Friday, April 19, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Introduction to Ear Training

"I really liked using music theory because it gave names to a lot of things I already knew [...] and also introduced me to things I didn't know."
-Paul Gilbert

I'm a huge theory head.  We've talked about how theory doesn't matter in the end - it's description and tools.  What matters is the sound.  But what we haven't talked about is how to understand what we hear better.  Our ears need training.  So that's what we're going to do.

So many musicians - and guitarists may be the worst offenders - rely on their hands to make the sounds.  I'm much more interested in having my hands produce the sounds.  Before you write me off as splitting hairs, the important difference is in where the ideas on what to play comes from - and that is in your head.  If you are at the point as a guitarists where you can do cool things, but they are a surprise to you when they happen, then this lesson is especially for you.  This will get you one step closer to knowing what you're going to play before you play it, so you can do cool things all the time instead of just by accident.

When I say "ear training" I mean making you more sensitive to musical changes.  Your ear really doesn't "get stronger" - your brain gets better and processing what your ear picks up.  There's a ton of ways to go about improving your ear, but one of the best is singing.

Yes.  Singing.

I know, if you're reading this you're probably a guitar player.  Singing can help make you a better musician in so many ways, but the biggest reason it helps your ear training is that singing is a direct connection to your brain.  You think a pitch, you sing it - no middle man, no technique, no hands.  It doesn't matter how you sound - trust me, I'm a terrible singer - only that you sing correct pitches.

I could have you play some scales and sing along - which is great practice - but that's kind of boring.  Instead, let's play some music.

Here are two great exercises for improving your ear.  One - take your favorite song, and sing the melody.  Then pick up your instrument of choice and figure it out.  No using tab, and it has to be in the same key you sang it - doesn't matter if that's the key on the recording or not.  The point is to play back what you sang.

Once you can do that, then sing it again.  Really listen to yourself while you sing.  Listen to the way you approach notes.  How some are louder than others - some are longer than others - some have vibrato and others might not.  Then, in as much as your instrument is capable, recreate that when you play.  If you're on a piano, think about note length and volume (or "dynamics" in music-speak).  If you're on a guitar, you can also think about sliding into pitches and vibrato.  If you are on a wind instrument you can even think about articulation and warm, open tone vs bright, cold tone.

This is fantastic for your ear because it gets you thinking and listening in a musical way.  You are not just mechanically singing a scale or arpeggio (again, great exercises.  We might come back to something like that.  They're just boring).  Instead, you're focusing more on expressive elements of music right from the start.

The second exercise make something up and then play it back.  Start by making up a short melody and then imitate it on your instrument.  The goal is to be able to do this on the first try, without having to hunt around your instrument until you pick the right notes.

At first, that's not going to happen.  You'll sing something, try to play it and fail miserably.  This is perfectly acceptable.  Figure out that melody, and then try another one.  The more you practice this, the more you will find that it comes quicker and quicker each time.  You get better and translating the sound into physically playing the instrument.  What's happening is that you are making connections in your brain about how certain intervals feel on your instrument - without even knowing what they're called.  Then, when you learn the music theory names for those intervals, you'll simply be putting a name on what you already know.

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos    

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