I Was Standing, I Was Listening, for That Southern
Whistle to Blow: Ear Training for Musicians
Copyright 2003 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.
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
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.
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 didnt 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 dont 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 its strongest when you are one half step away from the note you
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
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
Continue on to Part
2 of article.
© Copyright 2003 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.