You’ll often hear guitarists say “I learn to play stuff by ear”. While this may be true in one sense, there’s a big distinction we need to make.

Most of us can hear a note, move around the neck, and eventually find the corresponding fret.

  • We call this pitch matching, it’s a useful skill, but not strictly playing by ear.
  • This method relies on trial and error, which is more of a brute-force approach.
  • Learning in this way can be slow and frustrating.

Proper ear training is much more musical and allows you to recognize

  • Intervals
  • Melodies
  • Chords
  • Progressions

Without needing to rely on your guitar at all. Sound good?

Stick with us and we’ll show you the best way to start your ear training journey 💪👂

Is ear training useful for guitarists?

You’re focused on those guitar gains, huh? See if these get you pumped up:

  • Learn new pieces of music more quickly.
  • Less reliance on TABs.
  • More expressive solos and improvisation.
  • Less guesswork when composing music.

Ear training will give a massive boost to your musicianship, and the benefits go way beyond just the guitar.

  • It’s sometimes easy to forget that we are the ones that make the music.
  • The guitar is a tool to help get your ideas out – it shouldn’t be the one telling you what to play!
  • Training your ear will help deepen your understanding of music theory and develop your musical intuition.
  • More fun in jam situations!

All the most famous guitarists have a great ear – it’s hard to transfer your feelings to your fingers without it.

Why do people struggle with ear training?

There are three main hurdles to overcome with ear training.

  1. Tough to develop: There’s a steep learning curve and when you first start it can feel like you’re going around in sonic circles.
  2. Knowing the lingo: If you’re new to music theory, being able to label what you hear can be difficult.
  3. Feels like a chore: Although it’s one of the most musical things you can do, ear training can often feel boring or uninspiring.

It’s a matter of postponed gratification – the benefits won’t show up right away, but when they do, you’ll be so happy you put the work in.

How to start training your ear

The short answer: through your voice! It may not be what a lot of us want to do but singing is a crucial part of developing your ear.

Singing

When we use something like a guitar or piano, the instrument has all the notes laid out in order and more importantly, in tune!

Using our voice is like taking away the training wheels – your brain has to work harder to find and produce the correct note.

Regular practice

This is a no-brainer. Like any skill, you need to set time aside to develop it.

Hopefully, you already have a good guitar practice routine going, so just tag on 10 to 15 minutes of ear training before or after that!

If you’re struggling to stick to a solid routine don’t worry, you’re not alone. This article should help you get back on track.

Ear training tips

Internalize the major scale

The foundation of ear training is the major scale. If you’re able to sing the intervals you’re off to a great start!

Most people (even non-musicians) already have the major scale tucked away somewhere in their minds – “Do, Re, Mi”.

Here’s a great way to internalize the major scale sound using just your voice and your guitar:

  1. Slowly play through the C major scale to help familiarize yourself with how each note sounds.
  1. Next, strum a C major chord and slowly sing the notes of the major scale over it.
  1. You can either sing out Do-Re-Mi, or 1-2-3.
  2. Once you can sing up and down the scale, you need to learn the name for each interval.

P = Perfect, e.g: “perfect 4th”

M = Major, e.g: “major 3rd”

*We usually call P1 the ‘root note’, and P8 the ‘octave’. They’re the same note (in C major, both ‘C’) but separated by an octave.

Memorizing musical intervals

When you first start out, it’s useful to attach an interval to a recognizable melody. Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • Unison – Jingle Bells
  • Major 2nd – Happy Birthday
  • Major 3rd – When the Saints Go Marching In
  • Perfect 4th – Here Comes the Bride
  • Perfect 5th – Star Wars Theme
  • Major 6th – NBC Chimes
  • Major 7th – Take On Me
  • Octave – Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Spend some time looking for more examples online and find melodies you're familiar with.

The examples above are all ascending intervals (going up from the root note). Once you’ve got those locked in, find reference songs for each interval descending too.

Ear training exercises

We’ve got an episode specifically about ear training on our Pickup Podcast where we run through some examples of ear training exercises.

Here’s a breakdown of each exercise Sam and Karl go through, listen along and see how you do.

Exercise #1 – Identifying a bass line

Sam plays the line and it’s Karl’s (and your) job to sing it back.

If you can, try to sing the numbers for each interval – the first note of a bass line will almost always be the root note.

Being able to accurately recognize a bass line will give you the basic information necessary to navigate through a song.

Exercise #2 – Hearing a chord progression

Similar to the previous exercise but with an added layer of detail.

Listen to the chord progression and just try to name the numbers for each chord.

Gotcha! They’re the same intervals as the first exercise: 1, 6, 2, 5.

  • The progression is the same,  but there is more information to analyze – the chord qualities.
  • Karl makes a great point that if he knows the numbers, he can figure out the qualities.
  • 1 = major, 6 = minor, 2 = minor, 5 = major (or ‘dominant’).

By memorizing the sequence below you’ll always know the quality of a chord by its interval number AKA ‘scale degree’.

This only applies to major keys but there’s a similar sequence for minor keys too. We’ve got you covered If you want to learn more about music theory. 🎵🧠

Exercise #3 –  Chords with extensions

In this exercise, we focus on recognizing the qualities of chords beyond simple triads.

Karl’s an absolute pro, so don’t feel disheartened if you’re struggling to keep up – use it as inspiration!

As you get more proficient, you’ll be able to identify more complex chords with extensions and different voicings.

Exercise # 4 – Recognizing chord qualities

There may be times when you just want to identify the quality of a single chord.

  • Without the context of a key, recognizing a chord quality is more work for your ear.
  • Identifying multiple notes at the same time is tricky – try splitting the chord into an arpeggio and singing the individual notes out.

Conclusion

Training your ear may seem impossible at first, but once you wrap your ear around the fundamental skill of identifying intervals, everything else will fall into place.

Keep these long-term goals in mind to stay motivated:

  • Learning new songs on the guitar will be a breeze.
  • You’ll be more independent – not always relying on tabs.
  • Your music theory mind will expand.
  • You might even improve your singing ability too! 🎙️

If you really want to level up, check out our Ear Training course led by Michael Mayo – it’s awesome!

Not sure if you’re ready to commit? We’ve got a 14-day free trial so you can try before you buy.