Advanced Ear Training

Going Outside The Scale

There are times when going outside of the scale is called for. Some songs use one scale most of the time but have few beautifully placed notes that don’t fit in that scale. This unexpected note can create moments of tension before a release, or a temporary shift in the mood of the song. For example, a song that’s mostly in the key of C major might have an Ab in the melody at one point. That Ab will create a bit of tension which might be released by moving down a semitone to G, a note in the scale.

I believe that the best way to be prepared to hear and understand these instances is to know the scale really well. Know the scale so well that you can do Melody Ear Training Exercise 1 very fast, without hesitation, and without making mistakes. Then, when you hear a note that is outside the scale, you can hear that it sounds, for example, higher than the fifth note, but lower than the sixth. You could call that note a “flat six” or a “sharp five.” In this way, you can figure out any notes that are outside of the scale. Eventually, you’ll get used to the unique sound of each of these “outside” notes, and when you hear them in your imagination, you'll know whay they are. Harmony plays an important role in making these “outside” notes make sense to the listener. See part 4 for an in-depth look at harmony.

Some songs do not seem to use scales at all. They use all twelve notes, with no emphasis on a certain set of notes. Maybe the song switches between different scales so fast that it’s almost impossible for your ears to sense the scale it is using at any moment. Or maybe the song uses the “chromatic scale,” which doesn’t have a beginning or an end, and uses all twelve notes! Songs like this are usually called “atonal.” There are some beautiful pieces of atonal music out there, but you have to look hard to find them.

The Ear Training Trap

Many musicians fall into what I call the ear training trap. After gaining some fluency with the major and minor scales, you might notice that listening to songs and treating them as ear training exercises gets boring once you get good at it. You might start to think “this would be more fun if it was harder.” This is a slippery slope. If you become obsessed with ear training like I did, you might begin to look for more challenging music to listen to. Maybe you will notice that some songs change keys, which is a fun ear training challenge. You might gravitate towards music that uses unusual scales, which will challenge you even more. Some music has melodies and chords that are so complicated that they don’t stay in one scale for more than a few seconds, not to mention changing time signatures every bar as well. There are all sorts of ear training challenges out there.

If you let ear training become the main reason you listen to music, then ear training will become the main reason you create music. Then, your music will become an enormous ear training challenge to all who listen. It might even become so complicated that nobody can understand your music at first glance. They have to try really hard and listen multiple times to pass your ear training test. This is not music! This is an intellectual game. The point of making and listening to music is much deeper and more important than this. It might be hard to tell if you’ve fallen into the ear training trap, but if a high proportion of the people who listen to your music and come to your concerts are music students, this is not a good sign. This means that the only people who are attracted to your music are people who are good at (or trying to get good at) playing the ear training game. If this is the case, it’s time to take a deep look at why you make music.

I think most of the readers of this book are not too far down that rabbit hole. Consider this a cautionary tale. So, how do you avoid the ear training trap? Make sure you retain the ability to listen to music without turning it into an ear training exercise. Remember how to enjoy music and let music affect your body, your emotions, and your spirit. Do not decide what to play or listen to based on how challenging the music is. This is harder than it seems. Your choices might be based 60 percent on what you like, and 40 percent on ear training challenge. I would encourage you to be aware of what’s driving your musical choices. I’m personally striving to make choices based 100 percent on what I like, and 0 percent on how fun the ear training challenge is. It’s hard because ear training challenges are so fun!

Melody Ear Training Exersice 7: Atonal Ear Training

This is the most difficult melody ear training exercise I can think of. It is similar to the first ear training exercise, but it doesn’t use any scale. Before you attempt this, make sure you are clear with yourself about why you are doing this. Is it important to you to be this good at ear training? Why? What musical situation do you long for that requires this level of skill?

If you have a partner

Have your partner play notes at random, one at a time. Try to guess the notes they are playing. If your partner is also a skilled musician, they will be able to change the difficulty of this challenge by changing the way they choose notes. To make this more difficult, they could use the entire piano keyboard to play notes unrelated to any scale that have big leaps between them. Good luck.

If you don’t have a partner

Write a series of notes down, and try to make it as random as possible. Try to sing these notes, and check if you are singing them right.

When I was in college I used a computer program to help me do this. I used a popular audio program called Logic, but I imagine there is a way to do this with other programs. I made the program play a random series of notes at a slow speed. There was enough time between notes for me to try to play the note I heard on the guitar. This was helpful because I could click a button and the computer would scramble the notes up again and I would have a new series of random notes. I could make this harder by speeding it up. The reason this was so difficult was that the notes were not chosen from one scale, they were a random selection of all twelve notes, in many octaves.

I also did a similar thing with singing. I had the computer play a random series of notes, while also displaying sheet music containing the notes it was playing. I read the sheet music and tried to sing the note before the computer did. I would sing the note and immediately after, the computer would play the note to let me know if I was right or not. Again, I could click a button to get a new series of notes and speed it up to make it harder.