Learning to play music by ear is an important skill, especially for bluegrass musicians. Having music notation or tablature with you in the campground or parking lot jam sessions is not always possible. Additionally, you are not always going to know the tunes that are called out at the jam. If you want to participate on every tune—whether playing chords or taking a solo—a trained ear is a vital skill. The more developed your musical ear and musical memory become, the easier it will be for you to jam on tunes that you have never played before.
Ear training can be very frustrating, especially for a beginner. Luckily, some of today’s technology is making it easier. The Reel Ear website has four applications that have been developed to help you train your ear. One application is designed to help you learn to hear melodies, the second works with arpeggios, the third helps you hear harmony (chord changes), and the four will help you learn to match a given pitch.
With the Melody Ear Training application, a series of notes are played along with a metronome click. After those notes are played, the app presents a silent pause of the same duration. You will use that pause to play back the phrase that you just heard. The app will then play another phrase and, once again, you will play back what you heard. The wonderful thing about this application is the number of variables that you can select. You determine what instrument you’d like to hear play the notes, what notes from any scale are played, what scales the notes are selected from, the tempo of the metronome, the time signature of the phrases, the length of the duration of the phrases, the number of repetitions of the same phrase, the timing of the notes, a visual representation (feedback) for the notes being played, and more.
With all of these options, you can start out very easy. Set the metronome at 60 beats per minute, select just three notes from the C scale, select only quarter notes, select 4/4 time, and repeat the same phrase two, or more times and select the visual feedback option. Press the “play” button and the program will play a random one-bar phrase in 4/4 time in the key of C using only quarter notes and only playing the three notes you selected. It will play the phrase and then leave you space to play it back. It will repeat this same random sequence as many times as you have selected and provide visual feedback of which notes were played. With all of the various options you can make this exercise as simple or as complex as you’d like.
The Arpeggio Ear Training application works in a similar fashion, but instead of using random notes from a list that you select, or from a given scale, it plays arpeggios in a series of ascending and descending patterns. You are required to repeat the pattern after it is played. This is an excellent way to become proficient a hearing and playing arpeggios on your instrument.
The Harmony Ear Training application will play a series of chords and you have to play those chords back in the time provided. You can select as many chords as you wish from a long list of major, minor, augmented, and diminished chords. I started by selecting the I, IV, and V chords in the key of C. The program played these chords in random order and my job was to listen and play back those chords in the same order. If you are having trouble hearing chord changes in a jam session, this is a good tool for you.
The final Ear Training application currently offered by Reel Ear is the Tuning Ear Training application. Here you first select a “reference tone.” Press the “Listen” button, the app plays the note for selected duration. Press the “Generate” button and a sliding bar appears. Slide the bar up and down and the pitch of the note changes. Use the sliding bar to match the tone that was played. When you think you’ve matched the tone, leave the slider in place and push the “Check” button. One in a series of five smiley-face icons will illuminate to let tell you how close you were to the tone that was played. A frowning face means you were way off. A big smile means that you were within one cent of the reference tone. This is a good way to train your ability to match a tone that you hear and thus become better at tuning your instrument.
Overall, I think that the Reel Ear website and applications provide musicians with a great way to develop the ability to train the ear to hear tones, melody notes, arpeggios, and chords. Because of the variety of options that are available, each of these apps is useful for everyone from the rank beginner who thinks that they have a “tin ear” all the way up to the seasoned professional. You make the training as complicated as you want it to be. Highly recommended.