On Ear Training…

Hi Gang,

Sorry to be away for so long, but it’s been a busy time for me. More on that to follow.

A few weeks ago, the cell phone I’ve had since 2004 started to just fall apart on me (Nokia 6820). Was a great phone and I hated the thought of giving it up. Unfortunately (fortunately?) for me, I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. It was only a matter of time before it just stopped working. Better to be proactive on this, I thought, so I trundled down to the AT&T store to check out all the nifty, whiz bang phones. I’m not as much of a tech geek as you might think I am. At this stage of my life, it’s more of a love-hate relationship (swinging more towards hate with each passing year… again, I digress. To cut the story (on how I got my new phone) short, I got an iPhone. Bottom line — I really like it. I’m finding new and innovative ways of using it for things that I care about.

One of these is the subject of this post — Ear Training. There are two inexpensive (less than $10 all in)  apps in particular that I’d like to call out:

  • Pianist – This is a great little keyboard app and it works like you’d expect. You only really get an octave worth of keys but it gets the job done in a way that’s pretty creative.
  • Cleartune – You can either use this as a tuner (like for tuning a guitar, eh?) or as a pitch pipe of sorts. It’s a digital one, but will give you a reference tone nonetheless.

So, you might wonder, how do I do ear training with these? Glad you asked.

For those of you who remember my comments on the book “The Music Lesson” and the DVD set “Groove Workshop” by Victor Wooten, I decided that I would play with one of his recommendations — play with the chromatic scale. So I’ve been using Pianist to improvise and train my ear. I’ll sing something and then play it on the (virtual) keyboard. I do the same thing on the guitar. It has lots of good benefits, including having your primary association be one of sound. Sing the line, hear the line, play the line. The secondary benefit for me is that it breaks up the physical patterns I have when I play. I’m going for sounds, not for an easy pattern to play. I can work out the fingering later.

To do this, you need to have some music to play against. There are three ways to accomplish this feat:

  • Record your own backing tracks
  • Use someone else’s backing tracks (Jamey Aebersold, Ralph Platt, etc.)
  • Use some music software (Band In A Box, Impro-Visor, etc.)

From there, you can just use this little guy to jam along with. Very, very handy and portable. No worries about damaging the guitar in transit AND I get to practice improvising. I’m not trying to get good at piano, but I am finding that I am getting better at playing chords on it! Additionally, it’s also helping with being able to spell scales (knowing what notes are in what key center) without having to just rely on memorization.

Again, going off of sound and sight picture. Seeing the pattern and playing it. I’ve used it to play against tunes, ii-V-I in a single key, ii-V-I’s cycling through keys, etc. The point is that if you were to do this, you wouldn’t get locked into a rut. There’s lots of variations and ways to use it that will keep things fresh and keep you listening. Of course, you can do this with a traditional keyboard and a CD player — you don’t need an iPhone. This just happens to be very portable and won’t cause me extra baggage fees.

One of the other aspects of Ear Training that I am interested in is Relative Pitch and how to develop accuracy in both recognition and generation. I am using Cleartune for this aspect of my training. I got the idea from Jamey Aebersold’s Ear Training book. He talked about carrying a pitch pipe everywhere when he was younger and trying to identify the note value of everyday sounds.  I thought to myself; self, why don’t you try something like that? So I have.

I’m using Cleartune for its pitch capability. I have a singing game that I like to play and it goes like this:

  1. Think about a note that you want to sing (middle C, for example)
  2. Sing the note
  3. Use the tuner function in Cleartune to see how close to the pitch you can get
  4. Quickly shift over to the tone generator to hear the note you intended
  5. Correct and repeat

It doesn’t take a long time to play the game and the more you do it the better you’ll get. It’s not a function of time spent, it’s a function of consistent engagement over time. Better to spend 5 minutes, twice a day, every day, than it is to spend 1 hour only one day a week. Play until you find that it gets hard and then stop. When I find that it’s hard, it’s a sure sign that I’ve stopped listening. You may find the same thing happens to you, you just may never have noticed it.

As I continue my ear training and learn to hear more things and get better at recognition, I find that I’m getting a compound benefit. All of these elements are related. It’s not separate and disconnected. It’s all part of one unified whole. We just focus on specific elements within that whole to help develop ourselves.

Do you have other games to help with this? Have you tried something like this with your iPhone?

Let me know what you think.

October 14, 2009 · kengon · 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Music

2 Responses

  1. ChrisSutton - October 15, 2009

    Hi Ken,

    Great post! The iPhone is such an ideal device for ear training, as you can carry all sorts of tools and instruments on it and do a bit of practice any time… I’ve been using the Grand Pro app for the same sorts of things as you’re using Pianist for, and I really love having an instant-access keyboard in my pocket!

    I’m the lead developer on an app called RelativePitch, which is intended to help people train their interval recognition. It doesn’t test your sung reproduction of intervals, but from what you’ve said I think it might be a useful tool for part of your training.

    There’s a demo version, ‘RelativePitchLite’ so you can try it out for free, and if you want to see it in action, there’s also a video review by the Daily App Show:

    More info & user reviews at http://www.EasyEarTraining.com. I hope you’ll check it out!

    We’re currently developing a few other ear training apps, so if you have any ideas or suggestions for things which you’d find handy, drop us an email at feedback@EasyEarTraining.com.

    I look forward to more posts about ear training!


  2. kengon - October 15, 2009

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for your comments. I’m going to try your iPhone app and I’ll post something about it.
    For what it’s worth, the video wasn’t all that good… it’s nice you got some PR, but it did nothing to really help make your case. Then again, any press is good press.
    There are couple of other tools that I’ll call out in future posts. I think ear training is so important that I intend to write a lot more about it.


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