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Q&A - What's the best approach to ear training?

Hello David,

I played for a number of years as a teenager but grew frustrated. My main source of frustration was that I couldn't play anything at all by ear. Even very simple stuff I just couldn't hear.

I have tried many different methods of ear training over the years and I'm totally confused. I have tried interval recognition apps, functional ear training and even a perfect pitch course. But I have yet to recognize a single note when listening to real music! Can you give me any guidance?


David's response:

Hi Matt,

I congratulate you on your persistence and I think you are on the verge of a major breakthrough. Understanding music by ear is an essential part of IFR, so your IFR practice is going to totally transform your relationship with ear training. Here are the keys to that success:

1) Music is tonal. It's a mistake to treat music as a series of unrelated intervals. Don't focus on interval relationships between random notes. Focus instead on the sound of each note relative to the overall key of the music. Each note of the major scale produces a very particular sound which you ALREADY recognize in the music all around you. As I explained in my book, this is how you are able to appreciate music in the first place. So you already know exactly how each note of the major scale sounds. You just need to take a moment to clarify which sound is which.

2) Ear training is not a separate activity. The moment you relegate ear training off to its own little island, divorced from your playing and your creativity, you're already doomed to fail. It's like saying that part of the time you're going to play music, and the other part of the time you're going to actually listen to the sounds. What we want is to become aware of the the sounds all the time, so that our jamming becomes our ear training.

3) You need to produce the sounds yourself. When most people think of ear training, they imagine sitting in a classroom or using an ear training app that puts them in the passive role of just listening to sounds and trying to identify them. But this is a very slow and frustrating way to learn. We humans need to examine things for ourselves in order to understand them. We need to pick things up and turn them around in our hands, and look at them from all different angles. In music, this is exactly what we do when we improvise. Not only are we creating music, but we are also exploring the sounds of our musical system and learning to recognize them by ear.

4) Music is the best teacher. The fastest way to learn to recognize the sounds of our musical system is to hear them being used to create beautiful melodies. Any note by itself is a rather boring thing. But in the context of a melodic phrase, that note could be the most heartbreaking sound in the world. So it's only here, in the music itself, where we can truly understand these notes and appreciate their power. This is the principle behind the IFR audio course "Sing the Numbers". In this course we use beautiful songs and melodies to teach you to not only recognize but to truly appreciate and fall in love with each sound of our musical system.

How to get started

Learning to recognize chords and melodies by ear will be absolutely life changing for you. It's incredibly empowering to be able to understand any piece of music just by listening to it, and having the ability to play melodies directly from your imagination will change your entire concept of what it means to study music.

The entire IFR method is aligned with the four principles outlined above, and ear training is at the heart of everything we do. The resources below will get you started.

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