Effective ear training

I really don’t have any natural talent with music. When I started playing the piano some years ago, I was terrible at keeping rhythm. But I have been practicing a lot, and have found ways to slowly but steadily improve my sense of rhythm. That improvement keeps me motivated to practice more and more.

With ear training, it’s a different thing. I don’t have any natural ability either, and after some initial improvement, I’ve been at a standstill for a long time. I’ve tried some ear training apps, and I’ve tried to transcribe music by ear, with no or little success. Now, I’m at the point of giving up and assume that I will never be able to play/improvise by ear.

So, I’m asking for help to my fellow elektronauts. Do you know a way I could train this skill, that is effective and motivating? What have worked for you? What would be your advice?

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Some software recommendations:

You know, at a minimum, playing by ear requires you to hit ONE right note and hold it there with your acquired rhythm skills. And the chance of hitting a right note in a western scale or mode is at 8/12 = 66%.

So my first tip would be to let a tune run in the background, something you like, then find a note on the piano that works with what you are playing. Then try again with another note. And again, and so on. Enjoy this process, treat it like play as much as you treat it like practice.

Second: learn a few scale patterns (if you haven’t already). Basically you’ll need the major scale pattern (W W h W W W h) and the minor pattern (W h W W h W W).

Once you’ve got those down return to the first exercise and once you found a note, try to find the corresponding scale (using the major / minor patterns from the note you’ve found).

This becomes easier as you get better at finding the tonic / key / root note to a tune…here’s a tip on how to do this…listen to the tune and eventually try to hum along, just one steady note. Keep going until you find a note that sounds right…hold it and see if it works with different parts of the song equally well…if so you’re likely to have found the root. Focus not just on sound here, try to FEEL the resonance that your note creates in your chest / body as it mingles with the music, it’s ACTUALLY a physical sensation. If that vibration is maintained across the tune, you’ve got the root.

Now try to find that note on the piano, still humming it of course. :slight_smile: once you have that note, use your knowledge of major/minor scales to find the right scale (whatever sounds better) — now you’re good to improvise, first melodically and if you dig that you can progress to play with chords on that scale.

The more you do this, the more it will become a feeling and second nature. And yes, you (and everyone else) is capable of this with 100% certainty.

Use your ears AND your body to guide you!

Good luck


Rick Beato is your man.


I think this is just about learning what the different notes sound like and what the different chords sounds like. Playing a lot helps. Most people just don’t have the ability to tune an instrument right without any reference, but I’d say most people can learn what the correct intervals when an instrument is in tune should sound like and recognize chords as well. For example I use a tuner, but once a string is in tune I can tune the rest by ear, if I know the tuning that is. I’ve played from Cis for so long now that I could probably get pretty close without a tuner at all.

I don’t know about any apps, but I guess they might be useful for use on the bus or w/e. The best way to learn is to play a lot and learn music theory, especially scales and intervals.

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Do you sing as part of your ear training?

Learn ukulele and join a ukulele group.
Loads of amateurs doing this for fun and learning new songs every week will cross pollinate your ability. It gave me a total different reference and feel for my ear and all this playing was fun and consistent ,making it easy to progress.

I enjoyed learning guitar by playing some beats (e.g. old Gramatik) that focus around a simple tonic. Practice finding the key and then improvising over it using the appropriate pentatonic scale

I don’t know what your expectations are, but the way I understand improvising by ear is you practise your scales and when you know them well enough, you can find the root note and know where your fingers should go. It’s all about practise and automation, really.

I’m only familiar with a couple of scales (pentatonic, blues, major and minor) and can improvise with them fairly well, even though I don’t do it enough to actually produce anything worthwhile. I can usually find the root, but have some trouble distinguishing between pentatonic and major sometimes. Blues is easy because it’s so distinctive, same for minor.


Not much to distinguish there, the pentatonic just drops two notes from the major scale. It can be bent either way, towards major or minor, if you improvise, any of these three (pentatonic, major, minor) will work over a pentatonic tune.

