There Isn’t a Plug-In for That: 3 Steps to Better Ears

When I was studying jazz bass, I had a teacher named Cristoph who gave me a homework assignment that I never forgot. And I’m convinced that it was responsible for the most important musical skill I’ve ever learned.

All he asked me to do each week was to transcribe 32 bars of the bassline to a jazz song of my choosing. I had my doubts about this process. “I want to learn to play the bass, not to listen to the bass,” I thought as I loaded up my bass into my car after my first lesson, after not having played a single note.

When I showed up the next week, I played through the section of On Green Dolphin Street that I had transcribed. Christoph pointed out mistakes and suggested taking things up and down an octave. Once I was done, he asked me tell him the chord changes based on the bassline. After a few missteps, I was able to identify the chord changes and after that, I was able to improvise my own bassline for the same song!

Ahmad Jamal-On Green Dolphin Street

Most people think of ear training, the ability to reverse engineer a song from listening to it, as something that you are either born with or not. I am here to tell you that this is definitely not true. I went into Cristoph’s lessons with no better ears than anyone else and I still, to this day, I can fairly quickly pick out a melody that I hear on the radio or in someone else’s track. Of any real musical skill, I have to say that this is the most crucial (for me) and also the most irreplaceable with technology.

Good ear training allows me to listen to a sound or track that inspire me and pinpoint the melody and chord changes EXACTLY. It also lets me go from a line that I hummed into my iPhone while driving to a finished melody in Ableton with a minimum amount of fuss. It’s basically the most important thing in the world, ever (hyperbole alert).

Basic Ear Training

Here are a few ideas to get you started with your ear training. You can start right now even if you have no idea about scales, chords, etc.

1) Put Your Instrument Away. The most important thing that I learned is that you have to sing or at least hum. I am no brain genius, but there is something about the process of listening to something, humming it and, only then, trying to play it on a keyboard, guitar, etc. Part of this, I’m sure, is that singing or humming makes you isolate the different melodic phrases in a piece of music. While we experience music all at once (polyphonically), we can only sing one note at a time (monophonically). I also think that melodic phrases are easier to retain if you sing them. My opinion is that this is because of magic.

2) Switch Parts. It is probably more important for you to transcribe (or at least play) multiple different “parts” within the same 30 seconds than it is to try to play back an entire song. So, once you’ve got the melody down, try the bassline. This will do two things for you. It will make you appreciate the complexity of any piece of music, no matter how Lady Gaga-esque. It will also give you more information for number 3.

3) Learn Music Theory. Or at least the basics of chords and scales. In reality, this whole process of reverse engineering a song, is more of a process of deduction than anything. And the more you learn about Music Theory, the more you’ll realize that in, most musical situations, there are really only 4 options. Once you know some Music Theory, how a song is put together starts to resemble chess. From the outside, the options look infinite, but they are actually very finite. If you don’t want to lose, that is.

Do any of you have any experience transcibing music or doing ear training? Let me know if ye olde comments!

14 Responses to “There Isn’t a Plug-In for That: 3 Steps to Better Ears”

  1. Warrior Bob January 6, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    I think this is an underappreciated point. I’ve spent a few years learning electronic music and theory, which has been great, but then last year I decided to join a choir and take up playing the cello.

    Weird thing about both of those? No ‘discrete’ notes – no frets, keys, blocks, nothing. Pitch is continuous and you can’t really pick one by location alone; you have to hear it, feel it, and compensate.

    This has had an incredibly positive effect on my electronic composition, in many of the same ways you’ve described. Much of my own music is programmed, but paradoxically, my programming is better and easier now that I have this experience, and it’s only improving from there.

    I don’t yet have the exactness described in this article though, so maybe I need to transcribe more basslines :)

    • Anthony January 6, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

      Awesome! Yeah, I play upright bass, so I know what it’s like to be fret-free.

      I know it’s probably personal prejudice, but I think that transcribing basslines is one of the most effective ways to build this. It often provides the best clues to the chord changes and is seldom obscured by flourishes and melisma the way that vocals or lead melodic instruments are.

      Once again, super prejudiced!

