Ear – the secret to everything

Ways of connecting ear to fingers.

The word ear training often comes up in musician’s conversation. Its a subject that seems to strike fear into the hearts of many, indifference into the minds of others. Yet the huge number of musicians who claim to “play by ear”, never wavers.

Ask yourself; if you don’t play by ear what do you play by? Intuition?

Do you talk by intuition? On one level of course yes, but on another… You know the meaning of every word you use (one would assume). You would have no trouble instantly translating almost any thought into speech. You hear someone else talk and you instantly know what they mean (assuming a reasonable level of sobriety). You you are an expert in your own language. Even if you couldn’t explain all its rules, you know exactly how to follow them.

In short, you have a perfect connection between your thought and your tongue or ability to communicate. Anything you think, you can say.

Is the same true when it comes to music?

Music usually deals more with emotions and moods than thoughts, but the concept of translating what’s in your head/heart onto your instrument is much the same.

Can you play what you hear in your head?

Try this simple test. Play a note, any note (just so you have a reference point). Then get someone else to play or hum another note at random. Do you know where to find that new note right away, first try?

Try it several times, do you consistently get it right on the first attempt?

If the hackles of fear are starting to rise at the question, don’t worry, its not that hard to train your ear. You need to know how to go about it, and you’ll need to work consistently on it for around a year or so, but the rewards will be overwhelming.

So many musicians, guitarists in particular, say they “play by ear”, but if you asked them stop, and sing the note they were just about to play, could they? Or if you said stop, here’s a new note (you hum it), now you play it. Could they do this? Yet surely these tasks would be very basic to anyone who depended wholly on their ear to play.

The sad truth is that most people who claim to be playing by ear, are in fact playing by fingering pattern. They’ve learned certain finger movements, which sound good, which perhaps have a certain effect. So they are always playing one of these; they’re not actually playing what they hear, nor what they feel. This is ultimately a frustrating, stiltifying experience.

We’ve all been guilty of this sort of playing at some point. When you move on from there, even a bit, into playing what you actually hear and feel; playing suddenly becomes much more satisfying and fulfilling. You’ll find you can say more with half the notes you used to use. Playing fast, if that’s your thing, will take on a greater coherence. The accusation so often rightly said: “they played a thousand notes per second, but it was boring and said nothing”, will be a lot harder to level at you.

So how do you begin to train your ear? First of all, what we are after is relative pitch, not perfect pitch. If you have perfect pitch (usually something you’re born with), you can tell the exact pitch of any note ie: “that was a slightly sharp F”. This is done without any reference note.

Perfect pitch is not what you are after. What you need to connect what you hear to what you play, is relative pitch. Relative pitch is the ability to hear and find any note from a reference point ie: the sound of a given chord: and its something you can definitely learn to do.

To start with you need to have NAMES for all the notes (sounds) RELATIVE to a chord. These are called INTERVALS. Then you learn what these sound like (they all have a unique character). Finally you learn where they are on your instrument (simple shapes on the fretboard if you are a guitarist).


If you start from any root note and look at its octave (the same note again higher) you’ll find that there are always 11 notes in between them.

Let’s look at their NAMES as we move up a semitone each time from one to the next:

R, b2, 2, b3, M3, 4, #4/b5, 5, #5/b6, 6, b7, M7, R

These are the intervals. Each has its own NAME, SOUND, and DISTANCE from the root note.

When you solo, you are almost always soloing over a chord (real or imaginary). A chord has a root note. Play a simple chord for a child, tell them to sing any note they want – it will invariably be the root note. We all unconsciously hear the root note of a chord.

The sounds of various types of chord ie: major, minor, dominant, diminished etc… are created by the relationship of the notes (intervals) in the chord, to its root note.

So chords are simply: a root note and a set of intervals all played at the same time.

Let’s look at this in the three main families of chords:

Major R, M3 5

minor R, b3, 5

Dominant R, M3, 5, b7

Above are listed the three main types or families of chord, and the intervals that make them up.

So you can see that certain intervals have been chosen from the possible 11 and stuck together to make chords.

When you play a note over a chord, what you play will be one of the 11 intervals. It might be one of the ones already in the chord, or it might be one of the others. They all have a very distinctive sound which can and should, be learned.

So now you understand the basic theory behind what’s going on when you play, and we have some names for the 11 possible sounds you can play at any moment.

At this point you can actually start to train your ear.

If you’re not sure whether you understand what we talked about up to this point, you should read what’s written here again. The concepts explained here are simple, keep that in mind. If it seems complicated, you’re probably reading more into it than there is. If you are unfamiliar with the theory we’ve discussed here, it might take several re-reads of the article, with some thinking in between, to get it clear in your head. Its really worth doing, because what we’ve been explaining here isn’t just for ear training its the basis of all music theory.

So what is actually involved in ear training? What you need to work on is learning the SOUNDS of these intervals we’ve been talking about. When you know the sounds of the intervals, and where they are on the instrument, you will be able to actually play what you hear in your head (assuming what your hear isn’t so fast that your fingers can’t keep up with it).

To start with, you should learn the sounds of all the intervals against a root note (without a chord).

To do this play a root note, it can be any note it doesn’t matter, as long as you keep it the same throughout the exercise. Then play all the intervals against it, listening to the different sounds.

