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As with all other musical skills, there are many different levels and kinds of proficiency. One musician may be very good at "playing by ear", but may not even read music and cannot name intervals or write the music down. Another may be very good at "taking dictation" (writing down the music they hear), and yet feel unable to do jazz improvisation. As always, the key is to practice the particular skills that you want to develop.

Ear training skills

Tuning

This is the most basic ear training skill, crucial to being able to play music that people will want to hear.

    Suggestions

  • At the beginner level, work with a skilled musician who can teach you how to tune your instrument and help you identify and fix tuning problems.
  • Play with other musicians often. (Playing along with recordings does not teach good tuning skills.) Don't just tune at the beginning of rehearsals and performances. Listen at all times and be ready to retune any note whenever necessary.
  • Spend as much time as necessary tuning whenever you play. Do not (knowingly) practice while out of tune; if you do, it will slow down your ear training tremendously. Whenever possible, until you are good at tuning, get someone else to help you tune every time you play.
  • Practice tuning quickly and accurately. Learn any alternate fingerings and other "tricks" available on your instrument for fine-tuning each note as you play.

Playing chords by ear

For instruments that play chordal accompaniments, this is an incredibly useful skill.

    Suggestions

  • You do not have to learn to read music to be able to do this, but it is very helpful to know a little bit about music theory so that you can predict which chords are most likely to happen in a song. Try starting with Beginning Harmonic Analysis .
  • Really listen to the chord progressions to the songs you do know. What do they sound like? Play the same progressions in different keys and listen to how that does and also does not change the sound of the progression. Change the bass notes of the chords to see how that changes the sound of the progression to your ears. Change fingerings and chord voicings, and again listen carefully to how that changes the sound to your ears.
  • Practice figuring out the chords to familiar songs (that you don't know the chords to). For songs that you do know the chords to, try playing them in an unfamiliar key, or see if you can change or add chords to make a new harmony that still fits the melody.
  • A teacher who understands harmony can help tremendously with this particular skill. Even if you don't normally take lessons, you might want to consider having a series of lessons on this. Find a teacher who is willing and able to teach you specifically about harmony and typical chord progressions.

Playing tunes by ear

This is fun to be able to do, makes it easy to increase your repertoire, and is an important step in being able to improvise.

    Suggestions

  • Just do it! The best way to learn this skill is to spend some of your practice time trying to play tunes you know and like.
  • Once you start getting good at this, see how quickly you can get a new tune down. How few mistakes can you make the first time you try it? Can you "recover" quickly from a mistake by making it sound like a bit of improvisation?
  • If you play a melody instrument (one that plays only one note at a time), there are different bits of information that help you recognize what the next note will be: how far it is from the note you are on (see Interval ), where it is in the key (see Beginning Harmonic Analysis ) or where it is in the chord (see Triads ). These three things are all related to each other, of course - and a musician with a well-trained ear will be aware of all of them, at least subconsciously - but you may find at first that one works better for you than the others. You may want to experiment: is it easier for you to think of the next note as being a perfect fourth higher than the note you are on, or as being the root of the chord, or as being the fifth note in the scale of the key?
  • As of this writing, petersax-online had many exercises graded from simple to more difficult to help the beginner practice playing what you hear.

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Source:  OpenStax, Introduction to music theory. OpenStax CNX. Mar 14, 2005 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10208/1.5
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