What Is Ear Training? (and why does it normally fail?)

For this episode of Musicality Now, we turned the tables on our usual format. Adam Liette, Musical U Operations Manager is taking over for our normal host, Christopher Sutton – and Christopher is our guest!

Adam sat down with Christopher and asked him two important questions:

  1. One that many musicians think they know the answer to: “What is ear training?
  2. And one that is a sticking point for most music learners: “Why isn’t ear training working?

If you’re watching or listening to this show, you know the benefits of a great musical ear. But how do you get there? If you, like many others, find ear training hard or frustrating, you won’t want to miss this conversation.

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Adam: Well, welcome to being a guest on your own show, Christopher, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to host today. I’m really looking forward to our conversation about ear training. And if you’ve been following the show for a while it may seem off that we’ve never had an episode simply titled, “What is Ear Training,” especially since that’s at the core of what we do at Musical U. So I’d like to start off by just simply asking what’s going on at Musical U that prompted this episode, Christopher?

Christopher: Yeah. This is going to be fun. I’m normally the interviewer and people might not guess but I think it’s a lot more pressure being the interviewer than the interviewee. I get to just show up now and chat about something that I love, ear training, for a while. So all the pressure is on you, Adam. Don’t freak out.

Christopher: So, yeah, it is a bit bizarre. That’s kind of why we’re doing this episode. We were talking about it in the team recently because we were about to release this course, Ear Training for Beginners. And we were talking about how it’s a bit weird that it’s taken us so long to offer ear training for beginners given the roots of the company, and I’m sure we’ll be talking more about that. But in the course of that conversation, Andrew from the team, Andrew Bishko our product manager, he’s been working with me on this new course, was commenting that we have tons of material on ear training. We’ve been publishing on this topic for a decade, developing all of these resources and training systems and so on.

Christopher: But actually very little of it was tackling the question he wanted to tackle in the first lesson of this new course, which is what is ear training? And we had covered it. Like I wrote an article. One of the first articles on easyeartraining.com was about what is ear training. And we’ve tackled it in a few places since for sure. But it really hit home with me that so much of our material is on the nitty-gritty of ear training. We kind of take for granted at this stage that people know what it is, and doubly so over the last few years.

Christopher: And it just made me feel a bit stupid in a way that it’s taken us this long to address on the show, because obviously the podcast, the video series, has a different audience in a way than our website has for the last nine or 10 years. I suddenly felt really guilty that we’ve never really answered that for people. So if you’ve been a long-time listener of the show you will have heard us talk about ear training kind of all the time, but almost never saying the words “ear training.”

Christopher: It’s a bit tricky with podcast episodes. Adam, I know you’re a podcast listener too, so you’ll relate as everyone in our audience can. But we never know as the host of the show how much we can take for granted in terms of how much someone has watched or listened to past episodes. And I think I kind of hit the ground running a little bit assuming that all of our podcast audience would be our existing audience who already knew us as Easy Ear Training up until recently. They’d know about ear training and we could kind of just dive into this core musicality stuff. In retrospect, I didn’t factor in the fact that a lot of people are diving into this show Musicality Now at any given episode and they might have no idea what ear training is.

Christopher: There’s also another really big reason we wanted to talk about this on the show, which is there’s kind of a big elephant in the room when it comes to ear training. It’s that it’s really hard and boring and frustrating for a lot of people. And I’m sure we’re going to be talking more about that, but obviously with this new course we’re already tackling that question of how can we make this the best it can be.

Christopher: I just realized there are some really fundamental things everyone should know about ear training you’ve tried it before or not. And so I wanted to jump on and thank you for giving me the chance to chit-chat about it, and just make sure everyone in our Musicality Now audience at least knows 100% how to approach this the right way.

Adam: Yeah. There is certainly that elephant in the room about ear training. It’s hard. It’s difficult. It’s boring. And I know no matter where you’ve been on your musical journey if you’ve ever tried it you probably have these preconceptions that you’re walking into this with. Now I’ve been with the company for a while and I’ve heard your story. I know how we came to this place, but I’d really love to share that with the audience. So if we could go back to your origin story. What prompted you to begin this journey into ear training?

Christopher: Yeah. I think one thing to say upfront is if you know this show our interviews often do start with the guest’s backstory. And this is not just kind of fireside chat with Christopher, let’s hear about the company. When we were planning this episode, Adam, you and I were talking about how in a way it’s hard for us to really explain what is ear training and how to approach it without telling a bit of that backstory, and where we came from, and how we know what we know. So I’ll share a bit of backstory for sure, and I hope it will become very clear that I’m doing so to help people understand ear training better rather than just out of curiosity about where we came from.

Christopher: So I got into ear training around 2007, 2008. I won’t tell the whole backstory here for sure, but just to set the scene. Around that time there were really only two options for ear training as far as people were concerned. One was the kind of traditional establishment and what they were providing for ear training, which to me in the UK and for a lot of people around the world, meant “I’m learning an instrument. I’m going to do some kind of graded exam system for that instrument. I encounter this thing called aural skills, or listening tests, in that context. And I’m gonna typically going to have one opportunity with my teacher a week before the exam to run through some drills and try and understand what the examiner is going to be asking me.”

Christopher: I can’t stress strongly enough how frustrating that was for me back in the day. And for me it was “aural skills”, like that’s what it was called in the exam grades I did. And I literally never heard of ear training. So from the age of whatever I would have been, like seven or eight, through to 20s, mid-20s even, taking instrument exams, learning music, I heard about aural skills all the time. But nobody used that phrase “ear training.”

