We briefly introduced ear training in the previous post. Now, I’d like to talk about the different methods you can use to develop your ear.
Many young students are first introduced to ear training by their music teachers. Good teachers are able to incorporate ear training exercises into lessons and achieve great results. Unfortunately, music lessons are typically quite expensive and ear training is quite repetitive and does not contribute to developing technical instrument skills. Many students and their parents do not consider such repetitive and apparently simple exercises a good value for their money. In fact, music teachers tend to find ear training boring and would much rather concentrate on teaching musical pieces.
Even in those cases where both students and teachers are focused and willing to work on ear training, the lessons are typically not as frequent as necessary. While it is possible for a teacher to assign a certain musical piece to the student to practice or technique as homework, ear training requires constant variations and feedback. Unless the student can work with someone else during practice, it is nearly impossible to get good results from unguided ear exercises.
Books are an excellent resource for learning musical theory and learning about ear training concepts. Good books are very structured and can introduce concepts gradually without overwhelming the student. Unfortunately, as I already mentioned above, self-study is extremely ineffective when it comes to ear training. It is simply ineffective when done alone and without feedback.
There are many ear training audio methods on the market. These typically work by having a collection of exercises and solutions, separated by silences. For example, and interval is played, followed by a pause long enough for the student to guess the interval name, followed by the answer. This approach addresses the major downside of books – lack of feedback. However, it does have its own negatives.
One problem is that audio methods typically do not contain a lot of educational material. As a consequence, little or no guidance is given to the student, only exercises. Unfortunately, developing the ear is not as simple as just doing drills and hoping for improvement. It is important for the student to learn certain techniques which make the training effective. To address this problem, some audio methods are bundled with books. However, this does not address the second problem – lack of variety.
An audio CD can hold only a certain number of exercises and they are typically ordered from easiest to hardest. Once the student goes through all the exercises several times, the correct answers become easy to memorize, thus defeating the purpose of the exercise.
There are quite a few ear training programs available, some as online tools and some as downloadable software. Some are better than others, and I won’t mention names here, but, on average, ear training programs excel in two categories: variety and feedback. Almost all ear training programs are drill-based. The student selects a type of skill (for example, chord recognition), and is presented with a large number of relevant questions. The student can then answer those questions by using some kind of input method, and is given a mark. This makes ear training software an effective study partner.
Some of the better software provide a means for the student to track progress and see improvement (or lack of improvement) over time.
Now let’s take a look at some of the cons. The skill-specific drill-based approach may be fine for those who are familiar with ear training concepts, but it falls short for those who lack the fundamentals. Educational content in such software is largely non-existent, minimal, or is bolted on to the drills as an afterthought. The lack of integration and proper structure in the material makes the learning aspects ineffective.
As with many things, there is no silver bullet. Each of the methods above has pros and cons. It is ultimately up to you to determine your needs and select one or more options that will work for you. Our belief is that software is the future of ear training, but the current offerings are not as mature and useful as they could be. In our upcoming product – Ear Teacher – we attempted to address all the downsides we perceive in the current offerings. In the next post I will summarize the features that we feel are required for a truly effective ear training tool.
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