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Problems with Ear Training

ear training

Question: Hi Albert,

My name is Shane. I’ll keep this brief. I’m hunting around for different ear training methods. I’ve been through a bunch of stuff but it doesn’t stick.

The level of ear training I’ve done was 2 1/2 years of classes at a university music school, which was preceded by 2 1/2 years of similar methods. I’m basically stumped as to how I can improve rather than going back and doing the same thing, which is playing all the chords, progressions, etc. over and over. When I come back to test them, my level is still very basic; i.e., I can hear a major vs. minor triad, and after that a lot of it is guesswork.

Hoping you have some advice as my previous teachers/lecturers were unable to help.


– Shane (Australia)

Albert’s reply: You need to reinforce the basics over and over again, and to do so daily. Only consistent practice will get you long-term results. That practice needs to focus on the fundamentals.

Playing all the chords and progressions is excellent, not to mention necessary, but it is insufficient. You need to listen to the chords, starting with major and minor, and test yourself constantly. You should reach the point at which you can name chords by ear immediately – that is the goal. Make sure you can do this for simpler chords before attempting to progress to more difficult ones.

An accurate aural harmonic vocabulary is something that can only be built up gradually. Start with major vs. minor in root position (this should be simple for you by now), and only once you have mastered distinguishing them should you progress to the remaining triads, diminished and augmented. From there, you should be able to determine the quality of any triad (major, minor, diminished, augmented); test yourself on this combination with the aid of a teacher or through software.

The next step is to distinguish the inversions of major and minor triads by ear. To do so, you’ll need to hear which note of the chord is the bass note – this will tell you whether the chord is in root position, first inversion or second inversion.

From there, learn to distinguish inversions of diminished triads by ear: In root position, it consists of two minor thirds stacked on atop the other. A diminished triad in first inversion consists of a minor third plus a tritone – listen for the tritone on top. A second inversion diminished triad consists of a tritone plus a minor third. In this case, listen for the tritone on the bottom.

Once you can do this reliably, you should then be able to recognize any triad by ear immediately upon hearing it: major, minor or diminished triad in root position, first or second inversion, or augmented triad. (Augmented chords do not have any inversions that can be distinguished by ear, due to its intervallic structure of two stacked major thirds.)

These are the first steps to developing an accurate ear. Only once you have mastered these steps should you attempt to learn seventh chords and their inversions!

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