Christopher: That may not seem important but it really is – because without that phrase I saw it as an assessment of my skills, what could I do. And because there was never really much training provided or talked about, I just saw it as an indictment of my ability. Like I could either pass that exam or I couldn’t, and hopefully I’ll be a bit better next year somehow. By osmosis I will have absorbed a bit.

Christopher: Of course hopefully anyone watching this show, listening to this show, understands aural skills are what ear training gives you. It should be presented as “here is a whole lot of area of music that you can study and learn in order to be able to pass the exam”. No disrespect to instrument teachers. There is a lot to cram into instrument lessons and for whatever reason that was never a big priority for them. So I went through a lot of years encountering aural skills, trying, failing, struggling, and going into my early 20s, mid-20s even, feeling like I just wasn’t very good at having a musical ear. Like I didn’t have it naturally. I was never going to be good at that stuff, and that was that.

Christopher: And then there was a big turning point around 2007, 2008 I guess, when I was working for a company that, long story short, I was doing a particular kind of ear training to help assess audio quality at that company. And I got this book that was like all these drills and exercises for recognizing frequency bands and has this gone up 3dB or down by 3dB. All of this really dirty stuff, like can you listen to a cymbal a thousand times and tell which one was different?

Christopher: Anyway that was really dry and boring, and it was actually super cool because what I found was that the more I did those exercises, the more I could just put on a piece of music and hear in rich, vivid detail what was going on. That was kind of my first glimpse of ear training. I think I shared some of this story recently when we were launching The Musician’s Ear and talking about active listening, which is kind of a sister subject to ear training in a lot of ways.

Christopher: But anyway it opened my eyes to this thing called ear training. I was seeing it in this audio context, audio quality and audio effects and that kind of thing, and audio frequencies. I stumbled upon that fact that actually that phrase is used in music, too. And for the first time, literally the first time after 15 years plus, 20 years?, not quite 20 years 15 years at least, I was clued into the fact that there was this whole body of knowledge around how do you learn aural skills. How do you learn to recognize notes by ear? Chords by ear? How do you learn to have better rhythm? All of this stuff that I had just assumed was beyond me. And there was this whole body of work called ear training that I could get involved with.

Christopher: So that was the other place where people were getting exposed to it. There were the folks who just saw it in the aural skills context because they were learning an instrument. And there were these intrepid explorers, one of which I became, seeking out could I do this for myself? Could I learn these skills? And back then in 2009 there wasn’t a great deal available for you, but it was possible. And that’s kind of the path I headed down.

Adam: Wow. Yeah. We’re dating ourselves. Like 2009 we didn’t have all these devices and all these interactive features that we have now so it’s definitely been a changing landscape. I know me personally it was aural skills and it was completely separate from instrument learning. Making that connection, it didn’t happen till much later for me either because it was just this other subject you had to take. So let’s pause the story and just really talk about what exactly ear training is. What did you discover through your exploration, reading books I’m sure, listening to different CDs, and all these different exercises you were going through?

Christopher: Yeah. I mentioned a few things there, like recognizing notes by ear, or intervals, or chords. What people think ear training is for the most part is doing drills and exercises so that you can identify particular things in music by ear. And that’s kind of true. That’s mostly true, but it’s also quite a limiting way to think about it. I’m sure we’ll be talking more about this. For example, back in 2009 you could get a book on ear training that would come with an accompanying CD. I wouldn’t name names, but you could get an expensive CD course for relative pitch that would purport to teach you all kinds of amazing things. And what it looked like was here’s an example, can you name it or not? And the more you practiced that the more you were able to go, oh that was a perfect fifth. Or, oh, that was a major chord. Or, ah, that’s a 1-4-5.

Christopher: You were able to figure stuff out by ear, which was super exciting to me because after dabbling with this for a bit I found I could start to play by ear and improvise. I wasn’t blowing the world away but it was literally the first time I felt like I could hear something and know what was going on. That was super cool. So that is kind of what people see ear training is and what they think it means.

Christopher: We in, I think 2009, when we launched easyeartraining.com, I believe we defined it as “anything someone does to improve their ear for music”. And even back then I could see it needed to be that broad because I had seen it from the audio perspective as well as the musical perspective. I had also started to experiment with our own ways, or my own ways, of developing these skills, which didn’t necessarily look like “listen to an example, can you name it, yes or no? Hopefully you’ll get better tomorrow”. So I could see that there were these ear training exercises which were definitely part of the picture, but ear training should be something bigger and grander and more impactful than that. So that was how we defined it.

Christopher: I think our new definition in this new course is a bit more thoughtful. It’s something like “developing your ear for better awareness and understanding and sensitivity to musical elements”, and maybe even “musical elements you hear in real life”. I think that captured it well. We’re not just talking about can you hear this and name it? We’re also talking about things like, can you tell if that note’s slightly out of tune? Or can you even tell that there are five instruments present, not just four? That’s where the active listening comes into the picture a little bit, it’s kind of a form of ear training or a subset perhaps.

Christopher: What’s important to understand is that ear training, whatever baggage you might have come to that term with, and for me there was all of this heavy baggage around instrument exams and passing tests. And then there was this new baggage around it’s doing drills and exercises. Whatever it means to you right now, all it literally is is the process is getting a good ear for music. And that’s going to look different for every musician. It’s going to be important to different people for different reasons. The end goal is going to look exciting in all different ways depending on what it is you want to do in music.

Christopher: But the process that gets you there is what we call ear training. This may seem like a really long answer to “what is ear training”. But it’s worth unpacking because a big part of the reason we’re doing this new course is, as I said, there’s a bit of an elephant in the room, which is… we did a survey recently and the statistics really kind of made me want to cry. Not least because, all humility aside, I’ve been literally trying to improve this area for 10 years now and it’s clearly not done. There is a long way to go. But our survey showed that literally 4% of the people who replied to me, out of the 500 people who replied from all different walks of life, 4% said they had a good experience with ear training in some way, shape, or form. Like they were happy with it, or they’d learned something, or it went well, or they enjoyed it. 96% of people who responded either hadn’t heard of it, had heard of it but not tried it, or had tried it and had a really bad experience.

