Imagine you’re in a bookstore one Sunday afternoon and, for whatever reason, you happen to notice the music playing in the background. Maybe it’s a classic rock song that you haven’t heard in awhile or a jazz tune; the genre doesn’t really matter. Can you listen to the song and know what the chord progression is? When the guitarist is soloing do you instantly recognize the scale being played or what notes make up the melodic riff?
If you’re hesitating to say ‘yes’ to these questions, then keep reading because I want to share a simple concept with you that will have a profound impact on your ability to recognize chords, progressions, and scales by ear, and that you can implement today.
To be clear, there are two kinds of pitch recognition: perfect pitch and relative pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize the exact note being played and relative pitch is being able to recognize the interval between notes or chords in sequence. The concept I’ll be describing is intended to help you develop your relative pitch recognition, which in many musical settings is actually more useful. Only around 0.01% of the population is born with perfect pitch, although that skill can also be developed, and those with perfect pitch and some form of musical training almost inevitably have great relative pitch as well.
I first heard of this ear training concept from the University of North Florida’s jazz guitar instructor, Barry Greene. One day in my weekly lesson, I asked him for some tips or exercises I could do to train my ear, since that has always been a weakness for me. In addition to teaching me a bunch of great ear training exercises to practice with my guitar, he made a suggestion that seems so incredibly obvious but took me time to appreciate. I call it “Barry’s Present Awareness Concept” and, to paraphrase, it is, “Be aware of the music in your present environment, even when you are away from your instrument.”
Right now you might be thinking that you already are aware of the music that’s playing around you. When you’re listening to music in the car, you’re jamming along and paying attention. If you hear a song playing in the grocery store, maybe you pay attention for a few seconds, and then go back to your grocery list. But, this concept challenges you to focus your awareness a little deeper.
To really apply this concept, when you hear music on the radio, at a restaurant, or anywhere other than your practice space, focus in and analyze the music. Ask yourself questions about what you’re hearing. Here are some example questions to get you started, but the list is endless.
- What chord, progression, or scale am I hearing?
- Do I hear anything out of the ordinary, chord-wise or scale-wise?
- If I do, what do I think the chord or scale is?
- Is the chord progression made up of basic triads, seventh chords, or something more complex?
- Does the chord, progression, or scale remind me of a part of another song?
This last question has been particularly helpful for me because when my mind recognizes a certain chord or pattern in what I’m listening to as being from another song, it makes future recognition of that nearly instantaneous.
But, doesn’t this sort of constant analysis ruin the enjoyment of the music? The short answer is ‘No,’ if you use the idea for its intended purpose as a tool for practicing.
Barry’s Present Awareness Concept helps you quickly develop your ability to identify chords, progressions, etc. by giving you a way of improving your listening when you don’t have your instrument with you. So, if training your ear further is one of your current goals (and, if you’ve read this far, I assume it is), then employ this idea when you are out in public on errands or not specifically listening to music for relaxation. I personally find that I end up enjoying songs that I already like even more if I have analyzed them by ear and really know the song inside and out.
What ear training tips or exercises have helped you the most? Share in the comments.
*And, if you want to really take your jazz guitar playing to the next level, I urge you to go to http://www.barrygreene.com/videolessons/ now and take advantage of Barry’s free video lesson while he still offers it.*