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The Importance of Ear Training: Part 3, Internalizing the Sounds of Phrases Created from the Shape

Hello again, and welcome back to the 3rd installment of my ear training series! I hope that you have been practicing diligently since the last installment… If you have, I’ll trust that you have progressed in leaps and bounds in making the vital connection between your ears and your hands.

This time around, I will be covering in further detail stage 3 of the 3 stage ear training process outlined in part 2 of this series:

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

If you’re just now tuning into this series, I recommend you take the time to first study parts 1 and 2 so you can get up to speed. Now, let’s get to work!

Stage 3: Internalizing the sounds of phrases created from the shape

As you might have already guessed, this is the most challenging of the 3 steps. Now instead of dealing with ear training scale degrees individually, we are going to cluster random groups of scale degrees together. This adds another level of difficulty because your internalization of the scale is dependent on your ability to hear, sing, and see random combinations of these tones on the bass without stumbling. This is also the step that exercises the most musical application of ear training, because mastery requires that you have the scale internalized to the point that you are able to hear and see phrases spontaneously that are completely derived from melody and not patterns. Completion of this step also signifies that you have digested this shape to the point of not having to think about making music with it on the gig or in the shed… Its sound flows from you naturally without need for mental analysis or forcing of patterns. This flow is what underlines a musician’s ability to effectively communicate through their instrument, regardless of it that instrument is a bass, guitar, violin, trumpet, or voice.

Recall that at the end of part 2, we focused on internalizing the sounds of each individual interval within a shape, specifically in a single octave of a major scale. Using that example, we were able to subsequently focus on ear training seven specific intervals:

root-2nd (major 2nd)
root-3rd (major 3rd)
root-4th (perfect 4th)
root-5th (perfect 5th)
root-6th (major 6th)
root-7th (major 7th)
root-octave (perfect octave)

Using these same intervals, we now will move to the next level by incorporating a new level of randomness in combination. The goal now will be to be able to naturally hear (and likewise, play accurately) complete phrases on your bass consisting of multiple notes and intervals. In keeping with an approach that progresses in difficulty, we want to start simple and then build from there. Once again, we will rely on the trusty major scale to demonstrate stage 3.

a) Start with random 2 note combinations. As with the prior stages, we will begin each drill with singing and playing the root of the scale to get oriented. After singing and playing the root, then attempt to sing randomized 2 note phrases. (The only difference between this approach and the one outlined at the end of part 2 is that for this example, you will not begin each 2 note combination from only the root. For example, you could sing the 2nd degree followed by the 5th degree, or the 6th scale degree followed by the 3rd.) After singing, then check your performance by playing that same 2 note combination on the bass. If you nailed it, then try another one, such as 3rd to 6th, or 7th to 2nd, octave to 5th, 4th to 6th, etc, etc. If you were not successful the first time, then sing the first note on its own, and check pitch on the bass before moving to the next note in the phrase. Use the same correction and ‘voice tuning’ tactics you used in stages 1 and 2.

Note: Obviously, if we were to change the scale or musical component used for ear training using these methods, the qualities of the intervals would change accordingly. You will need to keep this in mind as you progress outside of the major scale. Ultimately, within the scope and range of a single octave, you would need to be intimately familiar with ALL of the twelve chromatic intervals between the root and the octave:

minor 2nd
major 2nd
minor 3rd
major 3rd
perfect 4th
augmented 4th/diminished 5th
perfect 5th
augmented 5th/minor 6th
major 6th/diminished 7th
minor 7th
major 7th
perfect octave

b) Once you have gotten good at the 2 note combinations, then move onto 3 and 4 note groupings. By now, you should have the practice and training methods down. You are simply building on the concepts presented in steps 1 and 2, working at mastering more and more complex passages that you can simultaneously hear and play. In this exercise, you are still going to focus on just a purely linear approach. In other words, you don’t need to concern yourself as much with making great music with these combinations of notes. The more specific goal here is to build your pitch memory so that you know instantaneously the sounds of each interval within the octave you are working in.

c) When you can sing and play these larger groupings from part b) effectively, then you can graduate to longer, more musical phrases. This is where the ear training progress you have made will really manifest itself in your playing. It will especially make a huge difference in your improvisational and melodic abilities. For this part of the exercise, I really want you to try and focus on playing bass as melodically as a singer would sing. Try to think more about singing and playing ideas that are more conversational in nature. Use rhythm and dynamics as significantly as the actual melody notes that you choose. Sing with the same dynamics that you are spontaneously hearing. Make a real connection with your bass, so that it feels like a true extension of your mind. This is a place that is challenging to get to at first, but the payoffs are huge and rewarding once you can learn to walk into that “zone”.

