Ear Training Methods

Ear training developing skill to identify elements of music by ear involves learning to recognize the elements of music fundamentals in sound. You need three things:


1) Terms to identify each element

2) Knowledge of each characteristic to listen for


3) Enough practice in order to memorize and develop fluency


The ability to name a pitch by simply hearing it is known as ”perfect pitch” or ”absolute pitch”. Pitch is determined by the fundamental frequency of a tone. However, music is organized by the relationships between pitches, that is, intervals. An interval 1) the distance between two pitches 2) two notes combine to form an interval defines the distance between two pitches. Each interval type or size has a unique sound quality that we hear as the result of the ratio of the two frequencies. This interval characteristic remains the same over a wide range of pitches from high to low. For example, you can move a song into a higher or lower key by starting on another pitch. The shape and character of the melody remains largely the same because the intervals it uses remain the same.


The study of intervals, scales, and chords leads to a sense of ”relative pitch” even for someone without ”absolute pitch”. Ear training starts with practice and memorization of intervals. The difficulty comes when we try to explain how to read and write music. This requires knowledge of note names, staff notation, half steps, scales, and the naming of intervals by quality and number. However, beginners can skip ahead and get right to work with ear training by using solfeggio a system of naming scale degrees with singable syllables, do re mi fa so la ti do. Solfeggio gives a name to each note of the scale a group of pitches arranged from high to low covering one octave, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do’. We can learn the sound of the interval mi-so by singing it, without having to think about notation. We can recognize the sound of this interval before knowing that it is a minor third or that it contains three half steps or that it can be written e-g on the staff. This is why solfeggio is such a powerful teaching concept (thank you Guido c. 1025AD). It is possible to start beginners with ear training at the very beginning of music study using solfeggio.


MusicGoals by Eye & Ear uses subsets of the solfeggio syllables to introduce intervals in the order of least difficulty. Consider the subset: me so la. The intervals of this subset are the M2 (Major 2nd), m3 (minor 3rd), and P4 (Perfect 4th). The sound of a P4 is very different from that of a M2. The equal tempered P4 is close to the frequency ratio 4:3. It has an open sound that produces much less roughness to the ear than the M2 (close to 9:8). Because of the striking difference between these sounds almost anyone can quickly learn to differentiate them. It takes practice to memorize the sounds and connect them with their names.


Here are some solfeggio subsets used in MusicGoals and the intervals contained in them:



mi so


mi so la

M2 m3 P4

re mi so

M2 m3 P4

re so la

M2 P4 P5

re mi la

M2 P4 P5

re mi so la

M2 m3 P4 P5

do re mi

M2 M3

do re mi so

M2 m3 M3 P4 P5

la do re mi

M2 m3 M3 P4 P5

do re mi so la

M2 m3 M3 P4 P5 M6

so la do re mi

M2 m3 M3 P4 P5 M6

mi so la do

M2 m3 P4 m6

la do re mi so

M2 m3 M3 P4 P5 m7

do re mi fa (Tetrachord a group of four notes arranged whole step, whole step, half step and written on four adjacent lines and spaces on the staff)

m2 M2 m3 M3 P4

do re mi fa so (Major Pentachord)

m2 M2 m3 M3 P4 P5

la ti do re mi (minor Pentachord)

m2 M2 m3 M3 P4 P5



Let’s say the student has to play back a melody of several notes by ear, (For example in MusicGoals: Keyboard Melody by Ear). Assuming the subset of notes is practiced before the activity begins, what does the student need to do? One could argue that if the student has absolute pitch, then the interval content is irrelevant.  Even without absolute pitch with a short melody, is it not just a matter of remembering the sound of a few notes, comparing them, and determining the direction up or down? Yes maybe, but in the context of music whether it is E or G is less important than whether it is mi or so. Each note has a character in the context of the scale. Think of the role of B or C, then think of the role of ti or do. Without knowing the key we are in, B or C could be anywhere, but ti and do have meaning according to their position in the Major scale. They are the leading tone and tonic. Even with absolute pitch, it is still important to know the context of a note within a scale.


Compare the sound of a m2 to that of a M2. Both intervals are dissonant. The frequency ratio of the equal tempered m2 is close to 16:15, the M2 9:8. Both intervals produce much roughness in the inner ear. They are difficult for the beginner to differentiate by ear. However, the starting point to learn to read, write, and play intervals is most often these two intervals - half steps and whole steps. Piano students learn pentachords. They are five-finger patterns that fit the hand and help students learn the piano. The order of solfeggio subsets suggested above is based on complexity of sound presented to the ear and provides an orderly introduction of the pentatonic scale.  Notice that pentachords are at the end of the list. They have a big list of intervals and contain both the m2 and the M2. While pentachords may be easy to learn to read and to play on piano, they may not be the best starting point when it comes to training the ear.


MusicGoals attempts to move along two parallel paths in presenting the material. One path introduces interval sounds in an order that starts with those easiest to recognize and tell apart. This is the path of the ”by Ear” goals. The other path follows the order that makes learning our system of pitch notation the easiest. For example, to learn scales we start with half steps and whole steps. This is the path of the ”by Eye & Ear” and the ”by Eye” goal activities. 


Here are two things that will help beginners get started with ear training:


1. Sing - Sing a tone and then try to find it on your instrument. Practice matching your voice to a pitch that you play on your instrument. Sing all of the material in the ”by ear” goals in MusicGoals before you start each test. Before giving your answer in the test, sing what you hear.


2. Practice listening to and recognizing intervals, scales, and chords by ear. MusicGoals will give you the practice needed to master them. You can use the ”Replay” button as many times as needed.


Ear training is nothing more than memorizing sound qualities and developing skill identifying them. One must learn what to listen for and this takes practice. The sound qualities that need to be memorized are those of each interval, scale, and chord. Singing and matching pitch will sharpen the ear. MusicGoals will sharpen one's knowledge of the elements of music and teach one the labels for each sound. It provides a tool to practice listening. By learning music by eye and by ear, one will gain the knowledge and the skills that are essential to becoming an accomplished musician.


New Interval Names


New in MusicGoals Eye and Ear version 2 are the use of descriptive terms to help students identify intervals. This is a three step process. First, intervals are divided into three categories, Perfect, sweet, and rough.




Next the intervals are put into six categories, Perfect, sweet, bittersweet, course, harsh, and bitter.




The final step is to identify each interval by name.



This method helps students learn what to listen for and identify the characteristic sound of each interval. Having these terms helps focus listening and build aural memory faster.


Another new feature is the use of scale subsets spread over two octaves. Examples of these drills can be found in Keyboard Staff Reading by Ear. For example, a drill consisting of mi3 so3 mi4 so4. These drills help you learn to hear scale position over more than one octave. The results are nothing less than amazing.


Practice Tips