An important skill in developing your ability to play music is listening effectively. That's why it’s the first secret in my 10 Secrets to Playing Awesome Guitar With Ease.
One of the biggest revelations to me is that this is something that can be trained. Early on I thought that one's ability to listen musically was determined genetically. In other words some people had it and others, like myself, were out of luck.
Now after years of ear training classes I realize this isn’t true. Yes, there are those that are more naturally gifted than others, but the difference is not as great as I once believed. Natural ability makes up a smaller portion of skill in this area and most is developed through training and practice.
How To Learn To Listen
Everyone can learn to listen better whether it be for musical purposes or to better communicate with others.
Learning to listen involves two aspects:
1. Focusing the attention, and
2. Distinguishing what you’re listening to.
To listen effectively we first must focus attention. This is actually a bigger issue than most people realize. Much of what we mean when we say “ I didn't hear that” is that in fact our attention was placed elsewhere and it didn't register in our brains. Focus and knowing where to put your attention is something that can be learned and practiced.
The second aspect, distinguishing what you're listening to, is the direct result of education and practice.
Music Listening Sessions
There are many paths to improving your listening skills. One way is to simply make time to listen to music without other distractions. I know I'm guilty of listening to music mostly when I'm doing something else. In fact I'm not really putting my attention on the music but just using it as background.
To learn to listen better make time to listen to music you enjoy in a quiet environment. Headphones work well for me because they block out other sounds. Also other people don’t expect me to pay attention to them when they see I have them on.
Try to distinguish different aspects of the music. Try to answer some of these questions:
- What different instruments are playing?
- What is the melody line doing?
- What instrument is playing the melody? Often it's the voice, but in instrumental music it may be the guitar or another instrument.
- What is the bass line doing? See if you can distinguish the bass from the rest of the instruments.
- How about the rhythm? Can you tap the basic groove?
There's no right or wrong answer to any of these questions. The point is to just focus your attention on aspects of the music, or rather to practice aiming your attention. Little by little you’ll find you have more control.
If you're like me you may also find that you hear things you've never heard before. This is a pleasurable byproduct of making time to really pay attention.
Ear Training On Steroids: By Copy Playing
One of the best ways I’ve found to develop both aspects of listening and directly relates to playing guitar is By Copy Playing.
I was originally exposed to By Copy Playing through my training in the Yamaha Educational System for teaching children. I’ve since adapted it for guitar and have had great results.
By Copy Playing means the student copies the playing of the instructor either in person or on video. For example, the instructor plays three notes, then the student attempts to play back the three notes in the same rhythm. Then the instructor plays another short phrase and the student copies it.
Usually the phrases are fairly short and simple. In the beginning I let the students see my hands as I play the notes but after awhile I hide what I’m playing so the student has to copy using sound only. I always provide some kind of beat even if it’s tapping my foot.
In this video I give a sample lesson of By Copy Playing using the first two strings of the guitar.
More Ear Training Lessons
Like many musicians a significant part of my training at the University was what is called Ear Training classes. It's a standard aspect of musical education. In essence it’s practicing listening to different aspects of music with the intention of being able to identify them and use them.
Ear training involves identifying intervals, scales, chords and rhythmic patterns. It can be a very time consuming but rewarding experience if you take it step by step.
If you're interested in this type of training I would recommend checking out ear training lessons for guitar on the justinguitar.com website. Justin has done a great job of creating progressive lessons and even an app that you can use to help practice. You'll find the lessons here: http://www.justinguitar.com/en/ET-000-EarTraining.php
What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.
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