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By Jon Chappell
Ask accomplished musicians what the essence of good musicianship is, and they will uniformly answer “good ears.” It all starts with being able to hear and understand music. What you play from there is a direct result what’s happening inside your head.
But what is it to have a good musical ear? And how do you improve it? Are there ear pushups? Ear protein shakes to help you bulk up? Obviously not, because you can’t strengthen your ears the way you would your biceps. But you can definitely engage in an “exercise program” to get your ears in shape, and to better hear and master the elements of music: melody, rhythm, and harmony. And when your ears are finely tuned and “in the zone,” you are by definition a better musician.
It’s not just a sports metaphor that musicians improve their ears though a process called “ear training.” It takes time and a structured program. College and university music departments require proficiency and a full year’s study in ear training and musicianship in order to graduate, regardless of how well you play your instrument. Developing your ear starts with being able to first see or hear, then identify, and finally produce—either by singing or writing down—music that is previously unknown to you. It’s a sort of “inner hearing” and it allows you to produce external results.
Sight-singing and dictation are the essence of musicianship training and are two sides of the same musical coin. In sight singing you work on your ability to read, identify, and then reproduce a melody or set of pitches on sight. It’s not magic, and you don’t have to be born with perfect pitch to do it. You can learn it. You can get better at it. And by developing this skill, also referred to as relative pitch—a term that simply means to distinguish among different pitches and their relationship to each other—you can piece together an entire melody on sight. Shortening the time between reading and vocalizing leads to a smooth execution and more musical delivery.
Whereas sight singing focuses on seeing music and reproducing it with just your voice (for melody) or body (for rhythm), dictation is the flip side of that process: focusing on hearing music and then writing it down. Dictation, also called transcribing or take-down, means you can hear something, visualize it instantly, and then notate it in a way that is universally recognized—writing pitches and rhythms on a staff in standard music notation. If you’re planning a career in music, with all the opportunities that a skilled musician can take advantage of, dictation is probably the single most valuable way to train your mind.
Sight singing starts with being able to sing an individual interval (the space in musical steps between notes), then a sequence of intervals, and then an entire melodic line. When starting out, it’s easiest to sing melodic intervals diatonically—that is, drawn from a major or minor scale. Figure 1 shows all the intervals, in order of increasing distance, contained in a C major scale. The first seven bars show major and pe (reserved for fourths and fifths) intervals. The following five bars show the minor and augmented intervals that occur between notes that don’t start on C. Sing the intervals in order, and play the C scale in between, if necessary, to remind of you of what the intervals sound like. You can also use melodies you know to help, such as “Here comes the bride” for an ascending fourth. Be sure to be as comfortable with descending intervals as you are with ascending ones.
Fig. 1. Intervals occurring within a scale are the easiest ones to master. (Click images to englarge.)
After you’ve had some practice singing major, minor, and perfect intervals, the next step is to sing ascending and descending intervals chromatically, or without the benefit of an existing key signature or scale. Singing intervals that mix sharps, flats, and naturals is the way you know you’re truly thinking intervallically, and not just using scale shortcuts. Figure 2 shows several different intervals, ascending and descending, that are good practice for exercising your sight-singing chops.
Fig. 2. Chromatic intervals use flats, sharps, and naturals, and are more difficult than diatonic ones.
Singing intervals from note to note, interval to interval, is sort of like crossing a river using stepping stones: At first, your only concern is landing on the next stone—er, note—safely. But to develop a flow, you need to start thinking in terms of sequences of intervals, looking ahead if you can. Figure 3 shows a line that mixes all sorts of different intervals in a highly chromatic melody. It’s important that this passage sound like a melody and not just a sequence of intervals—even if that’s how you have to learn it.
Fig. 3. A chromatic melody requires good sight-singing skills to “hear” as well as sing accurately.
It’s easier to sing narrow intervals (seconds and thirds) than wide ones (fourths, fifths, sixths, and sevenths), but you need to do both with equal facility. Most people find it easier to sing ascending intervals than descending ones, too, so be sure to keep your downwardly moving melodies up to snuff. In Figure 4, the first two bars feature small intervals, so you can try this at a fairly brisk tempo. The next three bars have wider intervals, which are a little more difficult. But notice that the rhythms are slightly slower, allowing you a little more time to form these intervals correctly.
Fig. 4. Melodies with narrow intervals are easier to sing than ones with wide intervals.
