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Ear training for chord progressions and songs

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by belzebass, Jan 6, 2020.

  1. belzebass


    Feb 21, 2012
    Hello guys!
    Happy new year to you! I wish you all high feelings and lots of low notes :)
    This year, I want to improve my musical ear. My groove and technique are OK, and my music theory knowledge good too. I really lack the hearing/transcribing skills.
    I would like to be able to recognize a tonality and chord progression rapidly on the fly (for example in a jam setting), transcribe songs (at least the chords and the base of the bass line) and learn songs faster and easier ("feel" the chords coming with the melody).

    What is the most efficient and fast way to learn it?
    Do I need to learn to sing? Transcribe songs with my bass? Pick out the chords with a piano? Use ear training phone apps?

    Thank you!
    DJ Bebop, joeqpublic and Ellery like this.
  2. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    I recommend lessons with a good teacher. And the best ear training teacher in your town might not be your bass teacher. It could be a music theory professor, or a vocal coach, or a church music director. So ask around your circle of musician friends.

    In my case, I found an ear training course through the continuing education department at New England Conservatory. The class was a small group of adult students (class size about 10) and met one night a week for a semester. I personally found the small-group setting very helpful. It was encouraging to observe the other students, all struggling with the same thing, and to realize I was not alone. Other students might do better with private one-on-one lessons.

    Generally speaking, I am a very independent person, and a big fan of self-learning. But for whatever reason, ear training is the one aspect of music that just never "clicked" in my self-study. I always thought I was "tone deaf" and transcribing songs was a magic trick I'd never be able to perform. It took face-to-face lessons with a good teacher to break me out of that rut.

    Where are you located, so we can help you find a good ear training teacher? (You never filled out your profile!)
  3. Malcolm35


    Aug 7, 2018
    Ear training classes never took with me. What you are listening for is the chord sound (R-3-5-7) being strummed. Get yourself a rhythm guitar and strum the I-IV-V-I progression in all the keys. Use the blues progression and strum about a zillion progressions.

    That should do it. Good Luck.​
    DJ Bebop and mambo4 like this.
  4. reverendboom


    Dec 10, 2019
    Sonora CA
    I remember back in the day as a vocal music major (early 80's) we had to take "Ear Straining and Sight Screaming" (or was that ear training and sight singing?). The class was at 7:30 AM and about half of the students were working musicians who hadn't been to bed yet. We all hated that class but it was well worth it as by the end I could pick up a piece of sheet music and sing it without ever hearing it before.

    Then our vocal Jazz group wanted to do Bohemian Rhapsody and the director said OK, but that we had to notate the whole thing out by ear. It took four of us 3 months to get it done but we did it. That turned out to be a favorite of everyone (particularly the four piece band that played with us).

    Anyway my point here is to just do it. Like anything else...anything you do a few hundred times starts to get easier.
    mexicant and Cernnunos like this.
  5. LeeNunn

    LeeNunn Supporting Member

    Oct 9, 2012
    Charlottesville, VA
    I think you're on the right track. Transcribing improved my ability to recognize chords, chord patterns, melodic patterns, and rhythmic patterns significantly. I agree with Mushroo on finding an instructor. My schedule limits most of my practice to early morning hours, so it is possible to do this on your own. I recommend identifying the chords before you analyze the bass line. A keyboard can help. "Loop and slowdown" software made the process easier for me. I usually chart out the entire song with chord changes before I even start on the bass line. Notation software can make the process easier (once you learn the software), but you don't need it. One challenge of not having an instructor is knowing when you're off track. Comparing your transcriptions to reliable transcriptions helps. If you post a transcription here, you'll receive plenty of supportive feedback.
    DJ Bebop and Cernnunos like this.
  6. Cernnunos


    Dec 28, 2019
    That's funny, I'm exactly the opposite. I was never able to transcribe until I decided to try transcribing bass lines. I picked up my bass, and fiddled around until I found the root notes. I enjoyed the process, because I found it easy. After that, all I had to do was figure out the key (chord wheel, baby!), and everything just fell into place. These days, I transcribe at least one song a week, usually more. I use my guitar sometimes to work out the non-standard chords (add9, sus4, etc). Otherwise, my bass is my go-to transcription instrument.
    Nevada Pete and LeeNunn like this.
  7. BrotherMister


    Nov 4, 2013
    PVG Membership
    Transcribe, transcribe and transcribe everything you can. Start ultra simple and then go simpler than that. Nursery rhymes and the most basic children's things imaginable, work them out and then learn them in every key. That process is a really good way of reinforcing your ear to hear the sounds. I'll split the room with this one, but I don't believe in slowing down recordings to transcribe. Everything else I advocate slowing doing to get better but with your ears doing it in real time is the slow process. Your ears will thank you....eventually...after the tears and the self loathing...

    I will say singing is one the best tools you can use, you don't have to be a great singer but being able to sing chords, scales, root movement, guide tone lines etc will really ingrain the sounds into your ears and get you hearing the bigger picture. It's a long, slow and laborious process but eventually you'll start hearing the details you want when you are playing or listening to music.

    The Real Easy Ear Training Book by Roberta Radlay is good for getting to grips with hearing progressions. There is a lot of singing in this book..

