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The Importance Of Ear Training: Part 2, Putting it Into Practice

Welcome back, folks! In this article, we will continue where we left off in our ear training pursuits! Last time around I talked about the importance of ear training and the impact it can have on your musicianship. In this article, I would like to address some very elementary approaches to putting this into practice. If you are just starting to get serious about pursuing this vital skill, these exercises will help you to learn how to teach yourself, using some very simple principles.

There are many methods and practices you can use to improve your ear training. But if you have never really dug into this before, I would recommend some basic philosophical guidelines that you can apply to your practice routine, no matter how elementary. For starters, here is a simple approach that utilizes the patterns you already know on your bass:

Start by taking inventory of every pattern or shape-based component that you have learned in the past or are working on now. Examples of these might be scales, modes, or arpeggios. If it is a static pattern that you have played repeatedly up and down the neck, then it can be used here.

Even if you only know a one octave major or pentatonic scale, you can start to work on effective ear training. Starting with the simplest forms you have under your belt, reframe your practice perspective for each so that you are focusing on the ear training element more so than dexterity. Remember; the goal is to get away from our visual dependence on the fingerboard, moving closer to a dependence on our ears.

Once you have taken inventory of your patterns, you are going to start with the simplest forms, relearning each form in 3 stages, using a combination singing/playing approach:

Stage 1: Internalizing the sound of the complete shape
Stage 2: Internalizing the sounds of the individual notes within the shape
Stage 3: Internalizing the sounds of phrases created from the shape


Keep this in mind:You really haven’t learned a pattern or form until you can demonstrate mastery in each of these 3 stages of ear training!Until that point, you are just exercising muscle memory and not much else. Now remember, this will take a little getting used to at first, so don’t bite off more than you can chew right away. Consider only working on one or two different forms for each practice session.

To begin work on this, we are going to first employ a musical component that you are probably already very familiar with: the major scale.

The Major Scale: Meet Your New Ear Training Instructor

Most of us are already familiar with the major scale. Even if you don’t know how to play it on the bass yet, you’ve without a doubt heard it in action countless times whenever you have listened to music. We have come to recognize its sound and character in such contexts as nursery rhymes, tv commercials, birthday songs, and even Mary Poppins’ signature melodies!

Here’s what it looks like on a staff, along with a typical fingering used to play it in a single octave. This example is a C major scale, since it begins on the note, ‘C’.

[See: cmajscale above]

This scale pattern, as is the case with any pattern on the bass, is movable, meaning that it can be transposed simply by moving your fretting hand to a different starting location. For example, if you wanted to play an A major scale, instead, you would move your fretting hand’s 2nd finger to the 5th fret, E string (which is the note, ‘A’) and play the pattern from there:

[See: amajscale above]

This is one of the prime benefits that comes from playing a symmetrically-tuned stringed instrument, such as the bass. Once you learn a scale pattern or other pattern on the fingerboard, you don’t have to learn any other versions because the shape is the same regardless of what note you start from. However, it’s a 2 edged sword, because this same benefit ends up being the very crutch that we can come to lean on. Because it’s so easy to learn and memorize patterns, we often get stuck in playing from a pattern-based approach, which in the end doesn’t sound musical at all. Why? Because it doesn’t require any inspiration or spontaneity to run patterns up and down the fingerboard. (For more of my ‘preaching’ against the evils of a visually dependent approach to playing bass, make sure to go back and read my last article: “The Importance Of Ear Training, Part 1.”)Okay. Hopefully by now you have ‘seen the light’ and are now on board with me in our crusade to improve our ear training and ultimately our expressiveness on our instruments.Now let’s get to work!

Using our major scale pattern, we are going to approach ear training using the 3 stage method mentioned earlier, applied specifically to the major scale’s notes and intervals:

Stage 1: Internalizing the sound of the complete shape
Stage 2: Internalizing the sounds of the individual notes within the shape
Stage 3: Internalizing the sounds of phrases created from the shape

(This method can subsequently be used to ear train any other type of scale, phrase, arpeggio, or musical pattern that incorporates notes separated by sequential intervals. More on this in a moment…)

Ok, at this point I’ll bet some of you out there may already be thinking that you know this simple major scale backwards and forwards already, but I challenge you to prove it! I maintain that we don’t know ANY shape on the bass until we can make the connection between hearing an idea in our head and spontaneously playing it on our instrument without any errors… Remember those scatting references I was making in my last article? Well, that is the direction we are going to head in, but before we dive in, you better put your singing hat on!

