If you’ve got a bit of a tin ear, it doesn’t mean you’re unmusical. Try these tips for improving your aural skills.
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The ability to identify and label musical sounds is a very sophisticated activity. Just think about it: you listen to the air vibrate, and then you say, “Here are the chords I just heard”, or, “Here are the notes to that melody.” Described that way, it almost seems like a party trick. And while you may argue that that sort of musical ability doesn’t have a lot to do with songwriting, I would argue that it has everything to do with it.
With that kind of musical ear, you’ve got the ability to not only hear musical ideas in your head (which is an ability all songwriters must have), but to immediately identify them. It speeds up the songwriting process, and makes it a much more satisfying activity.
If you’ve got a tin ear, it does not mean that you are unmusical. It could simply mean that you lack training. So if you want to improve your musical ear, try the following 5 activities:
1. Scale and Note Study
- Play a C major scale, ascending and descending on a piano keyboard or guitar.
- Sing each note of the scale to a number. When you get to the top note, you can call it either ‘8’ or ‘1’.
- Put your hands on the white notes of the keyboard, (or hold the guitar) with your thumb resting on C. Now play the first 5 notes of the C scale randomly.
- For each pitch that you play, sing the appropriate number.
- Find someone who can do this basic activity for you: Play random pitches from the C scale, and sing the number that you hear.
2. Chord Study
- Play the following chord progression several times: C F G Am
- Play the same progression, but play the chords in random order, but starting on C (e.g., C G C Am F G Am C G F Am…)
- Using a digital recorder, play and record a random sequence of chords, at about 60 bpm, choosing from only the 4 chords in our example, strumming twice for each chord.
- Do step 3 four more times, so that you’ve got 5 recordings of a random selection of chords.
- Now go back to your first recording, and start identifying by ear the chords you played.
- Add to your chord list and record more sequences. Add Dm, then Em, Bdim, etc.
- As an added step, try identifying the chords by number. So instead of saying “C”, say “1”. Instead of saying “G”, say “5”, and so on.
3. Note Matching
- Choose a slow-tempo song, one that’s not your own.
- Listen to the song until it’s very familiar.
- On a piano keyboard or guitar, play the verse or chorus melody.
- Sing the melody using numbers. For example, if you’re singing the verse from Adele’s “Someone Like You”, you’ll be singing “5-3-2-1-5-5-3-2-1…”
Singing to numbers is a great way to train your musical brain to know exactly what notes you’re hearing. The benefit really happens when you write songs. As musical ideas pop into your mind, you learn to quickly identify them, and it speeds up the songwriting process. It also helps prevent that annoying phenomenon of coming up with a great musical idea, and then promptly forgetting it.
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