Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Training one’s musical ear is a source of great frustration to many songwriters. A well-developed musical ear is a vital part of improving one’s songwriting ability. This is because we can learn so much by listening to other people’s songs. But if we can’t identify what is actually making a song sound the way it does, we’re missing out on a great opportunity to improve ourselves.
To have a good ear means many things. Mainly, it means having the ability to:
– identify notes, given an initial pitch;
– identify chords; and
– identify rhythms.
You’ll note that a good ear does not require the ability to identify pitches “out of thin air.” That particular skill is called “absolute pitch,” or “perfect pitch.” It’s a skill that some (not many) are born with, and if you do not possess it, it is not a musical weakness. Most of the world’s greatest musicians do not have perfect pitch capabilities.
An important first step toward improving your musical ear is to learn to read music, and generally improve your knowledge of music theory. Trying to identify musical elements without having the ability to write them yourself makes your job rather difficult. So get yourself going in a study of some basic music theory.
Beyond that, try these quick tips:
- Get someone to play a major scale for you, then have him/her play random notes from that scale. For each note played, sing the scale degree of that note. For example, if in the key of C major, you would sing “3” if an E is played, “7” if a B is played, and so on. If you get stuck, sing the tonic note (the key note), then try again. This will take some practice at first, but try to get to the point where you can do this without looking at the keyboard.
- There are sites on the internet that offer help with interval identification. You need to be able to recognize intervals as an important part of ear training. In a search engine, type “online ear training” and follow some of the links that are displayed.
- Get your hands on some ear training software. In a search engine, type “ear training software” to find samples.
- When referring to chords in a song, try to refer to them by number rather than chord name. For example, if your song is in A major, you will probably find that A, D and E7 are the most common chords. Refer to them as I (“one”), IV (“four”) and V7 (“five-seven”). This will help you identify chords in other keys, because you’ll start to realize that, as an example, A, D and E7 are the same as C, F and G7 in the key of C major.
You’re going to see that your abilities to manipulate musical sounds and structures will begin to improve as your ear improves. You’ll also find that your creative, imaginative mind will be enhanced as you are able to apply names and labels to the musical structures that you hear around you.
And I guarantee that your songwriting abilities will similarly develop as you benefit from your newfound abilities to identify music with your ears.
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