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I Was Standing, I Was Listening, for That Southern Whistle to Blow: Ear Training for Musicians

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© Copyright 2003 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.

I wanted to set down some thoughts and techniques on how to train your ear. For many musicians the quest is to become one with their instrument so they can express musically whatever they are feeling inside in the moment. Years ago I had the good fortune of seeing Mark Whitman, a great Blues Guitarist out of Seattle, Washington. When I heard him, everything seemed effortless and tasty, as if chocolate cake was pouring out of his guitar. How does someone get to the place where their playing makes musical sense, has a purpose, direction and is able to communicate something with feeling?

One of the keys is to work with your singing voice as a means of improving your ability to hear music. Almost all indigenous folk music is passed on orally. The Blues, originally rooted in African music, was brought to America and then transformed from drumming, to field hollers and work songs, into piano boogies and guitar strumming. An excellent book about the genesis of the Blues is called Deep Blues by Robert Palmer, available at the Lafayette Library.

As the Blues developed and began to be recorded by artists, people who were interested in learning to play the music would either learn from each other or take records and slow them down to half speed, and learn the licks which were being played.

Fingers Have Ears. What does that mean? It means that when you play, there is a point where your fingers will eventually, intuitively know where to go to hit the sounds you are hearing inside your head. How do we transmit what is inside of us, through our fingers and out of our instrument?

A good starting place is to listen to songs and try to figure the key that it is in. Key is the same as scale. If a song is in the key of C which is made up of C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C then the melodies and chords are built out of that scale. The key is the fabric that you are going to use to make musical garments. Just as you would use cloth to make a shirt; melodies and chords are cut from a scale. If you have ever gone to a piano bar and asked a musician to play a song and they didn’t know it but said "if you hum a few bars I could fake it". They are figuring out the song by taking the melody, which implies the chord changes and the scale that both come from.

Blues songs are usually in one key and the root of that key is the foundation for the whole song. E is the root of a song in the key of E. When you listen to a tune and you don’t know what key it is in, find the tone that seems to underpin the whole song. Try to sing that tone, once it is inside you the next step is to figure out what note it actually is. Go to your instrument and pick a note and without jumping around, move chromatically up, half step by half step until the tone you are playing matches the tone you are singing with your voice.

On the guitar that means moving up one fret at a time, and on the piano, one key at a time. The important thing to remember is that you must not skip. Consistently move step by step chromatically up the ladder. The neat thing is that as you get closer, you will begin to hear something that feels like a magnetic pull. That pull or tension will increase and be at it’s strongest when you are one half step away from the note you are desiring.

Go a half step more and you will have reached the unison or same note you are singing . It would be like returning home and having a feeling of relief and comfort. Home Sweet Home!
After you have found the key of a song the next step is to figure out the chord changes. If it is a 1/4/5 progression then it should be pretty easy. Just count up. For example if a song is in the key of C, then the 4 chord will be F and the 5 chord will be G.

Many times however, there are other chords that are not as easy to figure out. One thing that I try to work with is listening for the bass tone of that chord. What is the Bass player playing? Often they are playing the root of the chord.

Next try to figure out some of the licks that are being played. Just as you would figure out the key of a song, the first thing to do is to sing the beginning note of a phrase. Through the process of moving up chromatically you can find that note on your instrument, and from there you can move on to the next note. A lot of times licks can be played faster than your ear can comprehend. I recommend getting a tape recorder that plays tapes at half speed. When a recording is played at half speed everything will sound one octave lower.

The distance between one note to another is called an interval. In the key of C, C to D is a second, C to E is a third and on up to C to B which is a 7th. The repeat of C to C at the top is called an octave. A good way to strengthen your ear is to practice singing and playing intervals. The way to do this is to pick a starting note on your instrument and then sing whatever interval you are trying to learn. After you have sung the interval then you can check it with your instrument to make sure you got that note right. A good way to remember certain intervals is to associate them with key phrases from songs that you know. For example, a fifth or C to G is the same as the first two notes from the theme to Star Wars. A fourth or C to F is Here Comes The Bride.

To expand on this exercise; pick a starting note on your instrument, then sing a phrase you would like to be able to play. Try to play what you have just sung. If you are able to play it back note for note then you are getting closer to being able to play what is inside you. This will take lots of practice. I suggest that you start by singing simple phrases at first, that focus on only a few intervals.

Other ways to train your ear are to pick songs that you can sing and are familiar with like Amazing Grace, Here Comes the Bride, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Then figure out how to play that song on your instrument. Once you have learned it in one key, put it into another. Putting songs in different keys is great practice and it forces you into different positions as well. In our music system we have 12 keys. Many great players have done this to develop their playing.

I hope some of these exercises can help you improve your ability to hear more and increase your ability to play what you have inside you. If you have any questions please write to me at

Continue on to Part 2 of article.

© Copyright 2003 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.