task you dream of will take time.

How much time it takes will depend on your goals and your prior experience as a musician.

It can be hard to be patient while working towards your ear training goals, but the trick is to set sub-goals: smaller milestones which you can achieve in a shorter amount of time, and which lead you directly to your main goals.

If you are working to a set syllabus (e.g. at music school) and have a deadline set for a test, it can be particularly frustrating to not be making progress as quickly as you like. Especially if you fall in to the unhelpful habit of comparing yourself with your classmates. Again, the solution is to set goals apart from passing the test, and then work towards intermediate milestones which will help you see progress.

Approach ear training in the way described above – and even if you’re not 100% perfect by the time the test rolls around you will be able to see clear improvement towards goals you truly care about, and you will feel like a more accomplished musician.

Next time you find yourself wondering “Why is ear training so hard?” take five minutes to work through the list of 5 reasons above, and ask yourself which of them might currently be causing the problem.

Then it should be easy to adjust your approach, re-set your goals – and resume enjoyable and effective ear training!

If you need help figuring out where you’re going wrong, come ask in the ear training forums.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • Why am I so bad at ear training?
  • I just failed my ear training test!
  • Why am I not getting better at ear training?