Once you know the major and minor scales, everything else can be deduced from that. What is more, every major scale has an analogous minor scale, ie, C Major / A Minor…so same notes just a different starting point. Add modes to that (ie keeping all the notes the same but starting with another tonic that is not the 1 (major) or 6 (minor)) and your repertoire is already huge without much effort at all.

So really for basic improv (which is all I can do lol), the most important skill is to be able to identify the root/tonic closely followed by knowing how to construct major/minor scales from that note. Then one can expand into triads, 7th chords, extended chords, diminished/augmented stuff and eventually it’s jazz lol.

I feel music theory is often laid out and taught in cumbersome ways that make things more complex than they need to be.


This is excellent advice @hausland, I will try what you suggest. My problem is that I don’t keep up the practice, even when I do come across good techniques, but the way you explained it is inspiring.

On the app front, I have a free one called ‘Functional Ear Trainer’ on my phone that I was enjoying and getting positive results from, until I forgot about it and stopped using it :upside_down_face:


Can’t ad dmuch more to @hausland’s words.

One thing though: a little bit of theory (like major / minor / pentatonic scales) got we where I’m at right now, and the rest is experimenting.
Some devices such as the Digitone, Push 2 or KeyStep 37 can force a scale and thus let you only play “right” notes, and it can be a start, but I feel like knowing the theory and getting out of the track once in a while is more interesting in the long run.

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Getting a Vidami pedal has been a game changer for me. It’s a pedal for looping and slowing down Youtube videos - makes the process of learning music by ear sooo much easier.


Most of the Vidami demo vids show a guitarist learning stuff from other guitarists, but Vidami has worked very well for learning melodies played on euphonium, trumpet, oboe, etc.

I’ve also found it useful for non-musical instructional videos like C# coding. so much easier to tap on the Vidami rewind switch to go back 10 seconds instead of grabbing the little slider with a mouse and hoping i don’t rewind too far.

Yeah, I just have trouble distinguishing the two since I don’t really improvise or practise scales anymore, I forget the notes and need to look them up.

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Without meaning to sound harsh, if you don’t have any natural ability maybe look into something else? Sure you can learn stuff, but in my experience I find that there are some things I will simply never be any good at, because I don’t click with them because no natural ability. I can try to learn, but it often ends up in frustration, and giving up, and I don’t quit easy.

On the flip side I see videos of people who know lots about music theory, but often their musical output does nothing for me, so maybe they just don’t have that natural ability.

I am not suggesting this is an absolute, but just how I view things, and make my own decisions about whether to put the time in to learn something.

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I don’t know, is the ability to distinguish notes really something some people are just born without? I mean basically everyone can learn to read, or a second language. I don’t think distinguishing musical notes is that different from learning how to read, you just learn a system and instead of letters, you use it to arrange sounds. I mean sure, some people are probably tone deaf, but for most I’d say it’s just a matter of practise and also a matter of understanding what they’re actually supposed to do when they’re trying to learn a song by ear (learn scales, find the root etc.)


Not sure, but I guess my take would be having put a fair bit of effort in then still not getting the results I wanted, I’d look into something else, not necessarily quitting music, but looking into other means to express the musical ideas.

I disagree: as a classical musician I had never been taught to improvise and this asked me a few years of training to get comfortable with it and find my own way.

I think improvisation starts with listening to music, then learning the basics to put your own inspiration on top.

Today, improvisation is what gives me the most pleasure as a musician.

I say perseverance is key. This, and maybe meeting the right person that can teach you the basics so that you get some proper acceleration.


I think your question is interesting. Anybody can improve when it comes to ear training. There is no magic but often the practical application can be difficult. You say that you want to be able to improvise by ear. In my opinion you should then work on improvising. This is most effectively learned by understanding some theory and by practicing guide notes lines (the latter is very helpful with 4 note chord progressions. To learn to hear chord progressions it is helpful with transcription. Try and find the notes you can (from Bassline melody etc) and put together the information you have like a pussle. It’s not easy in the beginning but you will quickly improve. It’s easier if you know music notation as this lets you organise the information

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Learning by yourself is a tricky thing, you hit a wall and have no one to help you determine why you’re not progressing. Might be lack of musical ability, or might just be lack of understanding of the methods to learn or an important side of the thing you’re trying to learn.

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