Ear Training On The Guitar

The Art of Learning

Read Time 5 Minutes

So What’s The Big Deal With Ear Training?

We’re in the music industry here. The sense that gets the most use is our sense of hearing. With that in mind if you were to develop any individual skill the greatest asset to you could add to any musical endeavor is a well trained ear. While I’m writing this with a bias towards learning on guitar it is a skill that knows no boundaries and can be translated to any circumstance, even an instrument-free one.

Say you’re on an airplane. You look up to the little drop-down television that is playing Transformers 3. You’re staring at the screen with a vacant expression on your face while pondering “who the hell keeps giving Michael Bay a budget?” when you decide you need to find a better means of occupying your brain before you smash your face through the window and decompress the entire cabin just to stop any more brain cells from dying.

And that leads you to the piece of paper and pen you just happen to have in your hand. As you begin to pour the remainder of your brain power into the few lines you’ve scribbled onto the paper when suddenly a light turns on and you hear a melody in your head. The pen, trembling in your fingers, gently comes to rest on the paper and waits for your direction when suddenly! Blast! You have no clue what to write.

So then you just quickly jot down a few things and hope for the best.

That’s what ear training prevents. With ear training noting ideas down on the fly becomes greatly simplified and listening to music becomes a whole new experience. Being able to dissect what chords a guitarist is playing in what position on the neck alone will make you proportionately more awesome than your friends. Women will practically sprout from the ground next to you and gush $100 bills all over your face.

Tips to Learn By Ear

There are a number of approaches to learn a song by ear, but I personally think they can be boiled down to a few different approaches that can be used independently and together.


Singing is possibly the most influential approach to learning by ear. It’s also interesting because a lot of people are quick to throw it out because they don’t want to sing. I’m here to say that’s a bad idea.

No one is saying you need to practice relentlessly to become the next Bruce Dickenson. It’s the difference between watching to learn and doing something to learn. Experience is the best teacher and nothing cuts corners quite as quickly and efficiently as producing pitches with your own mind and voice.

When you bring the guitar into the picture and sing intervals on top of what you’re playing you really cut down on the time until the results. Take it one interval at a time. For example, sing a perfect 5th above every tone you play on the guitar. Octave, minor 6th, whatever. Sing a pitch then play the guitar a set interval higher or lower.

Learning Songs

You know what sucks? Sitting around, plucking a C tone over and over, singing with it to solidify it to memory. Me, I need to make it fun or else my mind is going to seek the nearest distraction. You know what helps with that? Making it fun.

Yeah, I know. Common sense kind of thing, but it’s the simplest answer and it’s the best one I’ve got.

We are in a world full of music, and everything on your iPod is ripe for the picking and infinitely more interesting to work with than sitting in a stale environment, repetitively plucking the same tone over and over. While that approach does yield results, I believe it is imperative to make the process as fun as possible while you’re at it.

You don’t even have to designate specific times to work on it. Here’s what I do. When I’m loafing around, watching some movie or a TV show, I’ll noodle around on my guitar and see if I can figure out the music in the background before it changes. You are constantly being exposed to different music that is generally pretty easy to learn. Plus you get bonus points too if your friends in the room recognize it.

If I’m the phone, sitting on hold, listening to that sweet contemporary jazz piece that keeps abruptly looping over and over, I’ll start humming the melody to it and see if you can figure it out. Sure the song sucks, but the skill is priceless and it translates to every other instance you use it.*

Bit By Bit

Sitting around, playing transcribing some licensed, stock piece of garbage you heard on a commercial is fine, but if you want to take it up a notch the best way to get results is to take a song and play it one tiny bit at a time, over and over ad infinitum, while singing and/or figuring it out on the guitar (I might add singing really, really helps in this context because your brain isolates specifically what you’re trying to figure out). The problem with the brain is if you don’t stop the song after the part you want to figure out has passed the following parts will muddle your memory and you flat out won’t get results. It’s really important that you break it into tiny pieces for that reason alone.

I won’t kid you. At first it can be a bit tedious, but you’d be surprised at how quickly results can start to show and I can’t tell you the feeling of gratification you’ll feel when you actually play something back that you’ve figured out by ear. It’s awesome and you’ll never regret it.

Ear Training Products

There are a lot of products, software, and courses people offer to aid you in ear training. Since what I’m about to say is a bit on the abrasive side I’m not going to name names, but a good number of them are very expensive.

Considering the price tag some have and the fact that the results still hinge 100% on your routinely applying the techniques to get any kind of result I strongly recommend passing up on these things. Especially when they pretty much come down to the same things I’ve already prattled off and seldom have even a modicum of the potential fun in the process.

If you’re hell bent on spending money on anything I’d recommend looking into Transcribe or Riffstation. While there are differences between both programs, the greatest benefit both offer is that you can slow the song down and loop specific sections. It makes figuring out precise pitches and notations (especially on faster parts) way, way easier. That’s a feature that you don’t get from someone else’s master course, it costs a fraction, and it’s far more useful.

*Has anyone else wondered if anyone ever recognizes the artists from hold music? Do you think the composers typically feel proud of themselves for having made it to hold music? Which would be more taboo? Composing for hold music or elevator music?

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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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