About the Ear Training Trap

The ear training journey is a long, yet immensely rewarding one. Along the way, there’s a trap that 90% of students will fall into, leading them to think they aren’t making progress and causing them to lose focus and motivation to develop their ear. Thankfully, one simple tip will prevent you from falling into this trap and will help you make the most out of your ear training practice.

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Over the years I’ve seen a lot of musicians make a lot of mistakes with ear training.

There are a few of them that come up a lot more than others, and one of those really common ones is what I call the ear training trap.

In our recent episode with Brent Vaartstra from Learn Jazz Standards we talked about his new ear training course and one of the things I highlighted was that he’s cleverly designed it to avoid this trap.

Before we dive in and talk about the trap and how you can avoid it, let’s take a quick moment to define what ear training is.

At Musical U we define ear training as “any activity you do to improve your ears for music”. That is a very broad definition, as it should be. But what we’re going to be talking about today is the traditional definition of ear training that most musicians associate with the phrase, and that’s doing dedicated exercises, drills, to recognise different elements in music by ear. Examples would be practicing recognising the interval between a pair of notes, or listening to a sequence of chords and trying to identify the progression.

There are loads of different areas where you can do useful ear training exercises, but with all of them you’re in danger of falling into the same trap…

Let’s start with an example. Jeff is a saxophone player who wants to improvise jazz. He’s heard that intervals are really important for having a good jazz ear so he grabs an interval training app or maybe some practice MP3s, and he spends a few weeks dedicatedly putting in 20 minutes a day practicing. He makes some progress, after a few weeks he can recognise a handful of interval types, ascending and descending.

But Jeff’s losing enthusiasm. He’s glad to have made progress, but when he picks up his sax he doesn’t really feel any different about improvising.

Jeff has fallen into the ear training trap. What’s gone wrong?

Well, he has treated ear training as an isolated activity. He’s done well with the ear training itself, but he has been doing drills that aren’t connected with his instrument or the music he loves, and he hasn’t had any way to make that connection.

If you never relate ear training exercises to your actual musical life, ear training can quickly feel pointless and it becomes incredibly hard to keep up your motivation – and that’s fair enough! You’re not really seeing any benefit from all your efforts!

So what’s the solution? Well, naturally, it’s to make sure your ear training efforts *are* connected to your musical life.

In the new ear training course from Learn Jazz Standards there is a section all about applying your new ear skills on your instrument. At Musical U, in our ear training Roadmaps we provide the dedicated training modules with the core ear training exercises – but then we always accompany them with recommended exercises you can do directly on your instrument to put it all into action. We also have a set of modules specifically about applying ear training to real musical tasks like playing by ear and improvising. And our Instrument Packs provide tutorial videos showing you exactly how to apply ear training on your specific instrument.

The ear training trap is simple – and once you know about it, it’s easy to avoid. Unfortunately the traditional ear training courses and methods leave you totally prone to falling into the trap, and in my experience 90% of musicians who pursue ear training do fall into the trap and it leaves them thinking that ear training is difficult and pointless.

Don’t fall into the trap yourself. Now you know about it, you can find ways to make sure you always connect your ear training to your real musical life, and of course if you need guidance on doing that we’re always happy to help at Musical U.

Before I wrap up I do want to mention one other thing.

Some musicians actually try so hard to avoid the trap they end up falling into another one. I was talking just the other day to a professional bassist who runs a popular website teaching bass guitar, and he was telling me how after years of gigging he had a really good ear and could happily sit in with a band and pick things up by ear. But he hadn’t really done any ear training exercises, he’d just learned it gradually by repeated trial and error playing his instrument year after year.

Now that’s good, and clearly it served him okay. But I found myself wishing he’d been shown a good way to do ear training. Because while the brute force instrument-only approach does work, it really does take years of playing, probably at a semi-professional level, before you get a really solid ear.

The beauty of ear training exercises is that they can dramatically accelerate that process by quickly giving you the building blocks required to do all the practical musical tasks. If you don’t give yourself those building blocks it’s a much slower journey.

So that’s another trap to be avoided: thinking that instrument practice alone will get you a good ear fast.

Ear training is a powerful and efficient way to get good ears. But you mustn’t fall into the trap of doing it isolated from your instrument and your real musical life. And you should also try not to swing too far in the other direction and miss out on the fast progress that dedicated exercises and ear training practice can provide.

I hope that whether you’ve never tried ear training before, or you’ve tried it and fallen into the trap of doing it in isolation, this quick episode has helped show you this dangerous trap and how you can make sure you avoid it in future.

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