As guitarists in 2019, we have it pretty good. Instructions for how to learn almost any song you like are just a quick Google search away. Both TAB sites and YouTube are ready to teach you anything you want.
This enormous convenience has come at a price though: guitarists are starting to train their ears later and later. Some never get around to it at all. So when should you start training your ears?
Many music teachers see ear training as a topic for intermediate to advanced students. But in this article, I’ll tell you why I believe that most guitarists start training their ears way too late. I’ll explain how ear training helps you develop skills that are at the core of your musicianship.
The key to understanding the importance of ear training is to think of music as a language. Music and language are both forms of expression. We use them to communicate thoughts and feelings. We write and read both.
The idea of music being like language has been around for years. It’s been developed into an academic theory by Edwin E. Gordon. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s how many great musicians think about music. For example, check out this TED video by Victor Wooten.
What many musicians like Victor Wooten (as well as academics such as Edwin E. Gordon) propose, is that we learn music in the same way that we learn language. Consider how you learned to speak your first language. Babies spend the first six months of their lives listening to the sounds around them. After that first half year, they start to engage in what’s called ‘speech babble’. They’re not using actual words, but the sounds they’re making have the rough shape of language and can be quite expressive. Slowly but surely, young kids start to use words as well. Often, they’ll use sounds that aren’t exactly like the word, but are still effective. For example, a kid might excitedly point to the sky and say ‘a-pie’ and her parents understand she means ‘airplane’.
By the time kids go to school, their mastery of their native language is close to perfect. Sure, there are some mistakes here and there, but they can express themselves quite well and without a lot of effort. Only then, do kids learn how to read and write and about the rules of grammar. It’s quite fascinating that kids are unconsciously following the rules of grammar, without knowing the actual rules.
Summing up, we learn language in this order:
3. Reading and writing
The way music is traditionally taught is the exact opposite of the three stages above. Most music lessons involve some form of musical notation, whether it’s sheet music or guitar TAB. The first thing we learn is to read. The notation instructs as to how we should move our fingers to control our guitar. What frets we need to press in order to create the melody or chord we want to hear.
Of course, this traditional approach works. It’s the way classical music has been taught for hundreds of years. Now, I’m not a historian, but it seems to me that when music lessons for ‘popular music’ started, we simply copied the approach used in classical music and changed it up a little bit. The idea that playing music involves reading music is deeply ingrained in people’s minds. Often when I tell people I’m a musician they’ll say something like “Oh, I have no musical talent at all. I can’t even read notes!”
But does it really make sense to use this ‘reading first’ approach when students want to play pop, blues, jazz, metal or any other ‘popular music’ genre? After all, classical music is fundamentally different than these genres.
The most important distinction is that sheet music is at the heart of classical music. When a classical composer writes a piece of music, their final product is a score that performers will interpret and turn into actual music. The sheet music is the ‘original source’ for every classical piece and so it makes a lot of sense that reading is so important in the ‘classical world’.
But for most other genres, that isn’t the case. Instead of sheet music, the ‘original source’ for a piece of music is a recording. And while we often create transcriptions of these recordings, when we want to know the ‘truth’, we always refer back to the recording. In fact, many notations that you’ll find online such as guitar TAB or the chords to a song don’t include how you should time those notes or chords. You’re expected to just listen to the recording and figure out the timing yourself.
Maybe you’ve already noticed. We’re talking about the first of the three phases of learning language: listening. Because recordings are the ‘original source’ in non-classical genres, developing your listening skills is essential. To learn music in these genres, we rely on our ears to figure out what’s going on in a recording. You need to be able to pick apart the different layers in a production to hear which notes each instrument is playing, how those notes are timed, and with what intensity or timbre they’re played.
But there’s more. Remember the second of the three stages, speaking? The way classical musicians ‘speak’ is similar to reciting a pre-written speech in a way that’s compelling and beautiful. In fact, the performance of a piece of classical music will often be called a ‘recital’. But while classical musicians learn to ‘recite’, they don’t learn to ‘speak their mind’. To put that in musical terms, they never learn to ‘play by ear’: the ability to hear music in your mind (to have ‘musical thoughts’) and let it come out of your instrument. You could think of this skill as the musical equivalent of talking to a friend. Your thoughts seem to turn into words that come out of your mouth almost effortlessly.
Being able to play by ear is essential for improvisation. And most guitarists play music that involves quite a bit of improvisation and soloing. Sometimes it’s just adding a few notes where a song needs it, sometimes it’s playing a three-minute long guitar solo. Anytime we can’t rely on simply memorising a guitar part note-by-note and playing that on stage, our ability to play by ear becomes invaluable.
In short, both ‘listening’ and ‘speaking’ skills are incredibly useful for non-classical guitarists. They include hearing music in greater detail, figuring out songs by ear and playing music by ear. All these skills are at the heart of the music we like to play. And they can only be developed through ear training.
So, to return to our original question, when should you start training your ears? In my view, it’s never too early. Even as a complete beginner, you can start developing your ears by figuring out simple songs by ear. (Songs played on one guitar string are a great place to start.) Of course there are many more ways to train your ears. For an overview of all the different exercises and what skill they train exactly, check out this detailed guide to ear training.
Sadly, many guitarists assume their ears are terrible, because they’ve never trained them. It’s like saying ‘I’m horrible at playing the E chord, because I tried it once and I couldn’t do it’. Like all guitar skills, developing your ears simply requires practice. Many guitarists are shocked to find out how much better their ears get in a short amount of time. It might be hard at first, but it’s truly one of the most rewarding things a guitar player can learn.
Just Rijna is the founder of StringKick, a site focused on helping you learn the skills you need to explore your own taste and become the musician you want to be.
He writes in-depth guides on topics ranging from barre chord technique tips and music theory to performing better on stage and playing guitar by ear.
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