Recognizing interval sequences, such as two descending whole steps (“Three Blind Mice”) or a descending major triad (the first three notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner”), is a great way to internalize certain interval patterns that you’ll see over and over. The melody you draw on doesn’t have to be well known; it just has to be one you know well and can internalize. For example, a descending major triad (a basic three-note chord) is found in the first three notes of the national anthem, in the lyrics “Oh, say.” Use known melodies for common interval sequences, such as ascending and descending major and minor triads.
Most people find rhythms much easier to sight-sing than pitches. In addition to vocalizing a rhythm (say, on the syllable “da”), you can often reproduce it by tapping or clapping. Obviously, slower rhythms are easier than faster ones, and non-syncopated figures are easier than syncopated ones. A “slow” rhythm is one that doesn’t split up the beat, such as a figure using whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes. These can be thought of as durations with “beats per note,” and so really don’t need practicing—even if they employ dots and ties—by most musicians.
Durations shorter than a quarter note, or beat, are another story, though. These need to be practiced both by speaking them and by hearing and identifying them. In other words, you need to be able to read and sing as well as hear and write—just you would with intervals. When tackling rhythms smaller than a quarter note, you are subdividing—sounding the in-between parts of the beat. Start by sounding out straightforward eighths and 16ths in various combinations, as shown in bar 1 of Figure 5. Then move on to the patterns in bar 2. Start slowly, speaking on the syllable “da,” or tapping out the rhythm on a table-top.
Fig. 5. Basic divisions of eighth and 16th notes, all within a beat.
Beyond the straightforward eighth- and 16th-note combinations, there are triplets and syncopation to master. Triplets divide the beat into three equal parts, and three common triplet figures are shown in bar 1 of Figure 6. Bar 2 shows syncopation, a purposeful “masking” of the beat in favor of emphasizing the offbeat. Though syncopations add nice surprises for the listener, they’re trickier to understand and play, so be sure to give these extra attention, if necessary.
Fig. 6. Triplets and syncopated eighth-note figures require greater sight-singing and dictation skills to execute.
Syncopation in short rhythmic values presents the greatest challenge to sight-singers. But once learned slow, they’re easy to speed up, and there are only so many combinations. In fact, many rhythmic patterns appear over and over in music. You can take advantage of this by learning to recognize those repeated figures and memorizing them. Figure 7 shows three different syncopated patterns that are quite common in a variety of styles. Memorize them both visually and aurally, so that the next time you see one of them in your music, it will be easier to reproduce them.
Fig. 7. These figures occur over and over in music, and can be memorized for quicker recall.
Beyond intervals and rhythms, an important part of ear training is hearing and understanding harmony, or the simultaneous sounding of notes. Identifying the difference between major and minor chords is the way to understand a piece of music from a totally different perspective than a melodic or rhythmic one. If you know how to sing and hear a major and minor third, it’s a simple step to hear those intervals together, rather than separately, as in a melody.
Let’s start our harmonic exploration with simple two-note intervals called dyads. Figure 8 shows four dyads in bar 1 as major and minor thirds. From there, you can move up to triads (three-note chords), as shown in bar 2. Note that while there are only two kinds of thirds (major and minor), there are four kinds of triads: major, minor, diminished, and augmented. Each triad is formed by a different combination of stacked major and minor thirds. Major and minor triads are by far the most common, so be sure you can recognize these quickly.
Fig. 8. Dyads and triads outline basic two-note harmony and three-note chords.
Once you have triads down really solidly, move on to seventh chords. These are four-note chords where the interval stacked onto the triad (the 1, 3, 5) is the seventh note from the chord’s lowest note, or root. When you get to seventh chords, you really are listening for an overall quality rather than as a series separate intervals. For example, major seventh chords have a “jazzy” quality, minor seventh chords have a warm feel, and diminished seventh chords can be described as “weird” or “scary.” Although it’s sometimes helpful to attach “feelings” or “moods” to seventh chords, it’s more effective just to learn the unique sound of each individual seventh chord.
There are seven different types of seventh chords, as shown in Figure 9. The first four occur diatonically, appearing here in the key of C. The second three require a chromatic alteration to complete, but are still common and harmonically useful in many styles of music.
Fig. 9. The seven different seventh chords, each with a distinct quality that can be learned and memorized.
Playing your instrument is important, but being able to sing and hear melody, rhythm and harmony is the true test of a musician’s depth. By developing your inner hearing, you gain an understanding of music that transcends your technical ability. And once mastered, your ear training will only enhance your technical abilities, guide your decisions to choose notes, help you memorize music more effectively, and give you an edge over non-trained players. Good musicianship insures that where the ears lead, the fingers will follow.
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