Ear training

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Ear training or aural skills is a skill by which musicians learn to identify, solely by hearing, pitches, intervals, melody, chords, rhythms, and other basic elements of music. The application of this skill is analogous to taking dictation in written/spoken language. As a process, ear training is in essence the inverse of sight-singing, the latter being analogous to reading a written text aloud without prior opportunity to review the material. Ear training is typically a component of formal musical training.

Functional pitch recognition[edit]

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 solfège, e.g. do, re, mi, etc. Functional pitch recognition emphasizes the role of a pitch with respect to the tonic, while fixed-do solfège symbols are labels for absolute pitch values (do=C, re=D, etc., in any key). In the fixed-do system (used in the conservatories of the Romance language nations, e.g. Paris, Madrid, Rome, as well as the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute in the USA), solfège symbols do not describe the role of pitches relative to a tonic, but rather actual pitches. In the movable-do system, there happens to be a correspondence between the solfège symbol and a pitch's role. However there is no requirement that musicians associate the solfège 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 solfège symbols.

Functional pitch recognition has several strengths. Since a large body of music is tonal, the technique is widely applicable. Since reference pitches are not required, music may be broken up by complex and difficult to analyze pitch clusters, for example, a percussion sequence, and pitch analysis may resume immediately once an easier to identify pitch is played, for example, by a trumpet—no need to keep track 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 over many octaves is irrelevant.

Functional pitch recognition has some weaknesses. Music with no tonic or ambiguous tonality[1] does not provide the frame of reference necessary for this type of analysis. When dealing with key changes, a student must know how to account for pitch function recognition after the key changes: retain the original tonic or change the frame of reference to the new tonic. This last aspect in particular, requires an ongoing real-time (even anticipatory) analysis of the music that is complicated by modulations and is the chief detriment to the movable-do system.

Interval recognition[edit]

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.[2] However, others have shown that such familiar-melody associations are quite limited in scope, applicable only to the specific scale-degrees found in each melody.[3] Here are some examples for each interval:

unisonHappy Birthday to You[4]
La Marseillaise[5]
Hava Nagila[6]
Jingle Bells[7]
America the Beautiful (on oh beautiful)'[8]
minor secondTheme from Jaws[citation needed]
Nice Work If You Can Get It[citation needed]
As Time Goes By[citation needed]
Stella by Starlight[citation needed]
Joy to the World[9]
Für Elise[10]
The Sailor's Hornpipe[citation needed]
major secondFrère Jacques[11]
Silent Night[12]
Never Gonna Give You Up[13]
Strangers in the Night[citation needed]
Mary Had a Little Lamb[citation needed]
Three Blind Mice'[14]
Satin Doll[citation needed]
The First Noel[15]
So What[citation needed]
minor thirdAxel F (the Beverly Hills Cop theme song)[citation needed]
Cowboys From Hell[citation needed]
Smoke on the Water[citation needed]
O Canada[17]
The Impossible Dream[citation needed]
So Long, Farewell[citation needed]
Oh where, oh where has my little dog gone[citation needed]
Iron Man by Black Sabbath[citation needed]
Theme from Rocky[citation needed]
Brahms's Lullaby[18]

Hey Jude[citation needed]
The Star-Spangled Banner[19]
Frosty the Snowman[citation needed]
Theme to Hook[citation needed]
This Old Man[20] or I Love You, You Love Me from Barney & Friends[21]}
Ring Around the Rosy[citation needed]
major thirdWhen the Saints Go Marching In[citation needed]
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks[citation needed]
Spring from Vivaldi's Four Seasons[22]
Kumbaya[citation needed]
I Could Have Danced All Night[citation needed]
Summertime[citation needed]
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot [23]
Westminster Quarters[citation needed]
Goodnight, Ladies"[citation needed]
Symphony No. 5 (first movement)[24]

Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow's Route 1 Theme[citation needed]

perfect fourthTaps[citation needed]
Auld Lang Syne[citation needed]
O Tannenbaum[citation needed]
Apache[citation needed]
Here Comes the Bride[citation needed]
Amazing Grace[citation needed]
Constant Motion by Dream Theater[citation needed]
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata[citation needed]
Eine kleine Nachtmusik[citation needed]
Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)
Theme From Dynasty[citation needed]
Theme From A-Team[citation needed]
tritoneMaria (West Side Story)[citation needed]
The Saint[citation needed]
The Simpsons Theme[citation needed]
listen,learn,read on (chorus)[citation needed]
YYZ[citation needed]
Turn Back Oh Man[citation needed]
Black Sabbath[citation needed]
perfect fifthTwinkle Twinkle Little Star[citation needed]
My Favorite Things[citation needed]
Scarborough Fair[citation needed]
Also sprach Zarathustra[citation needed]
Theme from Star Wars[citation needed]
Diary of Jane - Breaking Benjamin[citation needed]
Can't Help Falling in Love (on Wise Men)[citation needed]
Seven Steps to Heaven[citation needed]
What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?[citation needed]
Swan Lake[citation needed]
The Flintstones Theme[citation needed]
Back to the Future Theme[citation needed]
Copacabana[citation needed]
minor sixthBashana Haba'ah[citation needed]
Bei Mir Bistu Shein[citation needed]
Black Orpheus[citation needed]
Conquest of Paradise, Vangelis, Theme of 1492[citation needed]
Pity and Fear (Death Cab for Cutie Song)[citation needed]
saxophone hook from Baker Street[citation needed]
A Change of Seasons I. The Crimson Sunrise - Dream Theater (second and fourth notes)
The Entertainer (big interval after pick-up)[citation needed]
Because (The Beatles song)[citation needed]
You're Everything[citation needed]
Where Do I Begin? (Theme from the movie Love Story)[citation needed]

Across the Stars, Anakin and Padme love theme from Star Wars II.

major sixthMy Bonnie Lies over the Ocean[citation needed]
NBC Theme Song[citation needed]
Leia's Theme (from Star Wars)[citation needed]
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear[citation needed]
Jingle Bells (on "dashing" through the snow)[citation needed]
America the Beautiful (on "America," America)[citation needed]
My Way (song)[citation needed]
volta la carta (verse)[citation needed]
All Blues[citation needed]
A Weaver of Dreams[citation needed]
Take the A-Train[citation needed]
Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen[citation needed]
The Music of the Night[citation needed]
Over There[citation needed]
minor seventhTheme from Star Trek[citation needed]
Somewhere (West Side Story)[citation needed]
Embers Fire (Paradise Lost)[citation needed]
The Take Over, The Breaks Over (Fall Out Boy)[citation needed]
Watermelon Man[citation needed]
An American in Paris[citation needed]
Lady Jane (refrain)[citation needed]
major seventhTake on Me[citation needed]
Pure Imagination[citation needed]
Theme from Fantasy Island[citation needed]
What's New Pussycat?
I Love You[citation needed]

Superman Theme

octaveOver the Rainbow[citation needed]
Blue Bossa[citation needed]
The Christmas Song[citation needed]
Sweet Child O' Mine[citation needed]
Let It Snow[citation needed]
Purple Haze intro[citation needed]
How Many More Times[citation needed]
My Sharona[citation needed]
Willow Weep For Me[citation needed]
Doogie Howser, M.D. Theme[citation needed]
To Zanarkand, Final Fantasy X[citation needed]
Bulls on Parade intro[citation needed]

In addition, there are various systems (including solfeggio, 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.

Chord recognition[edit]

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 one another in the context of a piece of music.

Microtonal chord and interval recognition[edit]

The process is similar to twelve-tone ear training, but with many more intervals to distinguish. Aspects of microtonal ear training are covered in Harmonic Experience, by W. A. Mathieu, with sight-singing exercises, such as singing over a drone, to learn to recognize just intonation intervals. There are also software projects underway or completed geared to ear training or to assist in microtonal performance.

Gro Shetelig at The Norwegian Academy of Music is working on the development of a Microtonal Ear Training method for singers[25] and has developed the software Micropalette,[26] a tool for listening to microtonal tones, chords and intervals. Aaron Hunt at Hi Pi instruments has developed Xentone,[27] another tool for microtonal ear training.

Rhythm recognition[edit]

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[edit]

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. The teacher may also perform short compositions, with the student listening and transcribing the piece onto paper in a practice known as dictation.

