Ear training is one of the most important and neglected aspects of being an effective musician. When you train your ears, youre able to know whats going on with the musicians around you, and youre able to hear the melodies in your head and make them real.
Here come a few simple exercises you can do to increase your ear training. Theyre really important. Theyre more important than doing finger exercises or anything else. Its more important to do these exercises than it is to know music theory, to be able to read music, to be able to produce it, or anything. With it comes an overall understanding of what music is. Its all in the development of your ears.
There are a lot of ways to develop your ears. On a very simple level, you could just strum a chord and sing. Let your voice gravitate toward melodies that you feel are inspired. Many guitar players are more apt to sing something melodic than they are to play something melodic.
Listen to the melodies that come to you. Next, recreate what youve sung on the guitar. Take the melody, with all its enunciations and inflections, and play it on your instrument. As you get better at recreating the melodies, try to sing along while you play a solo. Remember to put the melody ahead of what your fingers are doing. Youre not trying to sing what youre playing youre trying to play what youre singing. It may take a really long time to do this effectively, but singing along to a chord is the first step, and you have to be able to do it.
Another exercise is to play a note on the guitar, sing another note, and then play the note that you just sang. Thats really important in developing eyes on your fingers. There are a lot of blocks between your head and your fingers, and this is another surefire way of knocking down those blocks.
The Human Harmonizer
This ones tricky but its great for ear training. Try singing a fixed harmony to the notes you play on the guitar. For example, lets say youre going to sing notes a 3rd higher than the notes you play on guitar; if you play an A, sing a C#.
Now solo, and keep that interval of a 3rd going with your vocal over all the notes youre playing on the guitar. Heres an example. [Editors note: Guitar part is heard in your left speaker; vocal part, heard in your your right speaker, is represented here with a flute patch.]
Chromatic passage with major 3rd interval sung above guitar part
Chromatic passage with major 5th interval sung above guitar part
If you get really good, you can sing an interval like a 2nd.
Chromatic passage with major 2nd interval sung above guitar part
These examples all show harmonies sung above the guitar part. Try singing some below the guitar part. Also try harmonizing within one key, and then try harmonizing over changes that shift between keys. Try adding vocal and guitar harmonies to songs you know.
Another great exercise is to get a cassette player or whatever you record on and drill yourself on chord recognition. This ones good for long car rides. Record an entire hour of yourself strumming only major and minor chords. Strum a major chord, let it ring, and then wait a second. Then record yourself saying, Major. Next, strum a minor chord, wait a second and say, Minor. Mix up the order as you go. To test yourself, listen back to the tape and guess what the quality of the chord is during the pause. You guess what the chord quality is, and then youre either affirmed or corrected. Dont worry about the letter name yet, just listen for the quality.
Once you can hear major from minor without a single error, do another recording and throw in 6 chords. Then 9 chords. Whatever you can think of, and whenever you can lay it down, create another tape. Youll be shocked at how valuable this exercise is to your ears when it comes to playing and writing. Youll be able to identify what minor 7 chords sound like, and differentiate between dominant 7 chords, 9 chordseverything.
Test of 10
Think you already know chordal qualities cold? Heres a test with 10 different chords. Listen to the sound clip here and quickly jot down the chord quality of each chord you hear. Answers are found at the bottom of this lesson.
Once you get really good at the chords, move on to voicings. Record another tape of yourself strumming chords a little more slowly, arpeggiating almost, and then record yourself saying what the chord voicing is. Youll get to the point where youll hear this chord
and say it correctly: 1, flat 7, 3, 4.
Eventually youll hear music in your head and know what it is without playing out loud. When youre comping, writing or soloing, youll know exactly what chord to play next because you will have already heard it and mapped it out in your head.
Dark Room, Bright Ideas
Heres another exercise I used to do with a friend. Wed sit in a dark room, and hed have a guitar. Hed just put his fingers on the guitar and make up some weird chord or funny sound. Hed play it, and Id sit there for a moment and imagine what kind of a scene Im hearing from this chord. Id imagine some story or scenario in my head. It was a blast. It was a complete exercise of the imagination, and yet it helps color your own songs when you write.
For the answers to the Test of 10 click here.
Also be sure to check out Steve Vai's other "Hands and Heart" lessons:
Note that the audio examples in Hands & Heart do not feature Steve Vai performances. They have been provided by our editors to demonstrate the concepts Steve is teaching.