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.
Those with access to a piano follow the steps labeled [A], guitar [B], and single pitch instruments (horns, etc.) [C]. Those at the keyboard [A] will use the eraser side of a pencil to strike the keys with eyes closed. Others [B, C] will need to tape record and document a set number of examples (50-100), and repeat this for several days until you have many ready for use. The exercise begins by sounding a cadence in C major. This should be repeated [A] or recorded [B, C] before each example. Play the chords C – F – G7 – C [A, B] or arpeggiate them [C] as in c-e-g, f-a-c, g-b-d-f, c-e-g. The purpose here is to fix the tonality of “C” firmly in your mind. All other pitches will then be heard relative to C.
Once the tonality is established, sound a note. The note may be repeated in a slow, steady rhythm until an attempt is made to identify it. When striking a note with the eraser side of a pencil [A], try to do so in a way that will keep the pencil from slipping off of a black key. Make sure you aim towards the middle or back of the keyboard area to allow for the sounding of all 12 notes. For those recording [B, C], 5-10 soundings should be sufficient, since examples can be replayed if needed. If you can correctly identify the pitch, move on to another. If you find this easy (75-90% correct), move to 2, then 3, then 4 notes. Pianists [A] may use 2 pencils in each hand. After this, everybody [A, B, C] is either recording examples or working with a partner (highly recommended and fun).
The real benefits of this exercise actually occur when pitches are incorrectly identified. By executing the following procedure, your ability to hear and name pitches in relation to tonal centers and intervals will steadily improve. First, re-sound the cadence until the tonality is fixed. Next sound the pitch(es) you named, and move back and forth between the cadence and the note(s) until you feel you have clarified the way the two interact. Then repeat this process with the pitch(es) originally sounded until the same clarity occurs. Ear training can be very subjective, so you may find impressions or relationships not apparently logical which help solidify the sound for you. Musicians have associated sound with many personalized characteristics, including color, emotion, memories, and suggestions of certain melodies or harmonies. These tend to be the impressions that stick with you, so be open to them.
This exercise works by learning from our ‘mistakes’, which are always excellent teachers if we listen carefully. Just like in practicing your instrument, consistency is the key to advancement. Try to incorporate ear training into your practice routine 3 – 5 times a week, and don’t wait for a 100% correct rate before moving to a higher level of difficulty. This progressive approach will keep your learning pace more steady. Especially now, use your ears, and happy drilling!
I originally learned these concepts from Charlie Banacos.
Frank Singer has been a working musician since graduating from Berklee in 1980, teaching privately and in the classroom, performing in clubs and concert halls, and composing, arranging, recording and producing, both for his own groups and for professional clients.