Grow Your Ears With The Net

Ear training is a crucial part of your guitar education. If you can’t hear, you can’t play. And you sure as sugar can’t hear your neighbor yelling at you to turn your amp down.

And besides your upset neighbor, there are much better reasons for doing some form of ear training. Actually, there may be only one, true reason for building your ear: it allows you to get more enjoyment from making music.

If you don’t learn to recognize what’s happening in a piece of music when you hear it, you’re missing out on the whole point of making music: to create those sonic vibrations that make you and others feel good. An ear that can’t tell the difference between a major sixth interval and a perfect fourth interval, and that can’t figure out at least simple melodies, is like having a mouth with no taste buds: you’ll never get the flavor. But, at least with food, what you eat will nourish your body. With a tin ear, you’ll get no nourishment at all.

Do I hear a protest? Do I hear you saying you can’t train your ear, or that you don’t have an ear for music? Developing a musical ear is not, not, not! a question of innate, God-given ability! It’s a question of your desire to make music. Don’t take my word for it: give Jamie Andreas a visit. Read the article on her site: Natural Talent. Then, read some more, at Troy Stetina’s excellent series of articles at Guitar Instruction: Help and Advice.

Everyone can develop their musical ear. And the reason to do it is simply to enjoy your music making more.

Now that we know why to get some ear training, where can we get some?

The Internet is loaded with resources to help your ear bark, sit up, play dead, and fetch the paper. You could even use these resources to identify the sounds you hear in music. Imagine!

What do you look for in a good ear training resource? How do you know if a particular resource is helping you recognize important musical elements? Here are some criteria for an ideal ear training resource. Use this list to help you determine if a book, CD, play-along, or garden vegetable is useful for building your ears.

Essential elements

The ideal ear training resource should

– train your ears with music, and not just individual notes. In fact, it should have more than just chords, too. When an ear training resource plays sounds for you and asks you to recognize them, a passerby who hears the sound ought to be able to say, “Oh: that’s music

  • It should be fun.
  • It should be challenging.
  • It should keep score — including showing your score from one session to another. Wouldn’t it be cool to look back five months ago, at your inability to identify a major second from a major sixth, and compare it to the 99.9% you now get in identifying all intervals?
  • It should test you on harmonies, rhythms, and melodies.
  • It should be interactive.
  • It should produce sounds that you can’t predict.
  • It should have a limit on the amount of time you get to respond. After all, when you’re actually making music, you usually need to hit the right notes at the right time,” true?
  • It should allow you to respond with different input devices — guitar, piano, kazoo, etc. Ideally, it should allow you to sing your answers. The next most important instrument is a keyboard (for pianos, not for computers). Everyone (including “non-musicians”!) ought to play some piano.

When you’re studying for a music degree in college, no matter what instrument you play, you probably have to take an intro keyboard class.

Ideally, an ear trainer would also let you respond with a guitar. (Did you know that MIDI guitars exist now?)

Where to look

Now, where can you find an ear trainer that meets at least some of these ideal qualities?

One place is here: The Improviser. This is free software called the Improviser. (Say with a game show host baritone. “A new car!”) There’s even a tutorial presentation that shows you how to use it.

The Improviser is fun, free, interactive, provides random questions, quizzes you with music instead of meaningless, out-of-context tones, and will cut your toenails if you ask nicely.

How does the Improviser help train my ear?

The Improviser builds your musical ear by pretending it’s a guitar teacher who throws some notes your way. You respond to these notes by playing your own notes.

There’s no guesswork about which notes you have to play. After you listen to a few of the melodies that the Improviser creates, you’ll be able to predict how they finish, once the “teacher” starts playing a new melody. This ability to predict the melody note, to hear it before you play it, is the goal of all ear training.

If you find yourself unable to answer the musical questions that the Improviser puts to you, it doesn’t mean that you have no musical ear; you do have one. You need only develop it with tools more geared to beginners. One such tool is the online Ear Trainer.

Ear training with the web

Of course, there are lots of other ear training resources that have some of the ideal qualities in the list. But, it could be tough to find ear trainers that have all ’em.

Your best shot for the most effective ear trainer might just be a good old-fashioned human being. I know they don’t make ’em like they used to, but kick the tires, give one a test drive and…Seriously: ask your guitar teacher what kind of ear training he or she has done, and get him or her to write up and work through a program for you.

At the very least, a good teacher should help you train your ear by helping you play songs by ear, and by harmonizing melodies. You can learn how to harmonize a melody with Guitar Chords, which you can download.

Now on to the juicy stuff: where can you find cool, free ear training tools on the web? Start with these links:

The Ear Trainer. Highly recommended. Drills you on intervals, chords, scales, cadences, jazz chords, note location, and perfect pitch.

WholeNote’s ear training exercises.

