Compose Yourself: The Benefits Of Ear Training

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Videos by American Songwriter


“Music is in my DNA!”

– Rihanna

Rihanna’s DNA may be more photogenic than most of the gifted musicians I’ve known, but I’m pretty sure that they would all second her emotion. Music is in their DNA. It has always been a part of their thinking, and they can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. We’re all exposed to music at an early age, but a select few just naturally absorb the grammar of chords and melody and have no trouble rearranging it into new forms.

In my “Measure for Measure” columns, I’ve called that capability “Musical I.Q.,” or “Musical Imagination Quotient.” Musical I.Q. means the ability to hear what you play before you play it or sing it, and an ability to conjure up a plethora of alternatives at every fork in the musical road. It is something like the painter’s ability to see the painting waiting to be revealed on a blank canvas, or the sculptor’s ability to look at a formless block of stone and see the sculpture trying to free itself from within. But, because music is a language, Musical I.Q. is most like the poet’s ability to imagine a line of poetry before committing pen to paper.

A natural outgrowth of a high Musical I.Q. is the effortlessness we often associate with great songwriters: “Yesterday” comes to Paul McCartney in a dream. Charles Trenet composes “Beyond The Sea” in ten minutes on a piece of toilet paper while riding a train along the French coast in 1943. ZZ Top’s “Tush” materializes in the rowdy atmosphere of a gig. Keith Richards hatches “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in his sleep. Mozart runs off to his desk after dinner and writes down the symphony he’s been composing in his head while chatting with the guests. He doesn’t scratch out a single note.

That’s a high Musical I.Q. at work. Exotic? Yes, but impossible for mere mortals? I don’t think so. We already use a similar ability every day of our lives when we arrange our thoughts into sentences before we speak. With the right kind of training, experiences such as this may not be as remote as you may think. “Ear training” is one kind of training that can help, and even if you think ear training sounds like something only a music major could love, hang on for a few more paragraphs, and maybe I can persuade you otherwise.

Ear training means educating your ear to identify musical elements—chord types, chord progressions, intervals, melody, rhythm—on the fly, the instant you hear them. This is not unlike what you did when you were learning to speak. After the riot of sounds that overwhelmed your newborn ears settled down into words with meaning, it wasn’t long until you uttered your first “Mama” and began the long trek toward becoming what you are today: a fluent speaker of English and possibly other languages. Ear training takes you through a similar process with music.

In a sense, music is easier than a language like English because it has no set definitions. It doesn’t have to, because our reactions to melody and chords are automatic and instantaneous, built into our nervous systems. This is what people mean when they say music is a “universal language.” On the other hand, if you want to “speak” the language of music, you have to be able to understand and use musical “words” and “grammar.” That’s where ear training comes in.

“Measure for Measure” has discussed three sources of musical meaning that are the traditional province of ear training: interval color (“Sex, Drugs, and Dopamine,” Sep/Oct 2012), scale-tone mood (“The Sound of Music,” Nov/Dec 2012), and harmonic perspective (“The Truth About Those Three Chords,” May/Jun 2012). Two free e-books were written in conjunction with these columns (“Interval Color in Hit Songs” and “How to Sing Solfa – and Boost Your Musical I.Q.”). The columns are archived at The e-books can be obtained by e-mailing and typing “Request Measure for Measure eBooks” in the Subject line.

Now here’s the ear-training connection:

Interval color: An interval is the distance in pitch between two notes. For example, when Judy Garland sings “Some-where Over The Rainbow,” her voice rises an octave, which is the name for an interval between two notes, the higher note being twice the frequency of the low note. For example, if the bottom note is A440 (a frequency often used in tuning instruments), then the note an octave above it will be A880 (440 x 2 = 880).

The top and bottom note of an octave sound identical, except that the top note has a lighter tint, like “red” and “light red.” This reveals something interesting about intervals: As long as the ratio between the frequencies is the same, the interval will have the same quality, no matter what notes are used. For example, all “major thirds” have the same warm quality, whether the pitches involved are C and E, or E and G#, or F and A, or any two pitches a major third apart.

There are, in effect, only twelve intervals in the musical alphabet. The twelfth interval is the octave, and all intervals greater than an octave are essentially repeats of the smaller intervals contained within the octave. Interval color is one of the most important sources of meaning in melody, so it pays to train your ear to recognize the twelve intervals. Excerpt 2 of Compose Yourself contains a lengthy discussion of intervals (beginning on page 24) that includes a recommendation for the “Relative Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse” authored by David Lucas Burge ( Like the e-books, Excerpts 1 and 2 can be obtained by emailing The exercise that concludes Excerpt 2, “Cracking the Interval Code,” relates specifically to songwriting and will repay the time and effort you invest many times over.

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