I forget where I first heard the saying:
“You can’t learn to swim in a barrel full of water”
but it immediately hit home. It’s one of those beautiful expressions that is so obviously true and yet has an impact in a wide variety of areas where we’ve probably overlooked it. It’s certainly true in music.

What do I mean by that?

Well, just as you are only fooling yourself if you splash about in a barrel of water and call it “swimming”, so too are you fooling yourself if you manage to divorce your musical training from… music!

barrel full of music

This is a trap many of us fall into with music practice, and especially with ear training. Because of the strong connection with music theory, and the way many traditional ear training exercises are designed, it is all too easy to spend time training your ears almost completely isolated from actual music.

By the end of this article you’ll know how to fix that.

It’s a big part of our mission here at Easy Ear Training and Musical U: ensuring that all the ear training we recommend and provide is closely aligned with real music and genuine musical activities.

At Musical U we encourage all our members to set goals and plan their training based specifically on the musical skills they want to possess and the musical activities they see in their future – never purely learning ear training skills for the sake of it or because they think it’s what they “should” do. It’s a core part of our MAGIC framework for setting musical goals.

Let’s take a look at some of the musical “barrels” you might be stuck in – and how you can break out.

Barrel 1: Learning interval recognition in abstraction

It’s very common to develop your sense of relative pitch by learning to recognise musical intervals. And intervals can indeed be very powerful and useful.

However, the barrel that too many musicians end up trapped in is that they treat intervals like an abstract concept, to be practised as pairs of notes and left at that.

In reality, for your interval recognition practice to really help you with the true muscial activities like playing by ear and improvisation you need to break out of this barrel and connect intervals to real music.

How do you do that?

Here are a few ideas:

You should still use the simple interval training exercises to hone your skills, but break out of the barrel by going beyond that and connecting every set of intervals you practice to real musical activities.

improvise music

Barrel 2: You only ever play on your own

Music is fundamentally a social activity, created by humans in collaboration with other humans. This can be as simple as drawing inspiration from other people or playing music someone else has written, but music truly comes to life and has that amazing energy when musicians collaborate live together.

The problem is that many people practice music only in isolation. They dream of joining a band, playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir – yet they only ever practice music on their own.

If you stay trapped in this barrel you never learn the listening skills you’ll need to collaborate with other musicians.

Playing with others can be intimidating – but it isn’t hard! And it’s one of the few areas of ear training where the trick is to just practice and practice – meaning you need to go out there and find people to play with, practice with them, and pay attention to your ears as you do it.

Learn how to play well in a band and break out of this barrel!

Barrel 3: Improvising with jam tracks only

Improvisation is a common goal in ear training, with musicians wanting to create innovative and musically moving solos on-the-fly just using their ears and musical instinct.

A great way to get started with improvisation is using jam tracks: specially-created practice tracks in different styles and keys, which essentially provide a known accompaniment for you to improvise over. Often these are designed so that you can put them on loop, and practice endlessly to your heart’s content.

Jam tracks are a very useful tool – but can also be another barrel.

If you rely on the predictability of jam tracks, and spend too long with the same set of tracks, you become stuck in a world where improvisation is easy. This is a good thing at first, for building your confidence. But when you then go out and try to improvise in a live setting, or you want to use your improvisation skills to create songs of your own, suddenly you realise how limiting those jam tracks have been for you!

In fact, there is a more general point here: If you always practice in the same way (whether it’s sticking to one key, always playing the same pieces, or just staying in one musical genre), your musicianship is always going to be limited.

Music is dynamic and often unpredictable, particularly in a live context. That means your improvisation skills (and music skills in general) must be trained to cope with it. That way when real musical opportunities arise, you have the skills to match.

break through your musical limits

Those are just 3 examples of the musical barrels we let ourselves get trapped in. Can you think of any others from your experience? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Step outside your comfort zone and remember the real music which motivates you – and never let your ear training be limited again!