EAR TRAINING: From the Ear to the Fingerboard

Watching a musician who is able to improvise on the fly is quite incredible. 

Obviously, this skill comes from being able to play the lines that they are hearing in their head. The ability to play what we hear is one of every musicians ultimate goals. But, HOW does one get started on this path to natural musical expression?

For a guitarist, or any other instrumentalist, one of the biggest obstacles is translating the sounds that we hear in our head onto our instrument – in our case, onto the fingerboard.

When you hear a sound in your head, most musical people can quite readily open their  mouth and create that sound. The translation from the mind to the voice is quite effortless and is being done unconsciously.

Guitarists don’t have it that easy. Between our mind and our expression of a musical idea  lies the fingers, a multitude of neck patterns and technique to pull it all together. So, it may not exactly be easy to bridge the gap between our mind and the fingerboard, but we can get there. If an accomplished jazz player can do it, there must be a way, and there is... it is called, "Ear Training."

There are a variety of ear training categories – intervals, chords, scales, etc. When first getting started, one of the most important areas to focus on is intervals, since they are the fundamental building block for both scales and chords, (arpeggios).

When just starting out, it is best to keep the root of each interval you study, “fixed.” This means that the intervals you hear will always start from off of the same note. By working this way, you will get a better feel for the differences among the various intervals.

Begin with the following intervals in your training routine...

1. Prime a Single Tone: When doing this, sing the tone you've selected as your "Prime." This process is focuses on a single tone and the mastery of hearing it. Be sure to sing it. And, make sure that you sing it in tune. Once you have this tone down 100% move it to various unison locations along and around the neck. Even though it is the same note played consecutively, your ear must get used to its sound in different places on the fingerboard.

2. Major 3rd and Minor 3rd: These intervals contains 2 notes spaced either 2 whole steps apart to create a Major 3rd, (such as C to E, G to B, etc), producing a familiar uplifting, happy quality. Or, to produce the Minor 3rd, we have 2 notes spaced a tone plus a semi-tone apart. This could be related as 1 and a 1/2 steps, (such as C to Eb, F# to A, etc), producing a sad, negative or dark color of sound.

3. Perfect 5th: This interval spacing is 3 1/2 steps (C to G, G to D, etc). The so called 5th-chords (C5, D5, etc) used extensively in rock and roll are based on this interval. Sing this interval and notice the sound quality.

4. Octave – this interval consists of the same two notes played an octave (8 tones higher) apart.Sing these tones and notice the feel.

The key to developing a good ear is to come up with your own meaningful associations. You need to make it real. One of the best approaches is to associate each interval with a familiar tune. For instance, when I hear a major 3rd, I think of the song, "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In." At the beginning, the words, “Oh - When” is the Major 3rd.

I have a unique association for the perfect 5th. Those first two notes of the theme from the movie "Star Wars," are a perfect 5th apart.

When it comes down to hearing an octave, "Perfect 8," the theme from the song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," can be used. The first two notes of that famous theme, (Some - Where) are a "Perfect 8" apart.

So you get the point. Each interval needs to be personal for you. They need to evoke a response in the form of a memory.  Then, you'll associate it and be able to recall it.



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