What is the Best Ear Training Method?

Before I teach you my method of ear training, I would like to explain why my method is different from the most common, widely accepted method of ear training, which consists of learning intervals. I’ll explain intervals more deeply in chapter 8, but for now, intervals are the distances between notes. Tones and semitones are intervals, but there are many more. The distance from a C to an E is an interval called a “major third,” for example. Most ear training methods encourage students to start with identify intervals. Teachers will play two random notes and ask the student to identify the interval.

In my opinion, it is easier and more useful to know where the notes fit in the scale rather than the distance between notes. The standard advice for people learning intervals is to attach intervals to particular songs. For example, the interval of a major sixth is used at the beginning of the song “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” Teachers tell their students that if an interval sounds like the beginning of this song, then it’s a major sixth. They also tell their students that a major sixth is the distance from the first to the sixth note of a major scale, for example from C to A. But “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” does not start on the first note of the scale, it starts on the fifth note of the scale, then goes up a major sixth to the third note of the scale in a higher octave! If a student thinks that this song starts on the first note of the scale, then it’s going to sound all wrong if they try to add harmony.

In my method, I encourage you to identify the position of the note within the scale rather than the distance between two notes. This means that you have to know the scale first and keep the sound of the scale in your head while you listen to each note of the song. Keeping the sound of the scale in your head takes no effort at all. You already do it unconsciously whenever you listen to music. It takes practice to learn what each note of the scale sounds like in relation to the scale as a whole.

Let’s contrast these two methods when you use them to learn a melody by ear. Let’s say the melody starts on the fifth note of a major scale, then goes to the sixth, second, fourth, and ends on the third. In C major, that’s G, A, D, F, E. Using the interval method, you would use trial and error to find the first note, then you would notice that it goes up a tone. You would then have to figure out what note is up a tone from G, which is an A. Then you would hear the melody go down a fifth. What note is down a fifth from A? This might not be as easy to figure out, but it’s a D. For each note in the song, you have to do these two steps. Figuring out the interval, and then figuring out which note results from this interval. And if you miss a note, you’re lost. If you couldn’t figure out the D before the melody goes to the F, you’ll know it has gone up a minor third, but you won’t know what note you started on, so you won’t know that you should play an F. This is all too complicated for me!

Using my “Notes in the Scale” method, you first notice what kind of scale the song uses. Once you can get the sound of the scale in your head, you would simply notice that it sounds like it goes from the fifth to the sixth, then second, fourth, and third note of the scale. If you know the scale you can easily those numbers into notes. If you miss a note, you can still find the next note because you haven’t lost sight of the scale as a whole. Much simpler! The hard part is figuring out the scale in the first place, but it’s worth it because it makes learning an entire song with hundreds of melody notes so much simpler.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn intervals. Learning intervals is very useful in situations where the “Notes in a Scale” method isn’t working for you, or for songs that switch between scales often. More on intervals in chapter 8.

The first few melody exercises in this chapter develop your skills for the “Notes in a Scale” method.