Years ago, I observed a group of graduate students in their ear-training class at a prestigious music school. The professor played a major seventh chord on the piano and asked one of the class members, a drummer wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and sporting dreadlocks, what type it was. “Minor seventh?” said the drummer. The instructor, playfully ribbing him, said, “What’s the matter—the Grateful Dead doesn’t play that chord?”
He might have been a drummer—cue the drummer jokes—but the truth is there has long been much more of a pedagogical emphasis on learning to play printed music than on developing the ear. That’s why it wasn’t surprising that, even at the graduate level, musicians in the class struggled to name basic sonorities without having music in front of them.
If your ear could use some training, this lesson will give you the tools you need to get started. Set aside just a few minutes a day to work on these steps, and you can make noticeable progress within weeks. You can then use your well-trained ear to better understand what’s going on in music and to learn new things on guitar with greater ease—and know a major seventh chord every time you hear one.
START WITH INTERVALS
Intervals—the distance between pitches—are the building blocks of music. Example 1 shows all of the basic intervals relative to the note C. Note that certain intervals—fourths, fifths, and unisons/octaves—are considered perfect, and others—seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths— are major or minor. Lowering a perfect interval by a half step makes it diminished; lowering a major interval a half step makes it minor. Oppositely, when either a perfect or a major interval is raised by a half step, it becomes augmented.
But that’s enough theory for now. When you’re learning the sounds of intervals, it might be helpful to conceive of them in terms of familiar melodies. For example, the first two notes of “Here Comes the Bride” are an ascending perfect fourth; the first two of the Flintstones theme are a descending perfect fifth. For good measure, write a list of your own associations that will help with the learning process.
You’ll want to learn to identify intervals played melodically, both ascending and descending, as well as harmonically—the notes played simultaneously, and to identify intervals falling within the same octave and those falling in different octaves (compound intervals). There are a number of ways to test your ability to hear intervals, but the easiest—and perhaps most fun—is to use an online program or app. Do a search for ear training and you’ll find many free or inexpensive options. Try a handful, to see which works best for you. Another good option would be to pair up with a musician buddy and drill each other on intervals.
Once you’re able to identify intervals, work on the basic triads—major, minor, diminished, and augmented—in addition to sus2 and sus4 chords, all shown with the root note of C in Example 2. It can help with aural identification to associate a particular feeling with each of these chord types: major sounds happy; minor, sad; diminished, tense; and augmented, dreamlike. The suspended chords—sus2 and sus4—both sound open or unresolved.
Of course, guitar chords are often voiced in ways different from those in Ex. 2. Instead of neat stacks of thirds, they’re often played with repeated notes. For example, the basic E chord is usually played not as three notes in root position or consecutive order (Example 3a), but with three Es (the root note), two Bs (fifth) and one G# (third), as shown in Example 3b. So, as a guitarist, it’s important to be able to identify different voicings of any given chord.
After you’ve gained aural proficiency in identifying basic triad types, you might extend the exercise to seventh chords. The five basic types—major, dominant (indicated with just a 7), half diminished (m7b5) and diminished—are shown in typical guitar voicings with a root of C in Example 4. Later on, you can learn to identify chords with extensions and alterations, such as 7#9 and maj13. And if you have a basic knowledge of the Roman numeral system used to describe chord functions, then you can also try identifying the chords you hear in progression, like a I–IV–V (Example 5a) or I–vi–ii–V (Example 5b).
Whether you want to learn how to play a single chord, part of a solo, or an entire song, seeking out the notation and transcribing music is a terrific way to strengthen your ear. There isn’t necessarily a standard way to learn how to transcribe, but as someone who has been doing this professionally for many years, I can offer some basic pointers.
It might be best to delve into transcription not with a complex guitar piece but with a simple melodic dictation—for instance, a software program or pianist playing short melodies that you will then play back on your guitar and/or commit to notation. As with intervals, do a Google search for melodic dictation and you’ll find good options for melodic drills.
Once you get into transcribing guitar (and, ideally, other instruments), use a good pair of studio headphones to hear the music in detail. A software playback device that allows you to slow down music without affecting its pitch, such as the Transcribe! app, is also helpful. The more you transcribe, the better you’ll get, and the more strategies you’ll develop for understanding what is being played—for instance, listening to a chord one note at a time, rather than as a complete stack of notes, so that you can put together the exact voicing; or listening carefully for open strings or natural harmonics in order to decipher a guitarist’s nonstandard tuning.
It would be a good idea to compare your first attempts at transcription with existing sources. But beware: the internet is rife with erroneous tabs, so consult a reputable source, or a transcription by a major publisher like Hal Leonard.
In any case, once you’ve worked through the ear training guidance in this piece, try a miniature transcription exercise: listen to the chord that appears on the Grateful Dead’s studio version of “Terrapin Station” at 4:22. If you’re hearing an Fmaj7 chord, a common guitar voicing of which is shown in Example 6, then you’re correct!
Get stories like this in your inbox
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.