Guitar Noise articles, including this one: Happy New Ear by David Hodge.

Doing ear training with (free) software

Transcription is an excellent form of ear training. It meets many of the criteria for a good ear trainer, given in the list above. Transcription is basically just listening to a tune and writing down what notes and chords you think are in that tune. You might also call it “playing by ear.”

The usual way of playing by ear is to sit down with your guitar and your favorite tune on a CD or tape, listen to a bit of the tune, and maybe play or sing some notes against it. This can feel very rewarding when you “get it,” and also can get frustrating if the tune is fast or has complex chords.

How can you make this transcription process easier? For one thing, you could take a more holistic and rewarding approach called Co-composing. Read How to Co-compose in Transcription: the Hows and Whys.

It would also be great if you could slow down a tune so you could hear every nook, cranny, note and chord. This is kind of tough to do with a CD or most tape players. Even if you could slow down a tune this way, the pitch changes, so you end up playing in another key, which could involve re- tuning your guitar. This is messy.

There are programs that make this a little less messy for you: they let you slow down a recording of your favorite tune so you can hear what’s going on. One such program is called Slow Gold.

As cool as Slow Gold is, we want to focus on free stuff, right? So, back to our question: how do you slow down a recording as much as you want without losing the original pitches? Answer: MIDI files.

Transcription and playing by ear though MIDI is a practical, fun way of doing ear training. Here’s what you need to do it:

  • an app that plays MIDI files, whose play speed you can control
  • a MIDI file of a favorite tune
  • a way of seeing the notes in the MIDI file, so you can check what you think you hear with what’s actually being played. Let’s call this the Note Viewer.

Where can we get these tools? You probably already have a MIDI player on your system. But, it probably can’t change the playback tempo. Stay tuned for a player that can. We’ll get to it in a few paragraphs.

Where do you get the MIDI file? For starters, try this simple search on “moon river MIDI” (Any snickers about that, and I’ll turn your guitar into a Twinkie.)

Or, in Altavista’s advanced search, enter “link:moonriver.mid” (without the quotations).

Remember to have your virus programs up and running when digging around for strange files like this! (There’s an excellent, free virus scanner called AVG.)

How do you see the notes?

Now for the next tool in your “playing by ear” toolbox: the Note Viewer. What exactly is this and where can you find one for free?

The Note Viewer takes as input the MIDI file, and gives output in the form of notes you can see,” whether that form is tablature, standard notation, text, or ancient Sumerian Cuneiform.

Great, but, where do you find such a beast? You have a number of options here. One of ’em is a piece of freeware called Power Tab.

Power Tab

Power Tab is great for learning songs by ear. For one thing, it shows you where on the fretboard to play the notes and chords of a tune. You’ll appreciate this feature especially when you want to learn a tune written originally for a piano or other instrument besides the guitar.

Midget Freeware

Another application that shows you the notes you’re transcribing is Midget.

Midget, Beta Release 3.50, available at, is a freeware tool to compose (and playback) MIDI music.

I downloaded and tested Midget with no problem. Yet, the developer reported to me that it crashes on his system. So, be aware that it is a beta version.

Midget has a fairly intuitive interface, doesn’t take up too much hard drive space (about a 700K download), and most important for our purposes, you can use it to learn tunes by ear.

Although you can use sequencing/composing software like Midget to see the notes in a MIDI file, I want you to realize there are other tools for seeing these notes.

Other options

A friendly fella by the name of Jeff Glatt wrote a free and highly hip tool called the MIDI disassembler. Its name tells you what it does pretty accurately: it reads in a MIDI file, and spits out a text file showing every note and MIDI event. Get the details and download here.

Option ABC

If you’ve been reading the Guitar Study newsletter, you might recall another freeware tool that could help you transcribe tunes in MIDI files: ABC software.

Here’s a quick reminder of what ABC is. It’s a form of music notation, different from standard notation and tablature, that is extremely easy to read. For example, an A note is written as “A.” It doesn’t get much easier than that.

For more info on ABC, see this newsletter.

How does ABC notation help you transcribe MIDI tunes? Answer: Freeware. You can use freeware applications that convert music from one of the music notation systems — standard notation, tablature, and ABC — to another. For example, you can get an application to convert ABC notation into MIDI files.

You can also use some ABC apps to do the opposite: convert from MIDI to ABC. That’s what we want to transcribe our MIDI tune with.

The basic procedure is to feed the MIDI file you want to see the notes for, to an app that converts from MIDI to ABC. You’ll get a text file, written in easy-to-read ABC notation, that shows you exactly what notes your ears think they’re hearing.

Your job

No matter what software you use to do ear training, remember that the most important piece of software is the one in your head. Always listen first, then write what you think is being played on the recording. The very last step in this process is using software to check your hunches.

Copyright Darrin Koltow. All rights reserved.