Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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The younger you are, the easier it is to train your ear. There is a “window of opportunity” that starts to close through a person’s teenage years, so the sooner you can get to improving your ear, the better. Don’t believe the myth that some people are “tone deaf” and can’t be helped. I’ve been teaching ear training for years, first at the grade-school level, and now at university, and I can tell you that though it’s easier to teach younger musicians, there is no point where ear training becomes impossible.
There are three things songwriters can be doing to improve their ear, and you can do these without the explicit help of a teacher.
1) LEARN MUSIC THEORY
It’s sad when I hear people say that a knowledge of music theory stunts musical imagination! The exact opposite is true. The more you understand about the nuts and bolts of music, the more your mind opens up. With theory, you can actually look at and study musical structures, figure out why they work the way they do, and then do them yourself. I’ve taught theory and ear training in separate courses through my career, and the truth is that a student’s music theory abilities are similar to their aural abilities; a student with a theory mark of 85% generally gets a similar mark in ear training. This is not a coincidence.
As many of you know, I have a CD-ROM of music theory that I’ve produced that will teach you all the basics. You can get some of this knowledge for free by going to my “Easy Music Theory” site and clicking on “Free Lessons” near the top of the page.
2) TRANSCRIBE MUSIC
Nothing beats clicking the “play” button, finding the notes you’re hearing, and writing them down. Like “immersion” language courses, it puts you directly in the environment. I tell my students to sit at a piano keyboard or with a guitar, play a few notes of a recording, use the keyboard or guitar if necessary to find the notes, and then write them down. The more you do it, the less you’ll have to use the instrument as a reference, and your ear improves daily! You can use this method to write down melodies, decipher chord progressions, figure out rhythms, and much more.
3) USE EAR TRAINING SOFTWARE
Use a search engine and you’ll find many online ear training sites that can help you with identifying intervals, chords, scales and other musical elements. You can also purchase ear training software that will do the same thing in a more comprehensive way.
If you have it in mind to ever study music formally at a university or college, aural skills and a rudimentary knowledge of theory are a must. The great news is that most of these crucial abilities can be had without a teacher. But get going with this. The younger you are, the easier the abilities are to acquire.
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