Ear Training 101 for Jazz Guitarists

Ok friends – here are two of the ways in which I’ve focused on testing and training myself to improve my ear over the years. There’s no substitute for learning and improving your memory by repetition so always include a good healthy dose of reps in any exercise or practice routine.

First, I would work on relative pitch training (i.e. being able to tell the intervallic distance of a ‘given note’ to a ‘known, played’ note). Start with interval training.

 Intervals:

  • Use your instrument to pitch test your ear, firstly by establishing a tonic note (try one lower on the instrument). Sing this note as accurately as possible.
  • Use this as your ROOT note, the note against which you will compare all others.
  • Now choose a scale – an easy and familiar one is best. Slowly play each tone of your chosen scale in stepwise (consecutive) fashion, singing each note, as close as you can to the correct pitches of each tone as you play them. It’s a good idea to use ‘the major scale’ or another scale you are very familiar with at this point.
  • Next, try interpolating the root with each note separately (so play root, 2nd, root, 3rd, root 4th etc). Again sing each note as you do this exercise.
  • Go up and down the scale several times, singing and playing at the same time (or if you’re having trouble pitching correctly, play just before you sing each note).
  • Next you could try playing and singing the root then the other scale tones in random order. You may wish to focus on the important chord tones from your scale at this point; i.e. the 3rd, 7th, 5th and 8ve. Ensure you are playing root-interval.
  • Now try playing the root and SINGING (only) a given note of the scale. After you have attempted the note, actually finger and play it with your fret-board hand, and see how close you are to the note in pitch accuracy.
  • Repeat the steps above but this time play through all the flattened or sharpened (enharmonic) notes of your chosen scale.

The key is to memorise each individual sound; likening it to a familiar melody is also a good way to do it (or learn the interval song).

I recall my Mum singing something along the lines of ‘Momma’s little baby likes shortbread, shortbread…’ when I was 4 or 5 – that nursery rhyme features a major 6th interval which has stuck with me since then! You must get a feeling for each interval type. Learn simple (up to one octave) intervals first, then compound (between the octave above and the 2nd8ve above) intervals.

Work on this for 10 – 20 minutes at some point every time you sit down to a practice session.

Next I would work on identifying chords. This is great for general transcribing and also for interacting with other accompanists / soloists (voice the singer in!).

Chords:

  • Start with common forms (voicings) of the four triad chords – major, minor, diminished and augmented triads. Be sure not to confuse these with 7th chords, especially the diminished and augmented chord types. Be able to play these in a few different positions – fingering may be tricky for higher position diminished and augmented chords.
  • Record a series of these different chord types consecutively, with each chord played twice and held for a few seconds. Leave spacing between each different chord type and ensure you record enough so that you cannot memorise them. At this point you can use ANY root note, so be tricky here – use tritone movements, major and minor 3rds, semitones, 4th and 5th leaps etc. You don’t have to know the interval to know the chord type – but if you’ve spent a lot of time with the first set of exercises above (on interval ear training) you should be able to work out how the roots of a progression are moving!
  • Listen back to the recording without your instrument and write down what you think each chord type is. Check with your instrument on how many you guessed correctly. Be sure to play ONLY root position chords, or if inverted chords are used, make sure the lowest note is the TONIC. Rootless inversions will be confusing to try and hear / guess.
  • Before long, you will be able to recognise each sound individually, and eventually, you will ‘hear’ the chord types even in a progression where the roots of the chords move in an uncommon manner. It is important to test yourself in as many ways as you can.

Repeat these steps but now play 7th chords in root (or drop 2, common to guitar) positions. Use ma7, mi7, 7, m7(b5), mi(ma7), dim7 and aug(ma7) 7th chords.

Move on to more advanced chords when you’re ready – extended chords (9ths / 11th/13ths), altered dominants etc. Everything is learn-able; you just need to hear it lots, work on your relationship with each sound then with a progression of sounds (both intervals and chords).

Get simple tunes you’ve heard before but don’t know the chords to and try and guess what they are by using relative pitch. Work your way up to complex tunes / jazz / tunes / big band arrangements; always get the bass note first; maybe use the guitar to pitch the starting chord; then try and work out progressions in small chunks without your instrument. You will improve with time, patient practice and repetition!