A blessing or a curse? Whatever your attitude on the subject, there’s something truly remarkable about the ability to hear music in your head at any time and in any situation, from dead silence to noisy cacophony. Equally amazing is the ability to slip into a realm of consciousness wherein the brain translates natural or man-made sounds into rhythmic, melodic, and/or harmonic musical events—bumps in the road, bird songs, washing machines, traffic jams, dueling chainsaws (one of my favorites!), or a text ping perfectly in time and tune with a song or soundscape of the moment. It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m sure I’m not alone, but if you haven’t ever been experienced, it takes time and hard work to develop big ears. Here’s how to get started.
Melodic ear training begins with interval recognition. To measure physical distance, a foot is divided into 12 inches. Similarly, a musical octave is divided into 12 half-step increments. The half step is the unit of measurement used to define a musical interval, which is the distance between any two notes. Intervals are the building blocks of melody and harmony. A melodic interval measures the distance between two separate notes, while a harmonic interval measures the distance between two notes played simultaneously. Chords contain three or more notes, so there are compound intervals within chords. When one chord moves to another, the root motion is measured in intervals. Because intervals provide a way to measure and communicate relative aural distances within music, any melodic or harmonic structure can be verbally described in terms of its intervallic design.
The object of ear training is to gain the ability to recognize and identify all 12 intervals in your mind’s ear, and to equate them with their physical shapes on the fretboard. The good news is you already know how they sound via familiar melodies—you just have to learn how to identify them by name.
THE BIG PICTURE
Ex. 1 illustrates and names all 12 intervals measured from a C root on the fifth string to form a chromatic scale. Spend some time playing each interval and singing along to the best of your abilities until you hit the octave—“root-b2, root-2, root-b3, root-3, root-4”, etc.—and see if you can recognize the opening notes of any familiar melodies along the way. If not, don’t worry— we’ll get there.
SING IT, BABY!
The major scale and its relative modes are formed by extracting different intervallic formulas from the chromatic scale. Ex. 2a details a C major scale (a.k.a. the C Ionian mode), its intervallic structure (root-2-34-5-6-7-root), and its scale-step formula (whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step), along with two suggested fingerings: one on a single string, and one across adjacent strings. Examples 2b through 2g follow suit with the six remaining relative modes derived from the same C major scale with each successive mode beginning on the next scale step. This process shifts the root and alters the scale-step formula to produce six different scales, or modes.
Begin by internalizing the major scale and its seven major and perfect intervals. Play through both fingerings a few times, then give yourself the starting note (C) and see how far you can get by singing each scale step rather than playing it. Once you can sing the C major scale without playing along, re-designate its second scale step (D) as the root and play the D Dorian mode in Ex. 2b until you can sing it without accompaniment. Repeat this process for each successive mode—Phrygian starting on E, Lydian starting on F, Mixolydian starting on G, Aeolian starting on A, and Locrian starting on B—until you come full circle back to C. (Tip: Think of the whole process as a seven-note sequence starting on each note of the major scale.) Why do this? The major scale comprises only major and perfect intervals, while its modes contain various amounts of the five missing minor and altered intervals found in the chromatic scale—the b2, the b3, the #4/b5, the #5/b6, and the b7. Learning to sing the modes in sequence will attune your ears to all of these intervals in various settings.
If you’re having trouble singing the modes, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. There is a way to indelibly drill every interval into your head, starting with the major and perfect intervals. Just diligently follow these four easy steps every day for a few weeks and you’ll be amazed at the results: 1) Play the major scale from its root up to a designated interval; 2) Play the same thing while simultaneously singing the scale steps; 3) Eliminate the in-between notes and sing the root to the chosen interval without accompaniment; 4) Double-check your last step by singing and playing the root to the chosen interval. That’s it. The long-term goal is to eventually eliminate the accompaniment and be able to find each interval by hearing it in your mind’s ear.
We’re skipping major seconds, which simply span one whole step (equal to two half steps, or two frets; think of the first two notes of “Silent Night” or “Norwegian Wood”), so follow the four-step drill to work your way through each remaining interval. Ex. 3’s major thirds span two whole steps, or four frets (think “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Can’t Buy Me Love”), Ex. 4’s perfect fourths cover two and one half steps, or five frets (“Here Comes the Bride” or “Amazing Grace”), Ex. 5’s perfect fifths encompass three and one half steps, or seven frets (“My Favorite Things” or the theme from “Star Wars”), Ex. 6’s major sixths equal four and one half steps, or nine frets (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” or the NBC Network chimes), Ex. 7’s major sevenths span five and one half steps, or 11 frets (the first and third notes of “Over the Rainbow,” “Bali Hai,” or “Immigrant Song”), and Ex. 8’s octaves cover six whole steps, or 12 frets (the first two notes of “Over the Rainbow,” “Bali Hai,” or “Immigrant Song”). Visualizing intervals on the fingerboard while singing them, and filling in your own musical examples whenever possible, will greatly increase your retention and mental recall of each interval.
The same four-step method can be applied to each of the remaining modes and used to cement your recognition of the five intervals not present in the major scale— minor seconds (one half step, or one fret), minor thirds (one and one half steps, or three frets), sharp fourths/flatted fifths (three whole steps, or six frets), minor sixths (four whole steps, or eight frets), and minor sevenths (five whole steps, or 10 frets). Play each of the following examples as written, and then apply the previous drill to continue through the octave. Examples 9and 10 utilize the D Dorian mode to respectively illustrate b3s (Think “Hello Dolly” and “A Day in the Life”) and b7s (“Star Trek” original TV theme and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”), while Ex. 11 gives us a taste of the b2 (“White Christmas” and the shark theme from “Jaws”) and b3 inherent to the E Phrygian mode. Ex. 12 demonstrates the F Lydian mode’s unique #4 (“Maria” from West Side Story and the first and third notes of “Blue Jay Way”). You can experience G Mixolydian’s b7 on your own, simply by replacing either a G major scale’s 7 (F#) with a b7 (F), or the G Dorian mode’s b3 (Bb) with a 3 (B). Ex. 13’s A Aeolian-mode/natural-minorscale formula includes both a b3 and a b6 (“Because” and “She’s a Woman”). We conclude with Ex. 14’s B-Locrian-based b5, which neighbors its b2, b3, 4, b6, and b7.
Be sure to transpose all of the previous examples to all keys. You can also apply the same drill to the five-note pentatonic major and minor scales (root-2-3-5-6, and root-2-b3-4-5-b7), as well as the six-note blues scale (root-2-b3-4-b5-5-b7).
WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN
Every ascending interval has a corresponding descending version. To hear, practice, and internalize descending intervals, play and sing all of the previous examples in reverse from high to low. Here are some descending reference melodies to get you started: b2 = “I Am the Walrus”; 2 = “Yesterday”; b3 = “Hey Jude”; 3 = “Summertime”; 4 = “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”; #4/b5 = British police siren (a la Jimi); 5 = “Feelings”; b6 = Theme from Love Story; 6 = “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”; b7 = “Willow Weep for Me (first and third notes); 7 = “I Love You” (Cole Porter); and octave = “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (chorus).
BIG EARS RULE
Melodic ear training is only one aspect of developing your mind’s ear. There’s also rhythmic ear training and harmonic ear training to be considered, not to mention using your imagination to translate natural and industrial sounds into the language of music. We’ve only scratched the surface here, but it’s a good place to start. Do the work and you’ll not only become a better guitarist, you’ll be a better musician.