Ear training is a ubiquitous concept within a musician’s vernacular, but often the quest for the acquisition of “good ears” is filled with a road of misinformation from post to pillar.  Many approaches and mixed opinions exist: some espouse you must be able to hear intervals; some say that you should develop perfect pitch; some advocate learning the first two notes in a song and singing them to recognize the pitches; some advise sight singing melodies; some state the only way is through transcription, while others insist that musical dictation is the key.  With many different sources all endorsing alternative methods to understand pitch recognition, one thing is very clear- the up and coming bass guitarist often becomes frustrated and confused because, although all of these methods mentioned hold some value on the surface, they only allow the student to hear the individual pitch and/or the distance between pitches- NOT how they relate to a given key center.  This is what is known as Relative Pitch.

Relative Pitch, succinctly put is based on developing pitch recognition that is relative to a key center.  Most ear training programs concentrate on relating one pitch to another pitch.  Learning to recognise the sound of any interval may seem to be a valuable skill, but it has little value outside of the classroom if you can’t relate the notes you hear to a key center.  The same goes for developing crutches such as singing the first two notes of a song to reinforce the relationship between two notes.  Try to visualise yourself stopping to sing something on a gig (let alone being able to discern what you are trying to sing due to the volume of the band) in order to hear the relationship between two pitches.  Because music moves in time, you would have most likely missed that moment, lost your place in the music or at the very least ended up several bars behind everybody else.

The process to learning all of the twelve chromatic pitches in a key is achieved through repetition.  You must listen to these pitches over and over again against a strong key center cadence until you eventually internalise the sound of all the notes.  My jazz improvisation teacher Charlie Banacos taught me this exercise and it took me a year to be able to hear every note accurately.  Originally, I had to practice this with an acoustic piano which was rather time consuming.  Within a couple of months I was programming the exercise into a music sequencer.  There is now a free software package available for you to download here that you can set up specifically to learn the sounds of every note in relation to a key area.

This software program has a few options, but the way you want to set this up is for it to play a Major Key Cadence (I-IV-V-I) in C ONLY!  On the left-hand side you will see a list of all the chromatic tones-make sure that you tick every box.   Just to the right you will see a box that says “only in one octave”- make sure that box is un-ticked.  Hit the start button and follow this procedure:

1) Listen to the cadence.

2) Hear the pitch that is played.

3) Name the note.  Do not try to sing the pitch.  Singing the note slows down the mind.   Do not use the method of recognising intervals with the first two pitches of a tune, just name the pitch.  If you don’t know it, then guess.

4) This exercise helps to start developing intuition.

5) Repeat this process until you have done 100 questions to get your average.

6) Practice for 20 minutes per day.

7) You must stick with this exercise until you are getting 100% of the questions right!

The more you keep the sounds of these pitches in your short term memory, the easier it will be to transmute this information into your long term memory.  Do not get frustrated- stick with this exercise until you get 100%.  For many, this could turn into years of work; for some it could just be a matter of months.  I guarantee you that this ear training method will pay off in the end.

If you encounter any problems or have any questions, please leave your comments below.



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