As you may have already guessed, part c) is not something that is going to be mastered overnight. It represents the culmination of all of the key principles we’ve discussed so far, as they apply to your real-world ability to communicate on the bass. Although the exercise’s approach can be summed up in a single paragraph, its depth and implication speaks volumes. For most of us, this level of intimacy and communication that we seek through our music will be a lifelong pursuit. If you really are dedicated to finding this ‘precious zone,’ the importance of immersing yourself in as much music as possible can not be underestimated.

Other ear training methods and resources

Although I really believe this 3 stage process will help you considerably with your ear training, I highly recommend that you experience other methods, as well. Not only will other approaches open up your mind and your ears, it will keep you from becoming bored with a singular approach. I’ve always had better practice shed experiences whenever I’ve felt like I could enjoy more variety in my routine…

Transcription – Once you can navigate basic intervals effectively on your bass, try seeing if you can transcribe a melody or bassline from a song or musical phrase that you like. This will ultimately be a 2 step process: First, you will do your best to accurately learn and memorize the part on your bass just like the recording. For the next step, take the time to write it out on a staff so you can see the ‘shape’ and contour of the line. If you can’t read music yet, no problem. You will still get the benefits from having to associate what you hear with how it will look on your bass. (Incidentally, transcribing is a great way to help improve your reading, as well.) The fantastic thing about transcribing is that it forces you to figure out and internalize phrases on your bass that you normally would not have come up with on your own. This is absolutely fantastic for your ear training because it takes you out of your comfort zone and helps you to develop new muscle memory. As with any sound, progressive approach, start with very simple lines and phrases and build up your skills from there. In fact, since most recorded bass lines in full ensemble settings are somewhat challenging to hear in full detail, I would recommend starting with vocal melodies or sax melodies since they will be easier to make out. Furthermore, learning to phrase like a horn player or vocalist will make you an even more creative and melodic bassist.

Phrase dictation – If you have the ability to spend some practice time with another player, try playing the phrase dictation game. Without looking at the other player’s fingerboard, have him or her play a short phrase on their instrument 3 times in a row. Each time they play the phrase, sing it out loud so that you are able to memorize its pitches and movement. Then, try to play the phrase back on your bass. It’s okay if you have to stumble a little bit at first to find the pitches. After you think you have the phrase down, play it back to your musical partner and have them verify your accuracy. This is a really fun way to practice, and it will make a HUGE difference in your playing.

Melody-referenced interval recognition – Obviously, your ability to recognize intervals will help you in many aspects of your musicianship. Some players learn relative pitch by associating each possible interval with the first two notes of a popular song. For example, the first 2 notes of “When The Saints Go Marching In” form a major 3rd. Likewise, the first 2 notes of the popular cartoon, “The Simpsons” opening theme form a diminished 5th/augmented 4th. There is a neat free online ear training program that’s used specifically for associating intervals to songs. You can check it out at www.trainear.com.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a shameless plug for my own online contribution, MusicDojo. MusicDojo is an interactive, online music school that offers a curriculum for bass players that includes intensive ear training courses, in addition to courses covering improvisation, music theory, styles, sightreading, and technique. Find out what’s currently being offered at: www.musicdojo.com.

Well, that brings us to the close of this series. I hope these lessons have opened your eyes (and ears) to a fresh philosophy and new approach to connecting the auditory with the visual. It is my sincere hope that the time you spend becoming more intimately connected to your bass will result in you attaining a completely new level in your musicianship and bring you even more joy when you play!

As always, practice hard, and play every note like it is your last.

Until next time,

Adam Nitti

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