So for example, if you chose C as your root note, you would carry on playing that while playing each of the 11 intervals in turn with it. ie:

C – Db
R – b2

C – D
R – 2

C – Eb
R – b3

C – E
R – M3

C – F
R – 4

C – F#
R – #4/b5

C – G
R – 5

C – G#
R – #5/b6

C – A
R – 6

C – Bb
R – b7

C – B
R – M7

On listening to each of these in turn, you’ll notice that they all have a distinctive sound. Descriptions for these sounds are quite subjective. What can be said, is that the closer you get to the root, the more dissonant or ‘clashy’ the sounds get e.g: b2 or M7. Whereas, when you get towards the middle, they sound more consonant or ‘at rest’ e.g: 4th or 5th. The interval exactly in the middle; the #4/b5 has a strange, some say ‘suspenseful’ sound. They do all sound quite different, and many people find that various intervals remind them of part of a particular song or other association. This is useful in learning the sounds. In the end, just learn them, work on it enough, and they’ll become like old friends.

Your task

STAGE ONE: is to learn these sounds. The best way to find out if you really know them is to play a root note, name an interval at random, and sing or hum it. Then check if you got it right. It doesn’t matter if your voice is that of a strangled cat, if you really know the sound, you’ll be able to croak out the note. The other great way to do this is to ask a friend to play a root note and then an interval at random. You then listen and guess what the interval is.

It takes a bit of time to learn these, but eventually they will be very familiar, like the colours on your pallet (which is in effect what they are).

STAGE TWO: Learn the sounds of the usable intervals over the three types of chord: Major, minor and dominant.

By usable intervals, I mean that not all of the the intervals will sound good, to everyone’s ears. As you train your ear, you may find that some of the intervals you didn’t think sounded ‘usable’ at first start to sound very interesting and usable. Musical context has a lot to do with it, so don’t necessarily discount and interval if it sounds a little harsh or ‘out’ in one situation – it might sound great in another.

Let’s have a look at the sounds in detail. The descriptive words I use below are only suggestions, and may not be how you personally experience the sounds. The exact descriptive words I’ve used are not important, what is important is that you find descriptions that work for you. Also remember intervals can have many descriptions, I have just chosen some of the more common ones below – they are meant to get your imagination going, not to be in any way definitive descriptions of the moods the intervals create:

(in = ‘sounds in key and harmonious’)

(out = ‘sounds out of key and clashes’)


R: the root, in (can sound tense if its a major 7 chord)

b2: very out

2: happy melodic

b3: strong bluesy, needs to resolve up to the M3 (won’t work if its a major 7 chord)

M3: very in

4: a bit churchy perhaps (very out over a major 7 chord)

#4/b5: jazzy, eastern, serious, psychedelic

5: very in (even more than the root if its a major 7 chord)

#5/b6: pretty out, tense

6: sweet melodic

b7: turns a simple major chord into a dominant chord (if the chord is already a major 7 it will clash)

M7: turns a simple major chord into a major 7 chord, mellow but intense.

So for most people, the only intervals they’ll use over a major chord are the R, 2, M3, 5, 6, b7 or M7 and possibly the 4, #4 or b3. So you only have to learn these sounds.

These are just suggestions, how these intervals sound over chords is to some degree subjective. So you may disagree with the above descriptions, that’s fine, the important thing is that you learn these sounds, or at least the ones you might use.


R: very much the root sound

b2: very out

2: warm, sad, melodic

b3: very in

M3: very out

4: quite in sounding

#4/b5: very out

5: very in

#5/b6: sad flavour if resolved to the 5

6: colourful, jazzy

b7: turns a simple minor chord into a minor 7 chord, rich, lush

M7: out but if played momentarily, dark


R: sounds very in and like the root

b2: very eastern, dark

2: up fairly happy

b3: intense and jazzy if sustained. If bent up to the M3 its very bluesy (this is THE blues note and a strong link between blues and jazz)

M3: very in

4: very in

#4/b5: very jazzy

5: very in

#5/b6: intense, sad, eastern

6: up, colourful, melodic

b7: very in

M7: very out

Again, let me stress, the above descriptions are just suggestions – feel free to have your own ideas about what the intervals sound like over the various chords and about which ones do and don’t work etc…

The important thing is to have SOME kind of opinion on the sounds of these intervals. They are your pallet of paints to paint your musical picture with. Not knowing what they sound like is like choosing a colour for your brush from the pallet without looking at it. You need to know and look at your colours, to paint the picture you want see – you need to know the sound of, and where to find your intervals if you’re going to play what you want to hear.

Its really not that hard, you just have to stick with it. It takes time, reckon on about a year / year and a half of steady work. Many people start ear training and give up because it seems to take so long. That’s a very big mistake. 18 months is not a long time, and training your ear will transform your playing for the better. I think you’ll find it has a far more profound and satisfying effect on your playing than any amount of technique, or learning riffs and solos.

Five minutes a day working on it, is far better than a two hour session once a month.

Below is a diagram of where to find your intervals from a root note on the fretboard within one octave. Its the same wherever the root note is on the neck, or whatever string its on. You do need to adjust for the tuning of the B and E strings – try thinking of everything on the B and top E strings as moved up one semitone from the other four strings.


1) Everything is intervals (apart from rhythm).So to finish off:

2) Chords a intervals stacked together over a root note.

3) Solos (scales) are intervals added to the chords.

4) Each intervals has its own sound and character over a root and over the three main families of chords.

5) You need to learn these sounds.

6) You need to learn how to find them on the neck.

7) You will be a much better and happier player.

I give lessons via Skype, contact me about setting up a lesson here.

All content © copyright 2011 Mark Wingfield, Dark Energy Music Publishing