A Logical Approach to Ear Training

Even Beethoven used ear training.

By Nicholas D. Lewis

The Soviet system for very early music education: divide groups of young children into those with a ‘good ear’ and those with a ‘bad ear’.  Kids with a good ear learn to play a stringed instrument; kids with a bad ear learn to play the piano.  The Soviets realized early on that the genetic propensity for developing relative or perfect pitch was important for a musician, and they were right.   Briefly, relative pitch is the ability to discern intervals, identify qualities (major, minor, diminished, augmented), and and sing melody when given a starting note; perfect pitch is the ability identify a note without a reference point.  I argue that everybody can attain relative pitch.  Today I am going to propose a new systematic approach for ear training that should be started during the early stages of musical training.

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The first stage: The first stage in ear training is to establish a basis for pitch. To do this, sound a pitch for the pupil. Tell them to think about the pitch and wait about ten seconds before playing a second pitch that is either higher or lower than the first. The student’s objective is to identify whether the second note was higher or lower than the first.  While this may sound easy, I’m always surprised how many people cannot do this at first.  And that’s OK.  This step may take anywhere from one week to a month, depending on the student.

The second stage: The second stage is called the ‘tone matching stage’. The piano is a percussive instrument, which means its sound will eventually diminish.  For this reason, it is important to be able to remember the sound of a pitch and be able to ‘audiate’ (sing) the pitch.  Like before, the teacher should play a pitch on the piano. The student should then sing that pitch. Once a student can do this perfectly with any pitch (within their range!), they are ready to move onto step three.

The third stage: The third stage is called the ‘pitch recognition stage’.  The teacher should play a given pitch-class (ex. ‘C#’), and play note over and over again, while having the pupil audiate (sing) the note aloud, and then internalize the pitch. Once the student does this, the teacher should play a set of two notes, including the pitch they have internalized.  The student should then try to identify which is the pitch that they were supposed to remember.  Once student can do this successfully many times, the teacher will move on to three notes, four notes, etc. once student can successfully pick out a given note in a set using this method, the pupil can graduate to the fourth stage.

The fourth stage: The fourth stage is called the ‘half step phase’. This stage requires the pupil to sing a half step above a given pitch.  For example, if the teacher sounds a ‘C’, the student should sing a “C#”. The reason this stage is crucial in addition to the other stages is because it establishes a basis for later stages in terms of triads and intervals. In addition it will also help a pupil’s ability to sight read. This stage will take anywhere from two weeks to four weeks from my experience.

The fifth stage: The fifth stage is the ‘whole step phase’. The procedure is the same as the previous stage.

The sixth stage: The sixth stage is called the ‘classification of intervals’. This stage helps a student identify whether an intervals is dissonant, consonant, or perfect. This will later help a student to recognize specific intervals. For this stage the teacher will play an interval and the student will classify it as either dissonant (which would of course be sevenths, seconds, and the augmented fourth though the student need not know this theoretical jargon yet), consonant (Thirds, sixths) or perfect (perfect fifth, perfect fourth, unison, and octave).  It is easy to tell the difference between dissonant intervals and non-dissonant intervals, but it can sometimes be difficult for a student tell the difference between a consonant interval and a perfect interval.  This stage can take many weeks.

The seventh stage: The seventh is the ‘harmonic tendency’ stage. The goal is for the student to be able to sing the harmonic resolutions to given intervals or (later) chords.  This stage can take several weeks to master.

The eighth stage: The eighth stage is to be able to recognize intervals based on their size. For example, being able to recognize seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, and octaves.  This stage can be difficult, so it may be useful to give the student some famous songs or jingles that utilize those intervals.  For example, something commonly used for the major sixth is the opening to the “NBC” theme.  I generally dislike this method for younger students because it is more useful for people to identify intervals instinctively rather than having to rely on remembering something else.  It is an extra step.  However, for older students, this approach may be more useful because it is more unlikely they will be able to fully internalize the sounds of intervals.

The ninth stage: The ninth stage deals with triads. At this time it is appropriate to apply the concept of the previous step to triads.

This course of study can continue now alongside regular theory training.  In more advanced stages the students can begin melodic and harmonic dictations, but the discussion of that is beyond the scope of this article, focusing on the very early stages of ear training.

Do think about it.

2 thoughts on “A Logical Approach to Ear Training

  1. I’m unclear about the third stage stage:
    “The teacher should play a given pitch-class (ex. ‘C#’), and play note over and over again, while having the pupil audiate (sing) the note aloud, and then internalize the pitch. Once the student does this, the teacher should play a set of two notes, including the pitch they have internalized. Once student can do this successfully many times, the teacher will move on to three notes, four notes, etc.”

    What exactly does the student do after the teacher plays a set of two notes?

    1. The student should identify which note they were supposed to remember out of the set. Then the teacher can move on to more notes in the set. I actually left out a sentence, thanks for bringing that to my attention. Hopefully it is more clear now.

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