Ear training is an immensely valuable skill that takes time and patience to build. While no shortcuts exist (except to listen to your favorite chord progression or solo on repeat), having a foundational knowledge of music theory can make or break your success when it comes to using your ears as a guide.
Why is ear training important?
Some guitarists aren't able to read standard notation. Others lean away from guitar tablature. No matter what skills you possess, the ability to use your ears to survey a musical landscape (whether on CD or while playing with a band) is critical to understanding what's being played, why it's being played, and perhaps most importantly, how to play it.
At first, being able to listen to a piece of music and break it down may seem like a daunting task. But increasing your musical knowledge across a number of different areas can make the experience much easier. The following are a series of practical tips for guitarists of all ability levels to help hone ear training skills.
Know your scales
Before picking up an instrument for the first time, we rely on our ears to tell us what we like and what we don't like. Non-musicians are vaguely aware that some songs sound more “happy” or “sad” than others. Understanding why and how this mood is evoked is a skill that largely boils down to scale theory. But knowing whether a song is in a major or minor key is just the start, as scale theory provides a critical road map of your fretboard that can help you decode the most complex chord progression or lead lick.
If you're looking to improve your ear training abilities, don't hesitate to familiarize yourself with basic scales. Practice each scale form in different keys. Take time to understand the intervals that create chords, such as how a major third or minor third interact with the root note. That way, when you approach an unfamiliar progression or solo that you're learning by ear, you have an existing knowledge base available to make well-educated decisions regarding your next move on the fretboard.
Learn your chords, up and down the neck
The jump between playing songs with open chords and barre chords can be staggering. But that jump is more than noticeable to our ears, which can easily discern the difference between an open Em chord and a barre chord on the 7th fret of your guitar. A crucial part of ear training extends beyond being able to find the root of what you're playing. Finding the right spot on the fretboard is just as important.
Knowing your chords inside-and-out is an ability that can make your ears more intuitive. Do you understand how a chord is constructed? Are you familiar with common major and minor barre chord shapes? Can you play the most common open chords with roots on the 5th and 6th strings? Are you familiar with dominant and diminished chords or chord extensions? Furthering your knowledge in each of these areas yields obvious benefits when learning by ear.
Putting it all together: Go slowly
Knowing your scales and chords allows you to translate what you hear into actual notes on your fretboard. But as any guitarist learning a piece of music knows all too well, it can take time to connect different chord progressions or lead licks using proper timing. Understanding note values (quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, triplets and so on) is a key piece of the puzzle that can be the “make-or-break” difference when replicating a piece of music.
One mistake I've seen plenty of students make while ear training is trying to play what they've just learned up-to-speed. Without a handle on rhythm, phrasing, or how to stay in time, attempting complex passages and unfamiliar rhythms can lead to sloppy playing. Never be afraid to slow down a particularly difficult passage to a comfortable tempo. That way, you can gradually increase the tempo as you practice with attention to timing.
Transcribe your work
Once you've familiarized yourself with scales, chord theory and the timing of a piece, don't be afraid to write it down. Even if you're unfamiliar with how to read standard notation, transcribing music using tablature is a simple, effective method of learning music. Writing down a chord progression or solo can allow you to break down difficult passages and repeat them as necessary. Not to mention, it can make connecting one part of a song to another easier as well.
In conclusion, ear training can seem like a difficult task to beginner and even intermediate guitarists. But by dedicating a little time to some of music theory's most fundamental aspects (scales, chords, and timing), you’ll have a roadmap which will rarely steer you wrong.