    Also Elementary Training For Musicians by Paul Hindemith is worth its weight in gold. I don't think a single book has caused me more stress, it is elementary stuff that everyone should be able to do but it's such a roast you realise how terrible you are. Stick with it and by the end of the book you'll really have a lot of your stuff together.
    ec2bass, bfields and Mushroo like this.
  8. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    Ear Training worked pretty well for me, although my ears still have a long way to go.
    Bijoux, minronnee and ObsessiveArcher like this.
  9. bearfoot


    Jan 27, 2005
    Chittenango, NY
    ear training apps, if they are good.

    you will need to be able to sing all of the standard (12 tones) intervals, and identify them by ear. singing them helps a ton. all serious music students do this. Use bits of songs you know to reinforce them, like "here comes the bride" for the Perfect Fourth.

    same with chords, you will want to be able to identify major, minor, diminished, augmented, and the major and minor seventh chords, by ear.

    rhythmic dictation I actually find harder, but a similar process is involved. You have a few bars played, and write them down on staff paper. Rinse and repeat until you get it right.

    You should also be able to nail a 120bpm tempo out of thin air, or very close to it.

    It's a lot of repetition , tortuous at times, but if you want to be able to transcribe in standard notation that everyone can read, this is how it's done. No need to re-invent the wheel.
  10. Whichever Aural Skills curriculum you choose, make sure it progresses in the correct order.
    1. Interval recognition (ascending and descending)
    2. Keys and scales.
    3. Melodic dictation (transcribing a heard melody)
    4. Chord quality (recognizing major, minor, diminished, augmented, and suspended chords by ear)
    5. Harmonized scales (what chord type is built on each step of a scale)
    6. Chord progressions
    7. Harmonic dictation (transcribing a heard chord progression)
  11. hennessybass

    hennessybass Supporting Member

    Oct 11, 2008
    Houston, TX
    What was helpful for me was learning common progressions... 1 - 6 - 2 - 5,,, or 5 - 4 - 1,,, or 1 - 3m - 4 - 1,,,

    Once you start to really learn those very common progressions, you start to hear them all over the place and will be able to pick them out in song.

    Knowing the numbers is helpful to me, because it's a language to talk to other musicians, and a language for me to talk to myself about the sounds I hear. When I hear an intro and can say, that's a 5-4-1-1 intro then it makes that sound accessible for me.

    When someone says 1-6-2-5, I know about what this is going to sound like, and have some context for what kind of song it is, and I have the shape/pattern on my fretboard to access it. And vice-a-versa, if someone just starts playing a progression, I know the sound and am able to work backwards from there to the numbers, to my fretboard.

    Other than that, listen to as much music as you can, and try to pick out the progressions. Learn a song that you know well, give that progression a name --1-4-5 --, and then try to hear that 1-4-5 in other songs that you listen to.
    notJaco, 4dog and Cernnunos like this.
  12. bfields


    Apr 9, 2015
    Ann Arbor, MI
    Agreed with the above, especially comments from Mushroo and BrotherMister.

    If you want to try software, the ones I've liked the best have been "Functional Ear Trainer" (free), and "Meludia" (the subscription web site, not the app).
  13. Chrisk-K


    Jan 20, 2010
    Maryland, USA
    If you can transcribe Steely Dan or Zappa songs, you will be all set!
  14. Great post! I'm in the same boat as you and really identified my ear as a something that can use a great deal of improving. I have an ear training app on my iPhone that is good to use when you have a few minutes of down time. Also, search ear training for beginners on YouTube and you can find some simple call and response type stuff. I bought this book (admitting I have not been diligent on this so I can't quite speak for it's effectiveness yet) - it seems like a pretty low cost investment so maybe give this a try too. https://amzn.to/2N4ynFw
  15. MichelD


    May 19, 2014
    I can't hear a melody to save my life. Half the time I can barely tell if the following note after the preceding note is higher or lower.
    browndog likes this.
  16. Ordered a chord wheel from Amazon. Never heard of that. Looks interesting. Read a few of the reviews. Left delivery instruction to have it delivered to my front door to avoid folding.
    Cernnunos likes this.
  17. monsterthompson

    monsterthompson The Eighth Note Wonder Of The World Supporting Member

    Nov 25, 2008
    A potentially helpful tool is Chord Progressions For Songwriters.

    This book lays out a variety of changes, organized by styles. It includes examples with references to popular songs. There are substitutions and inversions and the like. All examples are in C for simplicity, but I found it helped develop my ear.
    browndog and Rilence like this.
  18. C Niz

    C Niz

    Sep 14, 2019
    New Orleans
    I used this in college, you can customize it as you grow. start with basics, Maj min Dom 7 and add as you progress Chord Ear Training
  19. C Niz

    C Niz

    Sep 14, 2019
    New Orleans
    It's from musictheory.net, they've got a bunch of other ear and sight reading trainers too.
  20. QweziRider

    QweziRider Supporting Member

    Sep 15, 2008
    Northern Nevada, U.S.
    Tough call. I don't know of any easy way to do it. For me it's been charting tons and tons and tons of tunes. Over and over. Wash, rinse, repeat.
    Cernnunos likes this.

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