Christopher: I don’t know what you think, Adam. It might just be worth unpacking each of those kind of different reasons for each of those. I’m pretty sure everyone watching this or listening to this finds themselves in one of those three camps. There’s 4% of you, four out of 100 of you, love ear training and you’re really winning with it. I’d like to think that has a high overlap with the members of Musical U who watch this. But regardless 96 of you out of every 100 I know are in one of those three camps.

Adam: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s really worth taking the time to talk about the different camps people find themselves in with ear training, and just unpacking that and trying to find solutions for it.

Christopher: Yeah. Well I think one other thing that was surprising in that survey that we did was the balance with those three categories. So it’s like: never heard of it, heard of it and never tried it, or tried it and had a bad experience. And then those lucky four in the 100 who got it. I was really surprised actually to find those three categories are quite equal, at least in our audience. We had a lot of respondents and the numbers came out roughly equal.

Christopher: That was another big part of why I wanted to make sure we did this episode, was for us, a company that was once called Easy Ear Training, for a third of our audience to say they’ve never heard of ear training, that hit me hard. That made me realize how far we’d moved away from this. We’ll talk more about that shortly. But those are the three camps. I’m sure if you’re watching or listening, you can relate to one or more of those.

Christopher: The first category, “never heard of it,” it kind of comes back to what I said before about my early experiences. I think everyone understands it’s possible to have a good ear for music, and obviously on this show we talk a lot about the talent myth and this idea that you’ve got to be born gifted or just naturally be able to do it. We won’t go down that tangent, but just to say I think a lot of people are in that camp of “if I don’t have a good ear, that’s just it. I’ll work on my fingering, and I’ll work on my sight reading and my theory, and I’ll get better as a musician. But the ear stuff, I just don’t have it.” So I think, unfortunately for kind of historical reasons, a lot of the music education people encounter these days is super instrument focused.

Christopher: I’ve talked to a lot of people on this show at this point from all around the world, all different kind of backgrounds in music education. It’s almost unanimous that, yeah, there is this issue that we focus so much on the instrument technique and on replicating the repertoire of the past that in a sense we’re training people to be very accurate note players but not really musicians. And in particular not really develop their musical ear. So that’s why I think there’s such a big category of people who have literally never heard of this idea of ear training and the fact that they could develop their ear for music.

Christopher: Then there’s this whole camp who’ve heard of it, come across it in some way, shape, or form, but haven’t tried it. Again, it’s kind of surprising that category is so big given that you can search the App Store, you can search Google, you can to go your library. You’ll find books, CDs, courses, MP3s, apps, you name it. There’s all kinds of ear training solutions at this stage but people haven’t tried it. And a lot of them are free. To be clear, we’ve tons on free material on our website including this show that covers some of the how if not the nitty-gritty of it. There’s tons of free stuff.

Christopher: So when we asked people is there a particular reason you haven’t tried ear training, I think the most interesting thing I can share is that pretty much all the reasons boiled down to, “I don’t have what it takes.” So some people said, “Ear training is something advanced,” like that’s something professional musicians do, or jazz musicians do. Or it’s something you get to later in learning music and I’ve just been learning for a year or two so I’m not ready for that. Some people said, “I’m not really strong on theory.” So clearly in their minds they were kind of lumping ear training and theory together, and they weren’t really interested in studying music theory so they hadn’t broached the ear training. Some people said, “It must be expensive,” like I guess they heard such good things about it they were like, “That must be really pricey.”

Christopher: A lot of people also, Adam you would know in our audience we’re predominantly adult music learners that we speak to and serve. And a lot of them were saying something along the lines of, “I didn’t do it when I was young.” So you can infer what they’re thinking is, “I can’t do it now. It’s too late for me.” And this was another kind of heart-breaking point from the survey, was just all of these people who’d come across the idea and probably got quite excited about it for a moment, but something they’d inherited culturally, some kind of baggage or misconception about ear training had them feeling like that’s not for me. So that’s the second category.

Christopher: I hope I presented that clearly enough that if you’re in that category you can relate to it. I think we won’t unpack every one of those points I just said are holding people back. But I’ll just summarize I think… they are all wrong. If you’re thinking you’re too old, or you’re thinking it needs to be expensive, or you’re thinking it’s advanced, or you’re thinking it’s too hard, or you’re thinking it’s just music theory, none of that is true. Again, I come back to that thing of ear training is not a fixed series of drills and exercises handed down from on high. It is a process of getting a good ear for music and whatever that looks like for you it is possible at whatever stage you’re at. So that’s the second camp.

Christopher: The third camp is “I tried it and had a bad experience”. And that’s really where I feel there’s this elephant in the room. There’s this topic that people aren’t really confronting I think very well, and I will take partial blame for that. As I said, I’ve been working in this area for about a decade and clearly the problem is not solved as it were. So a lot of people, the majority of people, the vast majority of people, who tried ear training have a really bad experience with it. And in our survey this came out with people saying it was difficult. It was frustrating. It was boring. Some people just swore a lot. I won’t repeat what they said. But some people had a real kind of visceral hatred of ear training.