      • Navarre January 8, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

        The bass note is easily the most reliable starting point. However, beware the sus chord! These got me for the longest time because the bass note is not the root note of the chord in the traditional sense. If and when you come across a harmony laid on top of a bass note, but it seems to defy any of your attempts to classify it as a common major/minor/dominant/diminished chord variant, you probably have a sus chord on your hands. I didn’t figure this out until I started formal training and my teacher had to point it out. But they aren’t used much outside of jazz and R&B/soul/funk contexts. Actually, a huge chunk of 80′s funk/R&B revolved around these chords, which is where I first encountered them. Anyways, ear training is probably the most important skill for any musicians who has a sincere interest in improvisation or composition; e.g. electronic musicians. Great post.

        • Anthony January 9, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

          HAHA. “Beware the sus chord”: Agreed.

          The sus is going to figure into a music theory post coming up in the near(ish) future. Love ‘em, but I have trouble hearing ‘em, too.

  2. Eric January 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    Good article – thanks. I’m curious – when you mention transcribing as an exercise, do you do this in front of a piano (or other instrument) to check what you are humming or think you hear, or does it go straight in your ear and to the paper? I can’t imagine always recognizing a note or a chord by ear, but when I sit at the piano I can usually plunk out the bass line or melody.

    • Anthony January 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

      Eric, I sincerely wish I could do it straight to paper without an instrument, but I have given that dream.

      I even use the term “transcribe” pretty loosely. I really just drag an mp3 into Ableton (or even just play a track on youtube in another window), load up a VERY simple piano/key sound and plunk around until I can figure out the melody and bassline. Usually I can remember the pertinent points and don’t even bother writing it down.

  3. TiltingAtCthulhu January 8, 2012 at 12:32 am #

    Definetely the most important thing ever! At least, that’s what all my teachers at the muic academy tell me.

    Also, me too thinks that learning bass lines first is the way to go. Might be because I study the bass guitar ;-) , but still, when I am pitting myself against the other music students at my academy (and those are the most awesome guys and girls you can imagine) in the field of ear training, it always turns out that those who can faithfully recreate basslines have the best hearing abilities. It’s called “general bass” for a reason :p. It’s great to hear that also for electronic musicians this is of importance.

    And for everyone who is still struggling with his/her hearing: It’s gonna be awesome. It’s about the most relaxing and rewarding work to do for a musician, in my humble opinion. And everybody can learn it!

    There is a great book that deals a good lot about hearing. Unfortunately, I can’t recall it being translated to English at all :( , so this might only be helpful for German speakers, but those should check out Frank Sikora’s “Neue Jazz-Harmonielehre”.

    • Hendrik January 9, 2012 at 10:26 am #

      lucky me ;-)
      the amazon reviews are amazing..!

      Anthony, great posting! To a “non-musician” education-wise like me, this is always a good reminder that “classic” musical skills are very important and helpful for electronic musicians!

      • Anthony January 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

        Hendrik, thank you! I think it’s important to recognize what technology can’t replace (or can replace, but at a high cost/time investment).

    • Anthony January 9, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

      Might learn German just for this! And thanks for the Lovecraft recommends!

  4. Dave January 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    The fun of being able to dissect music just for the ability to “cover” it is EXTREMELY rewarding.

    Have you used Celemony’s Melodyne’s Save to Midi function? I’ve been using this lately to turn music into MIDI, which I thought was impossible until I found it!

    • Anthony January 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

      heard of it, haven’t tried it yet. How accurate is it?

      • Dave January 10, 2012 at 7:26 am #

        It’s been around for a good while now, the few times I’ve tried it, I’ve loaded the MIDI onto a basic Piano instrument, and it’s sounded completely on point.

        It captures single notes, as well as chords.

        If two instruments are playing at the same time, and notes overlap each other, you would have to have an ear for that of course, but it certainly is accurate.

        The best way to use this would to either use A. Stem tracks, or B. Isolated intros, breakdowns, or whatever where only one instrument is playing, since it does velocity, you could use a section of a song to “grab” that has drums playing, as the midi notes for drums the program captures would be a bit different velocity than the instrument.

        Either way, if you’re sitting there having to plunk out on a keyboard until you find a note of a song, note for note, it would help having a head start with this program even if it’s not 100% accurate, at least it would be close and you could fine tune to perfection faster than you would if you don’t have a good ear, or are just starting, like myself.

    • Rob January 16, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

      There is also another program, Mixed In Key, which is nice for tempo/key of songs, but certainly not correct 100% of the time.

      I’ve tried using Melodyne to transcribe vocal melodies I sing and turn them into MIDI to use for different synths [I'm a much better singer than keyboard player] but I’ve had trouble with it gliding from note to note.

      Never gave Melodyne more than the old college try, though. Might try again soon.

Leave a Reply