Robert Schumann, the great 19th century composer famously said the the “cultivation of the ear is of the greatest importance” and that “study is unending”.  This from his book, “Rules and Maxims for Young Musicians.”  I find that both statements are unequivocably true.

“Earmaster 5” is a computer program that can be used on most any platform (it is made for Windows and Mac, but works great under Wine on Linux), you can use it with or without a digital piano or keyboard and it has numerous lesson and exercise categories from interval recognition to chord progressions to melodic dictation, etc.

For example, It will play series of notes or chords and you have multiple choice answer buttons on the screen or you can use the piano keyboard to input your answer.

Ear training, or “Ear Straining” as many people call it, -at least at first- can be very frustrating.

Chord progressions exercise

However, once you’ve figured out a schedule when you can run Earmaster -on a regular basis (this is very important), it’s worth it.  For the moment I use it about 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week.

I can’t give you a miracle story just yet with my own experience, but… keep an eye on this page,  it is helping a LOT with my piano study.

Why?  Because in the world of music, it’s the ear that guides you.  After all, the goal is to make music and you can’t navigate that world unless you know what you’re hearing!

Much less can you compose without a well defined way of listening to your own music- being able to identify notes, melodies, chords, progressions, etc.

For those that simply want to play the music of others, you don’t want to be robotic, mechanically following the notes on a page, so ear training can lead to the ability of “hearing the music before it’s played,” imagining the sounds by sight reading a page of sheet music.

From what I’ve been told, at college level, one of the required skills to be able to get a degree in music is that he or she be able to hear a series of notes and dictate them on paper.  This being only one of many other types of aural recognition that are expected of music students.

So why is ear training and note and chord recognition often so difficult for many of us?

My guess is that it’s because listening to music is usually a passive experience. After all, unless you are sitting at a live orchestra performance, giving it your full attention, the typical music listening experience is that of just hearing it and doing other things at the same time.

For example, you might listen to music at work, during your workout, dancing at the club, driving in your car or a myriad of other things.  Even at the symphony, your mind will typically wander and you are not giving the music full attention, even though you may be completely moved and emotionally immersed in the experience.

Having said that, the typical non-musician has no reason to do anything more than that.  He or she would just enjoy the music.  He or she has no reason to want to recognize what the actual notes are or to have the ability to describe the chord progressions, etc.

But the musician and composer does need to be able to do these things.  And the performer that has a well trained ear can play much better.

So, my advice?

Just go into it with the right attitude, that it’s not something that you can do overnight, that the experience of just doing it is already in and of itself helpful to your musicianship, that you recognize that you didn’t learn the English (or whatever other) language(s) you speak in a few weeks time, nor will you learn the language of music in short order either.

I’ve been working on it off and on for a couple of years, very sporadically, but now have started a regimen of about 30-45 minutes after breakfast 4-5 times a  week.  Using the built in sounds on the computer instead of playing on a keyboard but have done some lessons with both.

Earmaster is paid software, but they have a free trial version.  There is also a freeware program, GNU Solfege that has many of the same features but the user interface is not as polished or fun.  However, I love the Rhythm recognition training on Solfege and I practice it all the time as well.

Btw, I’m currently stuck on Level 2 of chord progressions, the software asks that you get 90% right on your 20 question quiz and so far I’m averaging about 70% percent, though I have hit 85%.

We’ll see (hear) where it leads!

Post written by Ed Hastie, Piano tuner, mover, reseller and instructor in Louisville, Ky.

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