Christopher: I literally went through answer by answer and tried to categorize, like did they have a good experience? Did they get results? Or was it a pretty bad time? Unfortunately the vast majority had a pretty bad time. That’s the other big reason I wanted to make sure we did this episode, and sooner rather than later. I feel like we’ve dropped the ball a bit in the sense that if a third of our audience are feeling that way about ear training something needs to be done because it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s quite a simple reason why it goes that way for people. I don’t know if we want to dig into that now or …

Adam: Yeah. I think it’s a great time. In doing some research we talked about all that’s out there, all that’s available, and what causes some of these perceptions. One of the things I keep coming up on is ear training equals perfect pitch, for example. That’s what you see a lot of the times. It’s not really that clear of a line between ear training and perfect pitch. I think that’s helping to cause that perception, well, I don’t have perfect pitch. I can’t develop perfect pitch, so why bother?

Adam: But here’s this whole other thing. There’s all this stuff you can still learn without even worrying about perfect pitch. If you’re thinking that out there listening, I don’t have perfect pitch. That’s okay. You actually might not even want perfect pitch. It can be just as much of a curse as a blessing.

Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a great case in point. I think, I hope, cross fingers. I think that’s one where we have done a podcast episode about that, and if we have we’ll link it in the show notes. I’m pretty sure we did. That’s a perfect case in point, where I’m not even certain we did because I take it so much for granted that we’ve told people this. Do you know what I mean? Like we talked about that a lot in the first few years of the company. I feel like the engineer in me is like, right, that problem’s solved let’s move on. And, of course, if you’re tuning in today for the first time you might not have even heard that idea, that perfect pitch is not the be-all and end-all. Actually there’s this whole thing called relative pitch. It can deliver all the same results, like naming chords and notes by ear, and playing by ear, and improvising. And I might have just blown someone’s mind right now by saying that. That is crazy to me, and that’s really why we need to … Anyway we’ll talk more about it, but why we kind of need to return to our roots a little bit.

Christopher: So that third category then, let’s talk about why it goes so badly for people. It is, as you say, it’s partly the misconceptions that people come in with. And a lot of that, I could rant and rail against society and our inherited ideas about music education. But the reality is everyone comes from a different background. We aren’t necessarily going to understand perfectly what ear training is, nor should we expect to. But the trouble is we’ve kind of gone more and more down this path and I say in society, in any Western society, UK, Australia, America. The Western world of music making over the last few hundred years has gone further and further down this path and it was a great interview actually, I’ll track down the details but I’m pretty sure Forrest Kinney on Tim Topham’s podcast did a really good job of explaining this historically and how we came to be at the stage we are.

Christopher: Long story short. If you look back right to Beethoven, Mozart, classical era there was this whole turning point that took music from being this creative, expressive art form where anyone could come up with their own ideas, to being something where we revered these great musicians and composers, and we saw music as something to be performed from sheet music. And your goal was to replicate the works of the masters as perfectly as possible. I’m sure anyone watching or listening to this who studied music for any length of time in almost any context today will have been handed that expectation. Like we’re going to learn to play the music that’s been written before and maybe there’ll be a little bit of improvising in there if you’re lucky and you’re doing jazz of blues, and you’ll be given a little thing to play around with.

Christopher: But generally speaking music is presented as perform what’s been written before art form. And you know the other person who talks really eloquently about this is Bradley Sowash. He talks about the insanity of an art form being handed to people in this way, as just your only goal, imagine doing it with visual art. Your only goal is to reproduce the great masterworks of the past. It would boggle our minds.

Christopher: Anyway that’s what’s happened with music. And the upshot for ear training is we’ve kind of forgotten that everyone can and should have a good musical ear. As I’ve described with my own experience, it’s become this kind of you might have it, you might not. If you do, great. If you don’t, no worries, you’ll still learn to play it like a perfect robot. I don’t want to go down into a pit of despair here, but that’s the world we find ourselves in. Because there’s so much to be hopeful for. I’ve just named a couple of the amazing music educators out there these days who are changing that and giving people the resources to turn it back into an expressive, creative art form.

Christopher: But just to put a point on that – we’ve gone down and down this path and it’s meant ear training has become a fraction of what it once was. It is this process of getting a good ear for music, something that everyone is capable of. And instead what people encounter it as is, do these exercises, take this test. You might do it. You might not. What a lot of it boils down to, and Adam, you used this word earlier which was spot on. It’s isolation. It’s the idea that even if you do ear training you’re doing it separate from your musical life. That’s really what we’ll be talking a lot about when presenting this course Ear Training for Beginners. Because this is the root cause of pretty much all those frustration messages we got in the survey. I spent a good several years talking one on one with people by email about ear training and I can guarantee the reason they’re frustrated, or bored, or they didn’t enjoy it, or they didn’t see the point, it’s because they were doing it in an isolated way.

Christopher: They were probably doing it because they felt they should, or they just wanted to give it a try. And what they got were these exercises and drills, and what they wanted to be doing was playing their instrument, and playing by ear and improvising. And this complete disconnect between those two things, it’s something we call the ear training trap. We did a short podcast episode on this in the past, specifically talking about the disconnection from your instrument. That’s kind of half of the answer, half of the puzzle.

Christopher: What it looks like is, I’ve got an ear training app and I’m going through the exercises. I’m getting pretty good at the exercises. Oh, I’ve completed the app. And now I pick up my instrument. I can’t play by ear. I can’t improvise. I don’t know to write music myself, and somehow all of that time and effort I’ve spent on ear training kind of got me nothing. I shouldn’t be too rude about apps. We have apps. We got started with apps, but that’s the reality people find themselves in whether it’s apps, or books, or CDs, or courses. It’s this isolation of ear training that’s really at the heart of the problem.

Adam: Yeah, you mentioned we started with apps. We still have apps at Musical U that get downloaded every single day. So along the way you had a pivot where you took all the stuff that was in the apps, which is where you started, to Easy Ear Training and then ended up creating courses, and memberships, and all of this great material. All of this stuff to pull people through their journey, to show them how not only can they learn these skills, but then they can apply into their musical life, on to their instrument. I’d like to unpack that a little bit, that part of the journey.

