What is “Ear Training”?


It is a thrilling moment when a musician first experiences the freedom of playing without reliance on the printed score.  To be able to play a melody by ear or to spontaneously create an improvised solo never before heard provides joy not to be missed by the player  committed to musical excellence.

And thus it never fails to amaze me when students express disbelief that they might ever attain to this level of proficiency.  Indeed, a highly skilled professional symphony clarinetist friend recently confessed that he is lost without a chart in front of him.

This series will outline a straightforward method for acquiring the ability to perform extemporaneously.

To begin, let’s address two fundamental questions:  “How?” and “What?”

Ear training addresses the “how?”:  how does a musical idea swirling around in my brain become a real sound coming out of the bell of my horn?  It may be a melody heard at a live performance or on a recording;  it could be a new lick created in my imagination.  Either way, the “how?” of ear training turns the thought into a shared musical reality.  I refer to this skill as “hand / ear coordination,” roughly analogous to the “hand / eye coordination” one develops while learning to sew or build furniture.  You know you have mastered ear training, when you are able to play on your horn any melody you can whistle or hum.

The “what” question we shall address deals with what am I going to play, now that I have learned to play by ear?  Roughly speaking, the non-reading world of jazz performance divides into two general categories:  playing pre-existing melodies and creating improvised “rides.”  Over the next several issues of Saxophone Life, we’ll address all three of these goals:  how to play by ear, how to learn tunes, and how to create improvised solos.

ear training


Learning to play by ear boils down to connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain, as illustrated in the New Ears Resolution logo pictured above.  Most listeners are more in touch with their right brains – the area which spontaneously reacts to music emotionally.  (This was dramatically illustrated in a recent series of children’s concerts we presented in local schools.)  The left brain, however, with a little training, is easily capable of deciphering the mathematical relationships inherent in Western musical scales, modes, harmonies, and rhythms.  Bringing your right and left brain function into harmony with each other will allow you to easily perform any song you can hum in any key on your sax.  More on that next month.

learning songs

A talented, ambitious young student announced, “I am going to learn one song per week in all 12 keys!”  “A noble goal,” I responded, “but it will take you a lifetime of hard work to build a repertoire!”  Unfortunately, this highly gifted young man hung up his horn after a stellar stint in the U.S. Navy Band, and he has not touched it since then.  Brute memorization of repertoire – especially as we age – becomes increasingly grueling and unsatisfying.  Memorization can easily turn into a frustrating exercise in futility, as many of my students have demonstrated. “You take the bridge, I can’t remember it” is a comment often heard on the bandstand.  A far more effective way to learn tunes is to conceptualize the internal logic of the melody exactly as Ellington designed it during composition.  Doing so is immensely satisfying.  You thus truly learn the song at a far deeper level, enjoy it more, recall it more easily, and improvise over it far more fluidly.

We’ll address this method in upcoming issues of Saxophone Life.  For now, try this exercise (without looking at the chart!):  Let’s say you’re on the bandstand, when the leader calls “Prelude to a Kiss.”  You have 30 seconds to glance at the chart, before the bass player grabs it.  Which two measures (other than the key signature) would you study?  The answer will appear in next month’s issue of Saxophone Life.


Finally, we will delve into the “what?” of improvisation.  What am I going to play, when my solo comes around?  This is the most complex of the three discussions, because it hinges on your individual personality, the story you wish to tell, and the stylistic approach you hope to portray.  For most of us, improvisational personality evolves through years of listening to and emulating the masters.  I ask myself questions such as these:  “How did Coleman Hawkins approach bar 24 (the end of the bridge) on ‘Body and Soul’?”  “Why do Cannonball, Coltrane, and Miles approach their solos on ‘Milestones’ so incredibly differently from each other?”  As we listen, we find ourselves gravitating toward certain approaches more than others, because of our unique, individual personalities and the “stories” we wish to tell through our music.  More on this in future issues of Saxophone Life.

Your comments and questions are always welcome.  Email me at:  craig@craigbuhler.com  Also, check out New Ears Resolution.

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