Improving Ear Training and Music Theory Skills

As we enter the Spring 2021 semester many students are resuming their aural and theory courses. These classes can be taxing under neutral circumstances, but given the continued changing instruction modalities (remote, hybrid, etc) there are extra barriers and challenges that can make these courses even more anxiety-inducing.


Apps and Programs designed for Ear Training/Theory

  • MacGAMUT
    • An ear training (with a theory edition as well) software.
    • Randomized exercises – in short and long sections.
    • Customize simple, compound meters; certain elements such as rhythm and range.
    • Sections for particular ear training skills – step-by-step.
  • MusicTheory.net
    • A great entry level tool. As a visual (theory) and ear training tool for notes, intervals, scales, and chords.
    • Customizable – omit specific clefs, range, chords, scales.
  • Teoria
    • Includes both ear training an music theory tools.
    • Customizable ear training exercises for intervals, notes, chords, scales, melodies, and rhythms.
    • Comprehensive basic theory – intervals, reading the staves, keys, scales, chords/harmonic functions. Also includes introductory jazz music theory.
  • GoodEar – apps
    • Great for smartphone or tablet.
    • 4 main apps: Intervals, Scales, Chords, Melodies.
    • Customizable.
  • AP Music Theory Barron’s Book
    • Aside from prep for the AP Music Theory exam, this book provides a condensed overview of basic-advanced Western music theory during the Common Core period.
    • CD with listening exercises; as well as self-assessment sections.

Practicing tools/tips for Ear Training

  • Start simple: when listening ask yourself is the pitch higher or lower? The move on to steps or skips?
  • When playing your own music think about these same concepts (make the context more directly applicable to you!). Listen to something simple without any visual music and try to play it back on your instrument.
  • Constant and consistent ear training; and be aware of out of tune pianos the intonation issues be confuse your brain, tricking it by a half/whole step depending on how severely out of tune it is.
  • Consistent labeling of pitches, find a system that works the best for you.
    • Examples: Solfege Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do
    • Numbers 1-12 (12 chromatic notes in a scale)
      • Ie. a C Major scale would be 1-3-5-6-8-10-12-1
    • Neutral; ie. la, du, ta
    • Note names: C, D, E, F, G, A, B
  • [More advanced] Identify which type of solfege is more comfortable:
    • Fixed Do
      • Typically associated with perfect pitch, tonal memory of specific pitches.
      • C is always Do, D always Re, E always Mi, etc.
    • Moveable Do
      • Do doesn’t have to always be C like Fixed Do. For example in F Major, F is the new Do and by going up the scale C becomes Sol. Or in G Major, G is the new Do and C becomes La.
  • Practice exercises with a drone
    • It’s a good habit to practice with a reference pitch to help develop an ear for the “home” or tonic note in a key.
    • A building block for harmonic function/context.

Music Theory Tips

  • Find a good tutor/mentor
    • A bad theory teacher or unclear instruction can destroy motivation, especially since theory on its own is so dense; a big part of comprehension is how it is presented
    • Everyone can understand music theory, you just need to find a way to think/process it that makes sense.
  • Break down scary concepts into steps
    • Roman Numeral analysis, most people. dread hearing that type of assignment…
    • Break it down, keep it simple:
      • What is the chord function? Just think Tonic/ Subdominant/Dominant?
      • Then figure out how to label each chord.
        • Tonics can only be I and sometimes vi.
        • Subdominant is ii, IV, and vi
        • Dominant is V and viio
        • And forget about iii (I’m kidding… only a little bit)
  • Patterns
    • Do you like puzzles? Make it a game of finding the same or finding opposite.
    • If you don’t you’ll need to figure out another way to process/recognize similarities and differences in rhythm/pitch.
  • “Common facts” sheet
    • There are solid rules in Western theory (these rules have exceptions, of course) by writing down the fundamentals it will help keep track and act as a physical checklist of what is ‘allowed’ and what is ‘rule breaking’.
  • REVIEW
    • It can be mentally taxing. Take breaks while also keeping on top of the material.

I spent the first two years of my undergraduate program not realizing I had been hearing all my melodic dictation exercises in fixed-do (relative to C). It was only by the time I got to atonal music that one of my professors noticed the stark contrast in my performance on dictation exams and I FINALLY was able to get a grasp on melodic dictation. I hope some of these resources are helpful! Share your favorites in the comments.

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