Fun ways of training your musical ear.
Fun ways of training your musical ear. Part 1.
I was thinking about music in general the other night as I realised that I have come to listen to background music more closely than ever. I use every opportunity to keep my ear keen and every-day background music is invaluable in this. As an aging rocker, I will be referring to pop/rock music in this article – the same rules apply to any musician in any genre though.
I was at a gig – just about to start – and was switching on all my gear while the bar-goers were being treated to some warm up music playing on the sound system. It was playing a song I liked, but have never had the occasion to play, and I began to play along with it on the still-silent keyboard in front of me. I had taken a guess that it was in Gm and as I put my headphone volume up, found that I was indeed playing along with the song in the right key. It had felt right before I put the fader up. Was that luck? Or, was part of my brain doing the listening and processing before I started playing. I’m not an expert, but I would bet that it was. I was quite chuffed to have gotten it right, especially as I had no previous musical reference to compare it to.
Let me explain a bit about what I thought was going on. In my case, I use bass as my first reference, then the piano or keyboards for the chords and finally for details and clues I may have missed, I refer to guitar parts or lead lines.
- I know that I am a closet bass player and I always listen to the bass very closely as I find I can identify the motion of a musical structure more easily this way. The intervals between bass notes are usually easier to pick up than on other instruments. (EG. The shift from C to Am on bass is a whole third down or a 6th up, whereas on piano you only need to move one finger in the right hand chord up from a G to an A)
- As a pianist, I can see the chords being played in my head as I recognise the chords hand-shape and position on an imaginary keyboard that is instantly recall-able. This comes from years of experience and many hours at the keyboard and as fortunate as I am to have it, its unfortunately not possible to switch off, (which can spoil some musical enjoyment).
- I also “mess about” on guitar and those chord sounds become visual after a while too, recognising open strings and picking patterns for example.
These techniques can be learned and today I’m going to suggest a simple exercise that you can do when you are not sat practicing the physical technicalities of your instrument, a fun way of training your musical ear. Here’s a bit of background first.
When we are formally trained as musicians from the start, apart from the “hands-on” the instrument time we get, we learn “aural” tests. These start very simply with the ability to hear one note (the musical reference I referred to earlier), then identify a preceding note played after as being “higher” or “lower” in pitch. Most people can do this straight away. From then on the exercises get progressively more difficult until at the top end, one can listen to an orchestral piece and identify each individual instrument and what it is playing.
It’s easier than ever to have some hind of musical reference on your person without too much hassle. Whether it be a mouth organ or pitch-pipes or a piano app on your smart phone, which is more likely these days, is not important, just carry something with you that you can check easily.
When you hear background music playing and if it is safe to do so just close your eyes ( don’t do this if your current task relies on sight!!!!) and try to feel the music, think how your hand shape would be if you were playing it. If you are a guitarist, think and try to identify open strings ringing. If you are a bass player, where would you be playing? Is it high up the neck, or are there lots of deep notes sounding. Is in major or minor, can you hear the root chord of the song? The important thing is not so much guessing the correct key here, but check on the musical reference anyway (piano app for ex.). If you got it wrong, don’t worry, forget about that and concentrate on where the chords are going. (You might be able to find all of the chords with regards to the key you guessed, in which case playing the song in the correct key is simply a case of transposing what you visualised.) Try to “see” the music…think about the chord changes as linear, is it going up or down?
You will find time passes really quickly when doing this. Short pop songs sound even shorter and if you are not in control of the music source, in a doctors waiting room for example, you will have to concentrate but it’s a great way to pass the time while getting some musical experience out of it.
After many years of doing this kind of thing sub-concisely I find I can score a new pop song from start to finish in just a handful of listens and in some cases can learn a whole song in my head without ever touching an instrument and be able to play it (at least its chordal structure if not the whole piano part) first time I sit at the piano afterwards.
Claude Debussy said “Music is the space between the notes.“ We are aiming to improve our ability to hear this when we do these little exercises.