One of the most important skills that a guitarist can develop is to train their ear. It should go without saying that without your ears experiencing, enjoying and learning to play music would be extremely difficult. So, what is ear training and how can you improve this ability?
Ear training is being able to develop your ear so that you can recognize and identify the relationship between musical pitches and how it relates to music. As a guitarist, this comes in handy for learning how to listen to a musical piece or a song and then be able to play it on guitar without the need of sheet music, guitar tablature or another person showing you how to play the song. The more you train your ear the more accurate you will be able to replicate the music of your favorite artists. This means you will stand out compared to other guitar players because the way you play a cover song will sound more like the guitar heroes you listen to.
There are many ways to develop your aural skills (a term for how good your ear is to hear music and identify what it is you are hearing). Today I am going to show you one of the easiest ways to get started on developing your ear with very little music theory or knowledge of the guitar at all.
So how do you do this? Well if you are a beginner to ear training the aim here is to listen to a very simple piece of music and play it on the guitar without any other aid than your instrument and your ears. This can be done by listening to very simple guitar parts, however I have found through teaching others that melodies that can be sung with your voice is best to begin with. Nursery rhymes which have lyrics that are sung are usually the easiest but any song that you have memorized and don’t need to look up the lyrics is best. The more familiar with the piece you are the better.
Because I don’t know what you listen to I am going to use Happy Birthday for this ear training exercise as most, if not all people are familiar with this tune. You will need a blue pen, a red pen, a piece of paper and your guitar for this ear training exercise. Ready? Here we go.
Step 1. Pluck the open thinnest string on your guitar without any left-hand fingering, this is the first note for Happy Birthday. You will only be using this 1st string for this exercise.
Step 2. Get a piece of paper, turn it sideways (landscape) and draw a small dot in blue pen on the left side halfway down the page.
This dot is a visual representation of the notes of the song but before we move on to the next note write the fret number in red underneath the note. In this case it would be 0 as it is an open string. When you are doing a longer melody, this is a good way to remember everything that you have worked out so far so that you don’t forget it along the way.
Step 3. Identify the second note, then draw the second dot. From the first note, we are going to map out what is happening with the notes of the song. Listen to the first two notes and figure out whether the second note is the same, higher or lower than the first. In this case the second note of Happy Birthday is the same as the first note so it would look like this on our sheet.
Step 4. Now listen to the third note in relation to the second note. Identify which fret along the first string the note is and then draw the dot. Did the note stay the same, did it go higher or did it go lower? The third note of Happy Birthday is higher than the second. Before you draw a dot experiment along the first string until you find the right note. Did you get it? The third note is on the second fret so your map should look like this now.
Final Step. Repeat this process until you have figured out the whole melody. No more clues here, the rest is up to you.
After you have finished think about what it is you have done. You have been able to play the notes of Happy Birthday without any tab or sheet music. In fact, by writing the numbers of the frets you could write this on to a guitar tablature of your own for this song.
As I mentioned earlier there are lots of ways to train your ear and develop your aural skills. There are many more things that you can practice recognizing like rhythm, scales, what the exact note your listening to is, specific distances between notes (AKA intervals), hearing special phrasing techniques such as bent strings, recognizing specific chords and more. Every piece of ear training that you work on will get you one step closer to learning songs faster and playing guitar so that you sound just like your favorite musicians.
Daniel Bainbridge teaches guitar lessons in Albany Western Australia, Daniel Bainbridge provides ear training for local guitar students and has written guitar tablature by ear for the community to use at the ultimate guitar website. If you are interested in furthering your ear training and guitar playing progress, be sure to visit the link above.