Christopher: Yeah. Well, this is maybe, apart from my own personal backstory, this is maybe why it’s relevant and useful to share that kind of Easy Ear Training / Musical U story. Because that big pivot you referred to came out of exactly what I just described, this ear training trap. If we pick up in like 2015, I had spent 2009-2015 building Easy Ear Training. I had kind of dabbled in ear training enough to know it was incredibly useful and had this enormous potential. But everything I found out there for it was really boring and it just didn’t seem like it should be.

Christopher: You know music is fun, and it’s exciting, and it’s creative. And then I would do these ear training exercises, and they’d give me some results but the process was so unmusical. I was just like, “There has to be a better way.” I’m geeky so I started making iPhone apps because the iPhone was just coming out. Anyway, I won’t tell the whole story. I’ve told it elsewhere, but this app thing kind of snowballed. I had this clear vision of what ear training could be and what it could deliver for musicians. I just kind of plowed back every penny we made into building this company and publishing free stuff on our website. I can’t tell you how much it blew my mind that we could become the leading website for ear training online with easyeartraining.com.

Christopher: I did it because it baffled me that there wasn’t that website. Like here was that thing that could transform the musical life of any musician on the planet. How is there not a website for that? There was web stuff. You could Google and find a page on a website or a chapter in a music theory book. But I was like, how is there not a home of ear training online? So anyway I just kind of heavily reinvested, built the company. I won’t go into the tumultuous journey of trying to be an entrepreneur when that’s not necessarily your natural inclination. But we kind of made some progress and I think it’s fair to say we became the market leader in ear training, at least for adult musicians, like people who were coming to music over the age of 16 wanting to learn music or coming back to music.

Christopher: We really specialized in that. We had apps. We had ear training albums which were quite innovative at the time. We had eBooks with audio in them. That was also just trying to push the boundary of where technology could help make this fun and easy. I kind of found myself in 2015 in this position where we were kind of the market leader. We had these products that were super popular among the people who bought them and used them. We had this free material that people loved. We were doing some good, but every time I’d have a conversation with someone I was encountering this ear training trap. I was encountering this thing where they loved the product and they were doing well with the training. But it just didn’t seem to be hitting in their musical life. They didn’t seem to be really getting the payoff.

Christopher: I could see from my own experience that’s because it was being done in isolation. There’s only so much you can do about that in a product, or in an app, or a course, or a book. Those are great for providing that kind of practice phase where you’re doing exercises and drills. But it was really hard to imagine how can we solve this problem in that form. So I kind of made a couple of moves in 2015 that were a bit risky in retrospect, while I knew at the time I just kind of went for it.

Christopher: One was to, as you say, move away from here is a product that will teach you this thing, ear training, to can we provide an all inclusive solution? Can we give people an environment and the resources so they can actually get that payoff, that impact from all the ear training effort? That came down to a couple of things. One was making it really flexible. So letting people mix and match different skills, different areas, depending on their interests, move flexibly through the training depending on their progress. And the other huge part was doing it in a community context, somewhere where they could see other people training and discuss it. They could get expert help, like our team could be there. Instead of just me answering a question by email and then never how that goes, actually be able to help support people day-in, day-out moving through this. I think a moment ago you put it as “pulling” people though it. Sometimes it feels like that. I like to think we’re supporting people through it.

Christopher: But, as you say, it’s about actually getting them through that journey. I say that was risky because it was a huge product to change for us. We had the successful suite of individual products of various kinds, and it was kind of taking all of that and saying, it’s all or nothing. And, by the way, it’s a subscription, which I’m sure a lot of people watching and listening can relate to. Not everyone loves signing up for Netflix month after month however much they love Netflix and all it does for them. That subscription thing is often a sticking point. But that was the only realistic way we could provide this kind of solution.

Christopher: And the other big risky move which is really what brings us here today even more than that, is I could see that part of the problem was all of the baggage around ear training. So I used to tell people when I would discuss marketing over that period, like 2009-2015 and I guess a little bit after that too. We were still called Easy Ear Training. I’d discuss marketing with experts, or with other entrepreneurs, and talk to them about how we were getting on. I would say to them, you know we’ve kind of got this problem where most musicians have never heard of ear training and those who have had a really bad experience with it. I wrestled with that for several years, and we did the best we could. We kind of tried to present how it was different, and better, and people should try it.

Christopher: And the upshot was in 2015, I was just, if we’re going to do a whole new thing, maybe let’s step away from that term and let’s talk about what people actually care about. It’ll come as no surprise to people who are watching or listening to this, but the word we moved to was “musicality”, which to me it captures much better. I won’t go long on this because in episode 200 recently we had our members share what the word means to them and they did a much better job of it than I could. But, in short, it captures that end payoff. If captures the kind of musician you want to be, who’s just kind of easily, naturally expressing themselves in music, playing whatever they hear on the radio, of being able to pick up their instrument and play what they hear in their heads. Being able to improvise, or go to the local jam session or orchestra or band, or start a band, and just feel comfortable doing whatever you want to in music. Because it is inside you in some sense.

Christopher: That was obviously from a business, marketing perspective, a huge change to step away from ear training, stop referring to the company, the brand as Easy Ear Training. Change our domain and all of the web stuff from easyeartraining.com to musical-u.com, and really grow into this brand of Musical U and this idea of musicality. I really wasn’t sure it would work. To some extent the jury is still out, but over the last few years, I’m sure you feel the same way, Adam, having kind of seen a bit of both worlds when you first joined the team. Musicality just feels like so much more a natural fit for what we are all about at our company. And ear training is totally at the heart of it. It’s still the crux of all the training we do, like 80% of the modules at Musical U are ear training in some sense. But what people come for is the musicality and the ear training is just kind of the means to that end.

