Ear training

Ear training or aural skills is a process by which musicians learn to identify intervals, chords, rhythms, and other basic elements of music. Ear training plays an important part in singing, since one must be able to hear music in one's head and match pitch before it is possible to sing it reliably. Moreover, reproducing sounds by singing them is a reliable way to verify that they are heard correctly. One does not need absolute pitch to succeed at ear training; one goal of ear training is the development of relative pitch.

Ear training may also require differentiation of timbres. Some instruments allow for the same pitch to be generated with multiple timbres. Music which employs function through timbre as well as pitch requires ear training that addresses both aspects.

Functional pitch recognition

Functional pitch recognition involves identifying the function or role of a single pitch in the context of an established tonic. Once a tonic has been established, each subsequent pitch may be classified without direct reference to accompanying pitches. For example, once the tonic G has been established, listeners may recognize that the pitch D plays the role of the dominant in the key of G. No reference to any other pitch is required to establish this fact.

Many musicians use functional pitch recognition in order to identify, understand, and appreciate the roles and meanings of pitches within a key. To this end, scale-degree numbers or movable-do solmization (do, re, mi, etc.) can be quite helpful. Using such systems, pitches with identical functions (the key note or tonic, for example) are associated with identical labels (1 or do, for example).

Functional pitch recognition is not the same as fixed-do solfege, e.g. do, re, mi, etc. Functional pitch recognition emphasizes the role of a pitch with respect to the tonic, while fixed-do solfege symbols are labels for absolute pitch values (do=C, re=D, etc., in any key). In the fixed-do system, solfege symbols do not describe the role of pitches relative to a tonic. In the movable-do system, there happens to be a correspondence between the solfege symbol and a pitch's role. However there is no requirement that musicians associate the solfege symbols with the scale degrees. In fact, musicians may utilize the movable-do system to label pitches while mentally tracking intervals to determine the sequence of solfege symbols.

Functional pitch recognition has several strengths. Since a large body of music is tonal the listener will commonly be assured that a tonic will be established therefore the technique is widely applicable. Since reference pitches are not required, music may be broken up by complex and difficult to analyze pitch clusters (example: percussion sequence) and pitch analysis may resume immediately once an easier to identify pitch is played (example: trumpet solo) - no need to keep of the last note of the previous line or solo nor any need to keep track of a series of intervals going back all the way to the start of a piece. Since the function of pitch classes is a key element the problem of compound intervals with interval recognition is not an issue - whether the notes in a melody are played within a single octave or range over eight octaves is irrelevant.

Functional pitch recognition has some weaknesses. Music with no tonic or ambiguous tonality does not lend itself well to this type of analysis. Example: what are the function of first four pitches of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony when considered in isolation? Mediant, tonic, supertonic, subtonic? When dealing with key changes, a student must know how to account for pitch recognition after the key changes: retain the original tonic or change the frame of reference to the new tonic.

Interval recognition

Interval recognition is also a useful skill for musicians: in order to determine the notes in a melody, a musician must have some ability to recognize intervals. Some music teachers teach their students relative pitch by having them associate each possible interval with the first two notes of a popular song. Trainear is a online ear trainer that's specifically for associating intervals to songs. Here are some examples for each interval:

