Posted Sep 21, 2016 by Brian Jenkins - 5 Comments

Why Ear Training is So Hard for Classical Musicians

Why Ear Training is So Hard for Classical Musicians

If you’re a classical musician, music is written out for you. The main way that you learn music is by reading. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you don’t spend some time to get a good ear for music, you’re missing out on a skill that will not only make you a better musician, but that will help you enjoy music to a degree that you couldn’t before.

Classical Musicians Can Get By With a Bad Ear

It’s true. Classical musicians can read music, memorize music, learn a lot of technique, and play very musically without the ability to recognize even a single interval on their instrument by ear.

Musicians that play styles of music that rely less on reading music, like jazz and pop, often have better ears than those that only read. This is mainly because they need it more, so they develop it.

Ear Training Classes

A good classical music education is not devoid of exercises to train your ear. Anyone that went to school for music, or even just studied it seriously, have likely practiced recognizing intervals. An interval is the distance between two notes. If a person was to play two notes, a musician with a decent ear could recognize how far apart those notes are. Each distance has a name like major 2nd or minor 6th.

Recognizing intervals is one of the first things that you’ll learn how to do in a school ear training class. After intervals are introduced, most classes move on to recognizing and identifying the quality of chords.

A chord is a collection of three or more notes. The quality of the chord is determined by the intervals between each note in the chord. Musicians label this “quality” with terms like major, minor, diminished, and augmented.

Classes most often follow this logical progression. Learning one skill makes way for the learning of another. At first, students learn a limited set of intervals and chords, as to not be too overwhelming. After chords are learned, more difficult skills are added.

Ear Training for the Sake of Ear Training

Learning in a class with the above approach seems like a good idea. The problem is that this type of ear training is out of context. In real music you won’t have enough time to play an interval over and over again trying to recognize it. Notes go by so fast that recognizing the intervals or chords in music is completely different than recognizing them in a classroom setting.

Most students that get out of these classes can get good grades on tests because they can often listen to an example slowly and multiple times, but they can’t use that skill in any way in the real world. Eventually, students lose the ability to recognize anything because they don’t actively practice their interval recognition skills. Why don’t they practice them? Because there’s no incentive to. There are no more tests, and they can play classical music just fine by reading only.

Language and Ear Training

Did you learn a language in high school or college? Did you ever get to the point where you could go to a country that used that language and hold regular conversations? Most people never get to that point from taking classes alone. If you did ever learn a second language, it was most likely by immersion. You may have went to another country and you had no choice but to hear the language and speak it every day.

Teaching ear training in a classroom is like teaching language in a classroom without immersion. You can learn grammar and memorize words all day long, but if you don’t get to actually use the language often, you won’t learn it. Playing music by ear and transcribing regularly are ways to use the language of music.

All Classical Musicians Don’t Have Bad Ears

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all classical musicians have bad ears. There are quite a few that have absolutely amazing ears.

In my experience, string players often have pretty good ears. This can be for a couple of reasons. The Suzuki method is a popular method among string players. Although it exists for other instruments, it seems to be used more often for string instruments. Suzuki was a violinist so it makes sense that it took hold more in the string pedagogical community than with other instruments.

The Suzuki method emphasizes learning by rote and by ear sometimes throughout the first few years of lessons before introducing written music. Critics say that this type of teaching prevents students from ever reading music correctly, but it definitely helps with ear training early in life.

Perfect Pitch

Musicians who started when they were very young sometimes have perfect pitch. Students that have perfect pitch automatically have a way of identifying notes without any active practice in ear training. Kinda like cheating huh? For those of us without it, it can feel like that sometimes. Often classical musicians with amazing ears have amazing ears because they have perfect pitch.

Other musicians actually went from not being able to recognize any intervals, to being able to dictate music free from error. Plenty of great musicians can do it, without perfect pitch. Unfortunately even teachers often don’t get to that point.

How Do People Learn to Play By Ear?

It’s one thing to be able to pass an ear training test, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to actually play accurately by ear. There are plenty of people with no knowledge of music at all that have fantastic ears, and that weren’t blessed with perfect pitch. How do you learn to play by ear without taking a class? They just do it. People that have good ears, almost always play a lot of music by ear.

It’s kind of like exercising. The easiest way to enjoy exercising is by doing something you enjoy doing. If you like to play a sport, you’ll find that playing that sport is a lot easier than doing push ups. You get good exercise from both activities, but it’s more likely that you are going to continue the one that is fun. You can drill yourself all day long on intervals, and eventually you’ll probably get there, or you could practice playing by ear and transcribe music that you enjoy. Most people would probably do better with the latter.

Why Is It Important?

If you can be a good classical musician without having a good ear, then why work on your ear? Because you can be an even better musician with an ear, and you’ll enjoy music much more.

If you can recognize intervals immediately, you can follow the music better. If your ear is lacking, it’s like watching a movie in black and white. Sure you can enjoy a black and white movie, but when you add the color it adds a whole new layer to your experience.

Ear training helps a lot in sight reading, memorization, musicality, and it even comes into play a lot while teaching.


What does this all mean? It means teachers should emphasize learning music by ear more. It means that if you don’t have a fantastic ear already, you should work on it. Of all the things you could do for yourself or for your students, helping them to develop an amazing ear may be the most helpful. A student that can play by ear will gain a talent and hobby that they can enjoy for the rest of their life.

If you’ve ever felt that you couldn’t play your instrument unless you had music in front of you or you were playing something that you had already memorized, you know how limiting that can feel.

Let’s not be limited anymore. What has your experience with ear training been like? Is ear training a big part of the way that you teach? Let us know in the comments.