Adam: Yeah. I have to confess when I first joined the team, I was, “Musicality? What is that?” It definitely spurred a journey of my own to rediscover that in my life. We’re adults and sometimes you have to take time away from music and then come back to it. It’s this great circular journey that I know I’ve been on. And I’ve talked to so many of our members that are on a similar path where coming back to it is just so invigorating. And when you do it through this integrated approach, through this process, it makes it so much more exciting, so much more fun. Because you’re using it every single day. You mentioned something in there about when the company became Musical U and it was really self-guided. People could mix and match what skills they wanted to learn when. It was really this guided exploration is what I would call it.

Adam: But while we’re talking about this particular course, Ear Training for Beginners, we’re talking about a very guided, step-by-step methodology which we haven’t really done at Musical U much until very recently. I’d just like to explore that pivot back to a more core structure.

Christopher: Yeah. So I guess the question that might be on people’s minds is “that all sounds nice. Great. Good job. What’s the problem?” You know, we made this shift to musicality. We’ve got this environment where people could be supported through. Ear training is put in a musical context. We do what we call Integrated Ear Training, meaning it’s actually a part of all the music you listen to and play and understand the theory of. It works really well.

Christopher: But, as you say, what we’re launching this week is Ear Training for Beginners. I guess it comes back to me feeling a bit stupid in our recent conversations when we were talking about having moved away from the phrase ear training, and those survey results that made me realize it might have been a smart business, marketing move at the time but in a sense we really dropped the ball. I feel like we’ve been letting down a segment of the music learning population who know they want ear training. The people who’ve heard of it but not yet tried it, or the people who’ve heard of it, tried it, and not yet succeeded with it. Maybe, hopefully, they find their way to musicality training and realize that ear training’s at the heart of that.

Christopher: But frankly we’ve been doing such a bad job of explaining that. In retrospect we just moved too firmly away from ear training is one way to look at it. You know I was so clear that this was the way to talk about it, and this was the way to serve people, I forgot that we might need to explain what ear training is, and how it’s the means to the end, and why it so important, and how to do it right. So I kind of feel like we dropped the ball in the sense of probably in 2015 we should have moved away from ear training and rebranded and so on. But we probably should have kept talking about ear training a lot more than we did, and it probably shouldn’t have taken us 200 episodes to talk about “what is ear training” here on the show.

Christopher: So that’s kind of the reason we decided to do something different. Part of that obviously is this episode, is just trying to get that message back into what we put out there for free and to make sure that at least anyone who follows this show, or follows Musical U, understands how we see ear training, and the biggest problem with it and what to do about it. We can talk a little bit more about that in a moment to make sure everyone goes away with that clear in their minds.

Christopher: But the other things is, for all the benefits of that all-inclusive solution and the membership at Musical U, there are particular circumstances where a course is valuable, is the short way to put it. You can literally go back to past episodes of this show and you’ll hear me railing against courses and talking about how there can be no one size fits all course for musicality. We totally stand by that. That is true. And if you look at the kind of journey our members have from zero in some cases through to a whole fully fledged set of skills, there can be no one-size-fits-all linear course for that transition.

Christopher: That being said, over the last year we’ve been exploring are there ways to get the benefits of courses without pretending all of its stuff can be sensibly fit into a single straight line course? There are, as anyone who’s taken a course can attest, there are benefits to a course. You understand what you’re getting into. It often has a fixed time scale. There’s a clear start point and end point, and you understand “I will do this step and then I will do that step”. There’s a lot that’s appealing about that when it’s a good fit for the material. So we tried this for the first time last year with Foundations of a Musical Mind, which if you’re a long-time listener or viewer you’ll have seen that launch and how we explained at the time that it’s just not part of Musical U membership. So in that case we had an outside instructor. It was this particular Kodaly methodology. We were building a new foundation from scratch and taking nothing for granted.

Christopher: We followed that up more recently with The Musician’s Ear. I alluded to that earlier. It’s all about active listening. In that case we were teaching one specific skill, something that’s normally missed out on. People don’t realize they’re missing it. It’s deeply tied to musicality but it’s not quite what we specialize in in the Musical U membership. It didn’t quite fit into here’s a new training module or two. So we wanted to put that together and have it in a 10-week program that could kind of immerse people in that skill and start from the very beginning because most people have never been introduced to that.

Christopher: Most recently we just had a course called the Circle Mastery Experience, and that was recent enough that I won’t rehash it all here. But suffice to say: isolated topic from music theory, approaching it in a musicality way instead. And, again, zero start point and very clear end point. You can probably figure out the common factor there is these are all cases where we were starting from scratch and trying to teach one particular thing with a very clear outcome. And in that case I think courses, and we’ve been finding, courses are a beautiful complement to what we offer in that all-inclusive membership. I don’t what to make this out as this is all about Musical U and our product line, because you may care about that, you may not. But I hope everyone will understand the more generalizable point there, that there are cases in your musical life where you need an all-encompassing, flexible solution. Just like in personal lessons where the teacher will provide you, where they can guide you through the wilderness as it were.

Christopher: And there are other cases where it does make sense to take that fixed course from A to B. It’s quite important to figure out which of those any given skill is, because it makes a huge difference to your success. So rambling, rambling. But all of that just to say there are cases where courses are a really good thing, and in particular if you’re trying to start from scratch and get to a certain point. You can kind of assume everyone’s got the same background and they’re aiming for the same thing, which is the biggest issues with trying to teach the whole of musicality in that way. So that’s what brought us to, why don’t we have an ear training for beginners course?