Use “The Voice”, Luke!
(please excuse poorly executed Star Wars reference…)

That’s right; we are going to use our voices to work on this stuff. Don’t be bashful, embarrassed, or concerned. Unless you are truly tone deaf, you don’t have any excuse for not being able to do this, so pretend I’m right there with you nagging you until you pull this off!

Stage 1: Internalizing the sound of the complete shapea) Keeping things simple here, we are going to use our trusty old C major scale pattern to work through each stage. After getting your fretting hand into position at the 3rd fret, A string, then play the scale, first in an ascending and then descending fashion. Play it over and over again until you are familiar with its sound.(For the purpose of disciplining your accuracy in timing, I recommend playing all these exercises to a metronome or drum machine.)

b) Now, sing the scale while you play it, first ascending through the entire octave and then descending. Don’t be bashful… Sing out loud nice and strong, loud enough so that you can hear your voice at least as loud as your bass is. Match the pitch of your voice to each individual pitch in the scale. Go slowly and sing as precisely as you can, using a simple syllable such as “LA”, or “DA”, or “DO”. Play at a tempo slow enough so that you can adequately evaluate your accuracy. After you are able to do this over and over again without error, then move onto part c). Otherwise, continue working through the scale while singing until you have truly internalized and learned the sound of the scale in your head. See how we’re transferring our focus from the pattern on the fingerboard to our ears???

c) Now it’s time test yourself. Play the root of the scale, ‘C’ and then sing it. Only play the root. Now try singing the complete scale ascending and descending without your bass. Practice by only playing the root on your bass, followed by singing the entire scale over and over again until it is second nature. If you can do this successfully, then you have conquered stage 1!

Stage 2: Internalizing the sounds of the individual notes within the shapeNow we are going to learn and internalize the sounds of each individual scale degree. This might seem like an easy challenge on the surface, but keep in mind that you want to be able to hear and play any interval in any random fashion, having only the root of the scale as a reference.a) We start this stage by singing and playing each of the intervals in sequence, which should be easy if you made it through stage 1. Continuing using our C major scale example, we are going to work each scale degree individually. Start by playing and singing the root of the scale. Then, without playing your bass, try and sing the 2nd degree of the scale. Hold that pitch with your voice, and while you are singing it, play the 2nd degree of the scale on your bass. The 2 pitches should be the same. If you are right on the money, great job! If not, do NOT stop singing or stop letting the bass note ring… Instead, keep playing the 2nd on your bass while you actively ‘tune’ your voice to match the correct pitch. It’s just like tuning your bass to external source, only in this case it is like your voice is the bass.

b) Repeat part a) for each of the scale degrees in order, going from root to octave, and then back down from octave to the root. Remember to first sing the root before each interval as a way to ‘reinitialize’ your ears. Also don’t forget to first sing each interval without your bass, and then use your bass to check your pitch. Continue doing this until you can successfully sing each individual pitch in sequence without your bass. Effectively, the order you will sing and play in will be this:

root-2nd, root-3rd, root-4th, root-5th, root-6th, root-7th, root-octave

Then you will descend the same way:

root-octave, root-7th, root-6th, root-5th, root-4th, root-3rd, root-2nd

c) Now randomize the order of each sung interval. Before each attempt, sing and play the root to once again ‘reinitialize’ your ears. For example, instead of starting with the 2nd scale degree, you might start with the 5th, and then return to the root before moving to the next interval. You want these to be chosen in a non-sequential order. This will add a level of difficulty to the exercise that you may not have experienced before in any of your ear training practice. If you can effectively match your playing and singing of any interval taken randomly from the 7 scale tones without any mistakes, then you have mastered stage 2!

Be sure to join me next time around for Part 3 of the ear training series. We’ll cover Stage 3 in detail and also talk about the continuation of your ear training studies. In the meantime, have fun and practice diligently!

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