How many distinct sounds can you hear right now? Try to be consciously aware of all of them at once. As I write this, I can hear a fan running in the next room, my metronome that I forgot to turn off when I set my guitar down, an airplane, wind in the trees, some traffic, and a child in the street (not the same street as the traffic). If you’ve never tried it before, putting many sounds at the front of your mind simultaneously can feel like trying to look at a different object with each eye. But you’ll find it’s more like learning to run. Many muscles are involved, but it’s easy once you get the hang of it.
Listen to Sounds
Thinking about the sounds around you is the easiest ear training available. Everyone responds to sounds differently, so embrace your mind’s reaction; you’re discovering what makes you unique. Ponder some of these questions as you listen:
- Does it remind you of anything? A song or memory?
- Can you hear any pitches? Can you guess what they are or their interval?
- How far away is the noise and in which direction?
- Does it sound different when you turn your head?
- Is there an echo?
Vocal inflections fascinate me, which makes learning new languages really fun. I took a trip to Italy a couple months ago and started learning Italian. I also enjoyed the Doppler sirens and church bells while I was there:
A few of my other favorite sounds are kitchen dishes, which I choose for their tonal qualities, and train whistles, which blow my mind.
Listen to Music
Now apply all this listening to music. Listen to every part of a recording. If you really want to get to know a song, pick one instrument and pay attention to only that instrument for the entire recording. Then do it again for every instrument you hear. Now try to hear them all together again, and I guarantee the experience will be nothing like it was before.
Take note of things you normally wouldn’t upon casual listening. What’s the recording quality like? Can you figure out any chord progressions or intervals? (See my articles on Pop Chord Progressions and Songs for Interval Recognition.)
Listen to music you’ve never heard before. Ask friends to recommend their favorite obscure music. Use free services like Last.fm (see my profile) and Pandora to discover music new to your ears. I love using Rhapsody to explore genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres I’ve never heard of.
Listen to Guitars
It’s your own instrument, so it should be easy. As with everything above, listen for things you hadn’t thought of before.
- What type of guitar is it? Steel or nylon strings? Hollow- or solid-body?
- Is the player using effects? What kinds?
- If it’s electric, is the pickup a humbucker or single coil?
- Is the player using a pick, fingerstyle, or legato?
- On which strings are certain notes being played?
Don’t worry if you can’t answer these questions. The important part is to listen for them. If you don’t know what to listen for, try searching YouTube for whatever technique or gear eludes your ears, and chances are you’ll get an instant demonstration.
Listen to Yourself
Finally, listen to your own playing. As with your voice, you’ll think you sound different on a recording, so record yourself whenever you can, even if it’s low-quality. When listening to your playing in real time, it helps to close your eyes. Put a blindfold on for a while so you can’t cheat. Your playing will improve, but you’ll also hear so much more when you’re not watching your fingers.
Open your ears!