Christopher: It’s one of those ideas where once you hear of it, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, whoops.” You know it comes out of the thing where we moved too firmly away from ear training, and even though we were still literally doing ear training day in, day out with Musical U members, I wasn’t thinking any longer in that term of thinking can I help people with ear training? So our company wasn’t really thinking about making ear training products. We were just thinking about helping people gain the skills of musicality.

Christopher: And so, like this podcast episode, it’s very overdue in a sense, because the 10 years we’ve been focused on this, we’ve been trying to help the adult music learner get a better ear for music. For a long time we did that and called it ear training. For the last four years I guess, we’ve done that still but not called it ear training. It was just suddenly clear it was time to come full circle and put something out there that was very clear-cut. This is about ear training for beginners.

Adam: I think one of the common factors you brought up when talking about learning all these skills, whether it’s Foundations of the Musical Mind, Active Listening, Circle of Fifths, any of these topics that we went over. It’s about the immersion and fully learning about it, and then exploring it, playing it.

Adam: I know we have this process here at Musical U that really allows people to just immerse themselves into a topic. Explore, and play, and enjoy it. I’d love to hear more about that process.

Christopher: Yeah. Well, I want to do what we always try and do when we’re talking about a product or a product launch here on the show, which is make sure what we’re sharing is useful to you whether or not you buy the product. And so obviously we hope if you’ve never tried ear training or you want to get started, you’ll consider this new course, Ear Training for Beginners.

Christopher: But I did say before I want to share the solution, as it were, to that isolated ear training to make sure that whatever happens you go away and you have more success with ear training. So as you say, Adam, we have this particular approach and it’s an approach we call Integrated Ear Training, by contrast with that “isolated” ear training which is by default what everyone is doing. This has really been developed, primarily since that pivot to Musical U. You know there were pieces of it in place before for sure. Like from that first definition of ear training I was trying to make sure it was a bit more holistic than the standard.

Christopher: But it was really once we were in the context of Musical U, we were working alongside members every day, seeing how they got on, seeing what the sticking points were, seeing how we could support them and guide them, that it really began to take shape. And since day one at Musical U we’ve had a particular framework that we call the Learn, Practice, Apply framework for Integrated Ear Training. What it means is any module inside Musical U is in one of those three categories, and everything the wide world considers ear training is just our “Practice” modules.

Christopher: When I say it like that you can probably suddenly get a sense of what might be missing, all of those other solutions including, in all truth including our own, the original apps and the original eBooks and training albums to some extent. All of those really just hit one of three phases of ear training. You need to learn stuff which will help you understand the concept, help give you a kind of mental framework or structure to know how all of the exercises and drills fit in. Then you practice and you get those core skills, and that’s great. There’s a ton of stuff out there to do that phase for sure.

Christopher: And then you need to apply it. You don’t do ear training for five years and then hopefully one day you can magically improvise. In our world view and what we’ve seen work incredibly well with members is you want to get to that apply phase as soon as possible. And, Adam, you made reference there to the fact that we’ve kind of been bringing this into our courses in varying ways. So the clearest cut example is with the Circle Mastery Experience: what all of the world is doing is just the “learn” bit, frankly. They’re teaching people the concepts of the circle of fifths, how to understand it, what it means, what the words are, what the terminology is. But does anyone actually really practice with the circle of fifths? Does anyone really apply it in more than just can I remember the key signature? No.

Christopher: We’ve talked about that enough on the show, and we have a great episode about the circle of fifths with Andrew and Anastasia that I won’t rehash here. But just to say I think this is one of those mental frameworks where once it’s explained to you, I feel like you just become very conscious of when one of those three things is missing. In particular with ear training I hope anyone coming away from this episode is going to be asking themselves, if I want to learn intervals, or I want to learn to recognize chord progressions by ear, or I want to tighten up my rhythm, yes I’m going to need exercises and drills. But have I made sure I actually understand how those drills are going to connect to the theory behind this, the concepts, the structures, the frameworks of music? And as soon as I start doing those exercises, am I applying this? Whether that’s to improvise or play by ear, or write your own music, or just analyzing the music you’re already playing, are you actually going to take those drills and exercises and make use of them in your real musical life?

Christopher: It’s probably a different episode but we have this concept at Musical U called the trifecta where the three parts of becoming a musician are your ear skills, your instrument technique, and understanding music theory. And a big part of what I just talked about is the fact that people do each of those three things to varying degrees, but they’re often not drawing the lines in between all of them. So in our worldview there’s this diagram with arrows going between each of those three things.

Christopher: And the Integrated Ear Training is really about saying “make sure you have those arrows”. And make sure that when you’re doing the drills you understand how it relates to theory. I’m not saying you need to study theory in great depth. Often it’s just kind of some basic concepts that let you fit that ear training exercise into your brain in a useful way and make sure you’re applying it. Because all the drills in the world won’t help you do the things you actually care about doing in your musical life.

Christopher: So we have this Learn, Practice, Apply framework. That’s what we’ve been bringing into our courses as much as possible. It’s what’s we’ve put throughout this new Ear Training for Beginners course. So, yes, we have like literally seven or eight years where we were developing exercises and exercises, seeing what worked, perfecting them, figuring out the tips, figuring out the sticking points, getting those drills really, really good. And that’s the practice bit. But we also bring this learn bit, and this apply bit. We’ve found that is really what makes this a completely different ear training experience for people.

Adam: It reminds me of another podcast I listen to frequently where the host will say, “If you read 100 books about swimming, does that mean you know how to swim?” No. Eventually you have to jump in the water. Right? And that’s where all these things tend to come together. Personally for me thinking about this, just from my own musical journey this would have been huge if I had done this more when I was learning ear training, when I was going through the conservatory. I did it in isolated little bits where I would sing the intervals on the trumpet before I would play them. I’m a trumpet player.

