Music is sound. Sound is heard. If you want to get good at playing music, naturally, you need to “have a good ear” as they say.
When you’re able to recognize what’s happening in the music you hear, you pick up on songs faster. When you realize what other musicians around you are playing, you play with others better. When you can translate ideas you hear in your head to the guitar fretboard, you can be creative more easily.
For these reasons, it’s not hard to see why so many guitarists are interested in ear training. Guitarists want to get good, and they believe ear training exercises will help them become a better player. However, I think most guitarists have the wrong idea about how ear training should work.
Most ear training exercises aim to improve how well you identify music pitches and intervals. In these exercises, you play games that require you to listen to tones, name notes, and so on. While there is some value to this type of ear training, time spent on it is not likely to produce the results most guitarists are seeking.
The Best Way to Train Your Ear
If your goal is to be a better guitar player, then you need to focus on playing. For this reason, the best way to train your ear is to play songs and get to know how music theory works on the fretboard.
Train Your Ear by Playing Songs
Perhaps you’ve never considered this, but the more you play songs, the more you train your ear, even when no particular emphasis is put on training your ear. This is why guitarists who have a lot of experience playing in bands can play by ear so well. They get so used to the sound of the songs they play that they quickly pick up on similar songs when they hear them. They recognize what they hear because they have played it many times before.
Music Theory Ear Training
Getting to know a bit of music theory improves how you hear things too. For example, when you understand the number sequence used to play chord progressions, you can listen to a brand new song on the radio and say, “Oh, that’s 1-4-5.” When you get to know the scale patterns used to play guitar solos, you can listen to a guitar solo for the first time and think, “That’s the minor pentatonic scale.” When it comes to recognizing what you hear in music, knowing is half the battle.
Ear, Mind, Hand Connection
When you learn practical music theory and play lots of songs, something else happens. You develop what I call an ear/mind/hand connection. This connection involves you hearing music with your ear, knowing what to expect based on your knowledge of theory, and feeling what it’s like to play something on the fretboard. It’s a funny thing, but sometimes I’m not sure which notes I hear in a piece of music, but my fingers know where to go on the fretboard! It seems my hands have a mind (and ears) of their own.
I stopped wasting time on traditional ear training exercises years ago. I found theory and playing songs to be far more helpful. I recognize what I hear based on my song repertoire and understanding of music, not ear training exercises. I can’t always immediately identify the notes I hear in music, but put a guitar in my hand, and I’ll find them in seconds. I may not know the key of a song just by listening, but I recognize the chord movement, and I can figure out the key quickly. I may not be able to name the notes in a guitar lick just by listening, but I recognize the scale, and my fingers have an idea of what to do.
Long story short, I’m not interested in impressing people with how well I score on an ear test. I’m interested in impressing people with how well I play with a guitar in my hand.
If you enjoy ear training exercises, don’t let me stop you from having fun. Go ahead and add exercises to your practice routine. Just keep in mind that no exercise can substitute for playing real music on the guitar in the form of songs.
What do you think will happen if you were to learn how to play a dozen popular guitar riffs played in the minor pentatonic scale? You would quickly recognize other minor pentatonic riffs when you heard them!
What do you think will happen if you were to learn how to play a dozen familiar songs based on a 1-5-6-4 chord progression? You would quickly pick up on other songs that use the same chord changes!
Are you having trouble creating guitar solos? Learn how to play a dozen guitar solos from famous songs and then see if you don’t suddenly “hear” all kinds of ideas to add to your solos.
Thx, Desi. Appreciate your continued emphasis on *playing*, and experiencing the music, and letting it become part of and direct your playing.
The phenomenon where the fingers “somehow” know where to go started happening to me this year. It was also this year that I began a more serious study of guitar theory, so I believe it’s true there is a connection there!
Yep. For sure.
Hey Desi, I love you’re cerebral, organized, concept based approach to teaching. You’ve done a great service to guitar music education! I discovered you while trolling through the endless number of misguided; “put your 1st finger on the g string 2nd fret” type videos, looking for a theoretical breakdown/analysis of EJ’s “Cliffs of Dover”. Finding your column was a breath of fresh air 😉
All that said, I disagree with your dismissal of more “traditional” ear training and its benefits.. The ability to hear & identify the intervallic relationship between pitches. And also know/distinguish the various chord types as they’re being heard either by other instrumentalists or via recordings.. IMHO is an absolute essential! Although, I’ts the more experienced/advanced player I have in mind
I agree that the ability to identify pitches and chord types is important, I just don’t think that “traditional” ear training is the best way to accomplish that for most guitar players. Most guitar players pick up on intervals, chord qualities, and progressions more naturally when they focus on playing and analyzing songs. Most people enjoy that more too.