When I first began examining ear training, I remember thinking of it as being the most abstract aspect of music. At the same time it is one of the most important. It is at the core of the most complex as well as the simplest levels of musicality. Hearing, identifying and realizing sound determines ones usable musical vocabulary thus acting as a type of governor for progress.
I had the pleasure of interviewing John Elliott. He wrote the book Insights in Jazz, which provides a systematic method to analyze and recognise chord progressions. It is based on the “LEGO bricks” approach and is a highly pragmatic (rather than theoretical) way to learn to play jazz standards by ear, and in any key.
A quote from this amazing talk from TED.com: "Nobody is tone deaf."
The development of aural analytical skills is a must for anyone who desires a thorough understanding of musical form and structure. It is of course an integral part of that study we call music theory—it is the wedding of the aural experience to abstract musical constructs. As both a theorist and a theory teacher, I believe that to hear music is to analyze it and to analyze music is to understand it more fully. This I would above all like to impart to my students. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. So what is the best way to approach an ear training, or aural skills class? I have pondered that for a long time, and as a result, have developed and implemented some new strategies which I believe to be more successful than others I have used. It is these new strategies that I would like to discuss here.
Since I began playing guitar, I've always enjoyed figuring out tunes and solos of various artists. This is something any musician does, especially if they're interested in popular music (rock, blues, jazz, country, etc.), as a means of increasing their repertoire and their musical vocabulary. As a musician continues to develop, he/she may find that they can play their instrument with greater dexterity, better tone, stylistic appropriateness (taste), and spontaneity. Through time, a musician's aural skills also develop. A good ear combined with a solid musical education can not only enhance your ability to perform effectively in a variety of musical situations, but also open up a few possibilities for employment in other non-performance-oriented musical fields—like professional transcribing and arranging!
Absolute pitch, or "perfect pitch", is the ability to perceive and comprehend musical sound as though it were language. "Naming notes" is the most recognizable effect of this perception.
Absolute pitch is not a musical ability. It is a hyper-linguistic ability. But music and language are more similar than we ever thought before.
As a young person learning to improvise, I often wondered what it would be like taking music lessons with Sonny Rollins or Chick Corea, two of my favorite musicians. Imagine the incredible musical secrets they could pass on to me. However, something happens when a great improviser improvises - something that goes beyond what can be expressed in words and concepts. It's quite often the case that the improviser can't really put into musical terms how they approached playing on a particular chord change. How many times have you heard the classic response, "Oh you'll hear it". After years and years of hard work we'll no doubt, "hear it", but until that time comes, how can we get a glimpse into the art of creating great melodies? I think transcribing solos from records is a piece in this puzzle.
After my graduation from Boston's Berklee College of Music, I had the good fortune to study jazz improvisation with pianist Charlie Banacos. Many fine jazz musicians have passed through his teaching studio doors, including Mike Stern, John Novello, Jerry Bergonzi, Bruce Gertz and Les Arbuckle. Charlie taught me my favorite ear training exercise, and I would like to share it with you here.
My whole career, my whole life, has been shaped by a single, simple passion. At 20 years old, I was a bebop trumpet player and I knew nothing of the music business. I knew enough to be in Los Angeles, because that's where a lot of jazz musicians were playing and there were a lot of jazz clubs and jam sessions. I was obsessed with the trumpet playing of Clifford Brown; curious about how he could weave such beautiful lines through the chord progressions, even at fast tempos. So I started to transcribe his solos.
So what is the most important skill that most guitarists do not have? Some would claim that it is thorough knowledge of music theory. Others would say that the most important skill is creativity. Of course there are whole legions of guitarists that believe having impeccable technique is the holy grail of guitar playing. Maybe you agree with one of the statements above, or maybe you think it is something else like, songwriting, playing with others in a band or having perseverance (check out my past article on perseverance).