Adam: But it was never holistic. And I think personally for me it’s a bit hard not to be disappointed because I feel like I missed out on all these things I could have been doing. But you know I think it’s a great time to take stock of where you are now and even if you don’t come along for the course or come along with Musical U, any of the courses or membership, just to understand that there are all these great things that you can still do. And you can go in this other direction and just continue learning. And I think that’s phenomenal.

Christopher: Yeah. Well you know I was saying to you the other day, this whole course release is a bit bittersweet for me because I’m super proud and excited of what we put together and the chance to have an impact with it. But I’m also kind of kicking myself that it’s taken us this long. The same goes for this episode, where I know there will be people in the audience who’ve had light bulbs going off, being like, “Oh, that’s why I had so much frustration.” Or, “That’s why I completed the app but I still couldn’t really do anything.” I think once that clicks in your head it just opens up this whole new possibility. It’s probably been clear in this conversation, this is a topic where if you get me talking I have to keep catching myself and being like, “Let’s not rant and rave about that. Let’s not be too rude about this, that, and the other. Let’s not be too annoyed about the state of things.”

Christopher: But I try and frame it all positively, and this is a case in point, where putting this course out there, it’s a chance for us to really move the needle on how people experience ear training. I want to mention there’s a couple of things we’re doing to try and make that happen. One is, you know I mentioned before one sticking point for people can be “ear training must be really expensive”. Like if it’s that amazing, it must be pricey. We made the decision to price this course at a point where it’s affordable for any hobbyist musician, and I’m really excited about that, not least because it still includes the kind of unparalleled personal support and guidance we always provide at Musical U. So this isn’t like a Udemy course where you could email the course instructor and hopefully get an answer back one day. This is just like our membership where we’re going to be in there with the students day in day out, helping with questions, sticking points. Helping keep them moving forwards. So I’m really excited to be able to price it at a point where we can still do that and anyone can get access.

Christopher: And the other thing I’m really excited about, but I’m not really allowed to talk about yet, is our teachers program. All I can say for now is just if you are a teacher, and the stuff I’ve been talking about today and this idea of making ear training integrated to the extent that it’s actually fun and enjoyable and effective, and connected with theory and instrument stuff, if that’s exciting to you we would love to work with you to get that into your students’ hands. I don’t know what we’re doing for this, you can get in touch with us. We’re kind of behind the scenes getting some stuff together. But if you are interested in that just shoot an email to hello at musicalitynow.com and we’ll get you taken care of.

Christopher: So I’m really excited that we can do those two things to hopefully get a bigger impact with this course than it could otherwise have. Hopefully in a year, three years, whenever it is, I hopefully won’t be so prone to ranting and raving.

Adam: That’s one of the things that I’m most excited about, getting this …

Christopher: Christopher not ranting and raving any more.

Adam: Christopher not ranting and raving. I’m not going to hold my breath on that one. No, The teacher’s program. I think that’s going to be phenomenal. I’m looking forward to that as well because having taught private lessons myself, you know, teachers are so stressed for time. It can be so difficult. I don’t want to go on a big diatribe about it but it’s a very difficult thing to balance out lessons and practice exams and all these things that teachers do have to do.

Christopher: Yeah. I’ll just say that we did a teacher survey recently and this was another point at which I kind of wanted to cry a bit, was just hearing how ear training is approached. No disrespect or judgment of the teachers. As you say, there’s a ton for them to cram in and they’re got all kinds of pressures and responsibilities. But from my perspective knowing what’s possible in ear training and what we can potentially do to help with that, I was just looking at those responses and being, “Oh, this could be so much better.” So, yeah, likewise, I’m super excited about the teacher program. If anybody wants to get involved, hello at musicalitynow.com.

Adam: Fantastic. We look forward to hearing from you. So where can people find out more about Ear Training for Beginners?

Christopher: Yeah. We should mention that for sure. Eartrainingcourse.com is the domain. If you just go to eartrainingcourse.com it’ll take you straight to the details of this course and you’ll find all the information you need.

Adam: And I have to tell a joke about Christopher because when we were getting ready to launch he said, “We’ve actually owned this domain for a long time and we never used it. So clearly I’ve been thinking about this and somehow we got distracted.”

Christopher: We could have framed the whole conversation around that point, like the domain purchase, domain expiry, and domain repurchase of eartrainingcourse.com. But we are finally going to have something worthy of that name, and I hope everyone will go take a look.

Adam: Any parting words today, Christopher?

Christopher: I think just to cycle back… I never like to end on “Come buy our product.” I think I just want to make sure everyone is coming away from this with the most important learning point, which is: ear training is for everyone. It is the means to the end of having a good ear for music, which powers everything from playing by ear, to writing your own music, to jamming and collaborating easily. It is universally accessible, whatever age you are, whatever background you’re coming from, whatever theory knowledge you have or don’t have, whatever instrument, style of music, ear training is for you.

Christopher: And if you do it in the right way it is not a hard slog. It is not endless dry, abstract drills. It is something that feels as musical as anything you do in your musical life. And if you take away this one idea, that the biggest problem is isolated ear training, and the biggest thing you can do for yourself is to connect with theory, connect it with your instrument, make sure you’re always learning what you need to, and applying what you learn not just practicing. Not just that middle phase. I think if people just take away that we’ve done good work today.

Adam: Fantastic. Well, I always look forward to speaking with you again, Christopher. Maybe I’ll host another episode in the near future and we’ll talk about another subject.

Christopher: Absolutely. I would love that. Cheers, Adam.

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