Software training methods[edit]

Accurate identification and reproduction of musical intervals, scales, chords, rhythms, and other aspects of ear training often can require a great deal of practice. Exercises involving identification often require a knowledgeable partner to play the questions and validate the answers. Software specialized for music theory can remove the need for a partner, customize the training to the users needs and accurately track scores and progress. University music departments often license commercial software for their students such as EarMaster,[28] Auralia[29][30][31] and MacGAMUT,[32] allowing them to track and manage student scores on a computer network. A variety of free software also exists both as browser based applications and downloadable executables. For example, free and open source software under the GPL such as GNU Solfege can provide many comparable features to popular proprietary products.[citation needed] The majority of ear training software are MIDI based, allowing the user to customize the instruments that play and even accept input from MIDI compatible devices such as electronic keyboards. TrainEar, MusTeacH and TheMelodyMaster are recent browser-based ear trainers. TrainEar specifically helps associate musical intervals to songs.[33] Ear-training applications are also available for mobile phones; iTunes AppStore, Google Play and Windows Phone store have several "apps" for iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices. Piano Ear Training, Sharp Ear and Better Ears are such examples.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ For the cognitive foundations of atonality, see Humphries, Lee. “Atonality, Information, and the Politics of Perception”, Enclitic, Vol. III, No. 1 (Spring, 1979).
  2. ^ Mayfield, Connie E. (2002). Theory Essentials, Volume I: An Integrated Approach to Harmony, Ear Training, and Keyboard Skills. New York: Schirmer. ISBN 0-534-57231-6. 
  3. ^ Rogers, Michael (1983): "Beyond Intervals: The Teaching of Tonal Hearing," Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, (6):18-34
  4. ^ Mildred Hill. "Good Morning to You". Cantorion. 
  5. ^ "The Marseillaise: information and maps". france.fr. 
  6. ^ Traditional. "Hava Nagila". The Jews of Cuba. 
  7. ^ James Lord Pierpont. "Jingle Bells". Cantorion. 
  8. ^ Samuel Augustus Ward. "America the Beautiful". Cantorion. 
  9. ^ Lowell Mason. "Joy to the World". IMSLP. 
  10. ^ Ludwig van Beethoven. "Für Elise". IMSLP. 
  11. ^ Traditional. "Frère Jacques". traditional-songs.com. 
  12. ^ Franz Xaver Gruber. "Silent Night". Wikifonia. 
  13. ^ Rick Astley. "Never Gonna Give You Up". YouTube. 
  14. ^ John W. Ivimey. "Complete Version of ye Three Blind Mice". Project Gutenberg. 
  15. ^ "The First Nowell". The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. 
  16. ^ "Greensleeves". TradTunes.com. 
  17. ^ "National Anthem: O Canada". Government of Canada. 
  18. ^ Johannes Brahms. "5 Lieder, Op.49". IMSLP. 4. Wiegenlied (Berceuse). 
  19. ^ John Stafford Smith. "The Star-Spangled Banner". IMSLP. Arrangements and transcriptions. 
  20. ^ "Free Sheet Music: 'This Old Man' (Primer Level)". Piano Pronto. 
  21. ^ Scatarella, Christy. "A Big Hug Over Barney's Song". The Seattle Times. 
  22. ^ Antonio Vivaldi. "Violin Concerto in E major, RV 269". IMSLP. 
  23. ^ Harry Burleigh. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". IMSLP. 
  24. ^ Ludwig van Beethoven. "Symphony No. 5, Op. 67". IMSLP. 
  25. ^ The Concrescence Project Artistic Director Professor Lasse Thoresen, Norwegian Academy, Oslo
  26. ^ Micropalette from Concrescence
  27. ^ Xentone at Hi Pi Instruments
  28. ^ Plattsburgh State - Dr. Drew Waters
  29. ^ http://www.risingsoftware.com/auralia/ Published by Rising Software
  30. ^ Teaching Music With Technology
  31. ^ Dr. Micah Everett - ULM Division of Music - Aural Skills Course Information
  32. ^ Augustana College Music Theory courses
  33. ^ VCU Music Theory

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]