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Developing your ear
The Most Important Skill That
Most Players Don't Have
by Tom Hess
So what is the most important skill that most guitarists do not
have? Some would claim that it is thorough knowledge of music
theory. Others would say that the most important skill is creativity.
Of course there are whole legions of guitarists that believe having
impeccable technique is the holy grail of guitar playing. Maybe
you agree with one of the statements above, or maybe you think
it is something else like, songwriting, playing with others in
a band or having perseverance (check out my past article on perseverance).
All of the skills mentioned above are crucial to the development
of any player that really wants to become an excellent guitarist
and musician. But the single most important skill that most players
don't have, and don't know how to practice, is Ear Training!
(also known as aural skills). We are dealing with music here right?!
How do most of us enjoy making music? By listening to it! So why
is it that most guitarists have poor aural skills (an unskilled
ear). Non classical guitarists have traditionally played by ear,
but surprisingly most of these players' ears are still not
as good as they could be and should be.
I'll use myself as a classic example of a player that used
to severely lack good aural skills. Before I began my formal music
training in college, I thought my ear was pretty good. I could
usually learn songs by ear quickly and my improvising skills were
ok for the time. But whenever I wanted to compose a guitar solo
for a song or write my own songs I ran into problems. I always
felt as if I couldn't get the music that heard in my head
to come out in the music I was playing. I usually had very good
technique and my knowledge of basic music theory was not bad but
my creativity was suffering greatly. Everything I improvised or
wrote came from my hands and my knowledge of chords, scales, etc.
I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more unique, more creative
and most importantly, more self expressive. I was aware that a
problem existed, but I did not know that the specific root of
the problem. I assumed that I was just not a very creative person
and that my (assumed) lack of creativity was permanent and beyond
my control. I believed that I was just not naturally gifted with
creativity (refer back to my article on perseverance).
In the fall of 1994, I enrolled at Harper college as a music
major. In addition to many other requirements, all music students
are required to complete 2 years of Aural Skills classes. It was
not long after I went to my first aural skills class that I realized
how much my ear needed more training. Fortunately I had a very
encouraging teacher who knew that guitarists often had problems
with aural skills. After the first semester (1/2 year) I realized
that my problems related to creativity (improvising, songwriting
/ composing, etc.) were improving and more importantly, I realized
that my problems were NOT due to a lack of creativity. They were
due to the fact that my ear had not been developed enough to release
all of my creative potential! This realization was one of the
most single greatest moments in my musical life. I felt liberated
in knowing that I really do have creative talents. Then all I
needed to do was train my ear further so that my creative ideas
could then manifest themselves into my music.
There are lots of ways in which you can improve your aural skills.
I've listed many of them below. The idea here is NOT to pick
just one of these ideas from the list and expect miracles. Do
as many of these things as you can, as often as you can.
Activities to practice:
1. Transcribing (figuring out by ear) songs, chords, melodies,
solos, etc. using your guitar.
2. Transcribing without using your instrument (write the music
down on paper and then when you think you have it as close to
accurate as you can get it check your work with your guitar. Notice
what errors you made and look to see if a pattern forms in your
errors. For example, if you realize that you always think that
minor chords sound major chords then you can see that this is
something you will need to focus your practice time on.
3. Sing (yes sing out loud) scales. Start with singing the major
scale, later add the natural minor scale, harmonic minor scale,
pentatonic scale, blues scale, etc.
4. Sing intervals (two notes at varying distances)
5. Sing arpeggios (chords - one note at a time) start with major
triads and then move on to minor triads.
6. Sight singing (you will need to have a basic understanding
of reading music to do this) You can use any piece of sheet music
for this. There are sight singing books that you can buy if you
7. Transcribe rhythms. this is just like transcribing a melody,
but the focus here is on writing down on paper the rhythm only.
8. Improvising melodies, solos, etc. over chords. This is great
thing to do anyway.
9. Imagine a 3 or 4 note melody in your mind and then try to
play it on your guitar.
10. Record yourself playing lots of different chords (just major
and minor triads for now). Try not to repeat the same chord very
often. play back your recording and then try to identify whether
the chords you hear are major or minor.
11. For those of you living in the United States, your local
community college or university that has a music department typically
offers basic aural skills classes that may be open to the general
public. Community colleges often charge a very low fee for this
class. I am not familiar with how this works in other parts of
the world, so non US citizens should check this out with your
12. There are ear training software programs available that can
be found on the internet. The one I used in college was called
Practica Musica by Ars Nova. (Note: This is not an endorsement
for practica musica or Ars Nova, I'm just letting you know
that this and other aural skills software do exist and can be
a valuable resource.)
13. For those of you who may not be able to enroll in an aural
skills class, I strongly recommend to seek out a private music
teacher. The good thing about seeking a private teacher is that
the teacher does not need to be a guitar teacher. Any competent
music teacher (no matter what instrument the teacher plays) can
teach you aural skills. The key is to find a competent teacher
though, there are a lot of incompetent teachers out there. For
help on finding a good one and avoiding the bad ones, check out
my previous article titled: Choosing
Ear training is critical to any musician's development as musician.
Remember to persevere and be patient with yourself as your ear
develops. Expect progress to be like your physical guitar playing,
slow but steadily moving forward each day. Your ear needs constant
practicing just like your hands do, so don't neglect the most
crucial tool that you have...... your ears!
All rights reserved @2002 Tom Hess
Used By Permission
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