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(part 10 of 20)
Human Ear Complaining to Nature by Ulrich von Pottenstein

Ear Training

You can train your ear alone at the piano (or even purely in your head, though that takes more effort). You might start by inventing a little 3 note melody. Next sing it, matching pitch as carefully as possible. Expand the melody by a note or two on the piano, and sing again. Once you’re comfortable with a handful of specific notes, play one and sing it, then sing another without first playing it, and then check your pitch on the piano.

Another exercise: play a C and sing it. Now sing an ascending C major scale without the help of the piano. While singing the top C, play that C on the piano to check your pitch. Periodically reinforce the entire scale by singing each note and then immediately playing each on the piano. Repeat. Eventually try this with each mode, checking every pitch you feel insecure on. Go slowly. Your singing tone doesn’t need to be great, but your pitch should be as accurate as possible.

Try singing a one octave chromatic scale, again holding the top note and checking your pitch with the piano. If you get off, break it into small bits, playing them on the piano to reinforce what you need to sing. C, C#, D… D, D#, E… C, C#, D, D#, E. And so on.

Sing while improvising. Try to match the melody, then switch to singing the bassline. Sing a drone while you improvise around it. And most important: make up your own exercises as you find things that are difficult. If they’re too difficult, simplify them, building up gradually. Take breaks often. It’s a very slow process, but it’s a crucial skill for music composition.

There’s a huge amount of ear training software these days. Much of it focuses on listening to and identifying intervals, scales, chords, and rhythms, as well as having you notate randomly generated melodies. There’s a free ‘interval ear trainer‘ at and a good Android app is Perfect Ear 2. These are useful resources, but singing at the piano with your own exercises and while improvising is even better.

It’s easier to hear something in your head than it is to sing it, or to play it on an instrument. So as you get comfortable singing music with minimal reference tones (played on the piano) it will become much easier to play and notate musical ideas you dream up. You may find yourself with a musical idea in your mind that you struggle to sing, or to find the right notes on the piano. The mind has a way of skimming over imperfections so you don’t notice them. What you think sounds perfect in your head, might only be an approximation. This becomes obvious when you try to sing it. Working through this process will help train your “inner ear.”

As audiation and improvisational skills increase, you will gradually develop the ability to improvise in your mind. Hearing harmonies and multiple voices in your head is more difficult, but it too will come with persistence (well, hopefully not hearing actual voices…).