interval ascending descending
unison Happy Birthday to You
La Marseillaise
minor second Theme from Jaws
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Joy to the World
Für Elise
major second Frère Jacques
Silent Night
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Satin Doll
The First Noel
minor third Greensleeves
Smoke on the Water
O Canada
The Impossible Dream
So Long, Farewell
Hey Jude
The Star-Spangled Banner
Frosty the Snowman
major third When the Saints Go Marching In
Do-Re-Mi (first and third notes)
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
perfect fourth Taps
Auld Lang Syne
O Tannenbaum
Here Comes the Bride
Amazing Grace
Theme from Harry Potter
Eine kleine Nachtmusik
Adeste Fideles
Downtown (On the lyric 'Downtown')
Theme From Star Trek: The Next Generation
tritone Maria (West Side Story)
The Simpsons opening sequence''
perfect fifth Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
My Favorite Things
Scarborough Fair
Also sprach Zarathustra
Theme from Star Wars
Diary of Jane - Breaking Benjamin
Seven Steps to Heaven
What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?
Theme from The Flintstones
minor sixth Across the Stars (from Star Wars)
Bashana Haba'ah
Black Orpheus
saxophone hook from Baker Street
The Entertainer (big interval after pick-up)
You're Everything
Theme from Love Story
major sixth My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean
NBC Theme Song
Leia's Theme (from Star Wars)
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Take the A-Train
A Weaver of Dreams
Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen
The Music of the Night
Over There
minor seventh Theme from Star Trek
Somewhere (West Side Story)
Watermelon Man
An American in Paris
major seventh Take on Me
Theme from Fantasy Island
Over the Rainbow (first and third notes)
Immigrant Song (First and third notes of opening 'wail')
Bali Hai (first and third notes)
I love you
octave Over the Rainbow
Let It Snow
Hey there Delilah intro
Willow Weep For Me
Doogie Howser, M.D. Theme
To Zanarkand, Final Fantasy 10
In addition, there are various systems (including solfege, sargam, and numerical sight-singing) that assign specific syllables to different notes of the scale. Among other things, this makes it easier to hear how intervals sound in different contexts, such as starting on different notes of the same scale.

The essential goal for the advanced student of music is to gain a sense of each tone's place in the scale and its function in the key, learning to hear its position, tendency, and relationship to the other pitches with the "mind's ear." Solfege systems and mnemonic melodies are tools used to help realize this goal.

Chord recognition

Complementary to recognizing the melody of a song is hearing the harmonic structures that support it. Musicians often practice hearing different types of chords and their inversions out of context, just to hear the characteristic sound of the chord. They also learn chord progressions to hear how chords relate to each other in the context of a piece of music.

Rhythm recognition

One way musicians practice rhythms is by breaking them up into smaller, more easily identifiable sub-patterns. For example, one might start by learning the sound of all the combinations of four eighth notes and eighth rests, and then proceed to string different four-note patterns together.

Another way to practice rhythms is by muscle memory, or teaching rhythm to different muscles in the body. One may start by tapping a rhythm with the hands and feet individually, or singing a rhythm on a syllable (e.g "ta"). Later stages may combine keeping time with the hand, foot, or voice and simultaneously tapping out the rhythm, and beating out multiple overlapping rhythms.

A metronome may be used to assist in maintaining accurate tempo.

Timbre recognition

Each type of musical instrument has a characteristic sound quality that is largely independent of pitch or loudness. Some instruments have more than one timbre, e.g. the sound of a plucked violin is different from the sound of a bowed violin. Some instruments employ multiple manual or embouchure techniques to achieve the same pitch through a variety of timbres. If these timbres are essential to the melody or function, as in shakuhachi music, then pitch training alone will not be enough to fully recognize the music. Learning to identify and differentiate various timbres is an important musical skill that can be acquired and improved by training.


Music teachers often recommend transcribing recorded music as a way to practice all of the above, including recognizing rhythm, melody and harmony.

See also

Further reading

  • Aural Skills Acquisition : The Development of Listening, Reading, and Performing Skills in College-Level Musicians by Gary S. Karpinski, ISBN 978-0-19-511785-1
  • Essential Ear Training for the Contemporary Musician by Steve Prosser, ISBN 0-634-00640-1
  • Ear Training for Twentieth-Century Music by Michael L. Friedmann, ISBN 0-300-04536-0
  • Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing by Gary S. Karpinski, ISBN 978-0393976632
  • Anthology for Sight Singing by Gary S. Karpinski, ISBN 978-0393973822

Search another word or see P:earon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature