Listen Up – Examining the overlooked skill of ear training

When’s the last time you’ve practiced the skill of listening?

A chef can taste a soup, and know that someone put rosemary in it. A mechanic can listen to a car engine, and tell if the valve train needs work. But can a typical rock guitarist listen to the song he or she is playing, and identify the chord voicing the keyboard player is using? Does this same six-string player pay attention to the chemistry between the kick drum pattern and the bass line?

Listening – it’s probably the most overlooked facet of musicianship.

A lot of guitarists hone their skills in the isolation of their practice room, and then take this sense of separateness with them to the bandstand. But as we know, a band is a living, breathing, very organic entity. For a musician in a band to fully understand the situation he or she is in, listening is essential.

As listening is such a broad term, I’ve broken it down into several different categories.

Harmonic listening would refer to hearing the chords, intervals, and tonalities of the moment. Harmonic listening is vital to surviving sitting in on a gig, and especially to acing auditions. In plain English, being able to tell what chord the bass player is implying is very helpful if you’d care to play in the same key as the rest of the band. And bandleaders prefer people to play in at least a similar key!

Dynamic listening refers to listening to the song as a whole. How does your volume level fit in? Is it too loud, or too soft? And are you listening to the actual tone emanating from your guitar? Remember that the goal of a musician is to play cleanly, and musically.

Objective listening, or “playing for the song” can be a tough pill to swallow. It’s the act of determining what the song needs. Does it really need those swept arpeggios and furious tapping? If you can step back, listen to the song as a whole, and honestly answer yes, than go for it! And if the answer is no, be a selfless musician and leave it out. As a side note, playing for the song doesn’t mean throwing technique out the window. I hear musicians who couldn’t improvise to save their backwards-mullets-emo-haircuts use that excuse all the time. “I just play for the song, man.” But sometimes a burst of fire is exactly what is missing in an arrangement. So, if the song in question needs shredding, add it. If it doesn’t, then don’t. You must first objectively determine that by employing objective listening.

Communicative listening is where things get fun. It’s the process of communicating with the other musicians. For example, how the rhythm section is grooving? How is the conga player approaching the sixteenth notes? A good communicative listener can turn a mediocre gig into something stellar. In addition, if one wants to lock in with the rhythm section (and that’s a given), communicative listening is essential.

Now that we’ve got a better grasp on the different skills of a good ear, how do we develop them? Some of the topics outlined above can be practiced at home. Others are best learned on the bandstand, as terrifying as that might seem.

Harmonic listening can be developed in the practice room, via diligent practice with books, recordings, computer programs, etc. The good news is that learning to recognize intervals, scales, and chords can be accomplished at home, and often with free software and web sites. I have several such sites linked on my webpage.

I suggest that you start with learning to recognize different intervals. Move on to scales, and then, chords. After all, a scale is a series of intervals, and a chord is those same intervals played simultaneously. Ricci Adams has an excellent web site at with plenty of free ear trainers on just these very subjects.

Dynamic listening is the process of awareness. The next time you sit down to practice, pay special attention to your sound. Is it too thin? Thick? Are you a shredder who likes to sound like a pack of mosquitoes? Maybe that’s why you’re not getting the gigs you want. Fiddle with that gear, and dial it in just right.

Remember, your sound will change when your volume does, and especially when there’s a drummer involved. You’d be surprised at how few musicians pay serious attention to their tone when they’re playing. Start listening to your own sound, and you’ll have a significant edge in the field.

Objective listening is a skill that can be developed many ways. One of the best is to listen to skillfully arranged music. Pop tunes are great here, but if you’re looking for something with a more sinister edge, I suggest listening to an Ozzy Osbourne album. Ok, ok, I’m forcing my personal music tastes on you here. However, in my opinion, Ozzy’s songs present a great blend of dazzling guitar pyrotechnics and solid riffs while still remembering the guitarists’ role of supporting the vocalist when he or she is singing. Other genres outside of rock also present a great learning opportunity, as the guitar parts in these songs are usually a bit more “slick” and subtle – witty one liner jokes of the musical world.

On a philosophical note, objective listening insight can also be gained from everyday interactions and conversations. Do you really consider your latest complaint a valuable addition to the conversation you’re having with a friend? If it does, then say it. And if it doesn’t – leave it out.

Communicative listening is best practiced with at least one other musician. Trading licks in a non-threatening fashion is an ideal way to get better, especially if you jam with a more advanced musician. I’ve learned volumes in this way.

And of course, the best way to do business here is to jump in way over your head, and join a band that you can barely hang with. Your ear will develop, or you’ll lose the gig. It’s a great way to learn! I call it “The All Terrain Vehicle Gymnastic Educational Method.” Put simply, either you succeed at doing a back flip on an ATV, or you don’t! And the same goes with joining a band that’s above your skill level.

So next time you’re around other musicians, start to listen with a vengeance. Don’t “zone out” – Listen up!