Ear Training

I would strongly suggest you begin these ear training studies AFTER you are fluent with at least major scales and chords- You should be able to immediately answer questions like “what are the notes in a Bb chord?”, what is the 6th degree of the E scale?” “Ab is the 5th degree of what scale?”, etc. Knowing this info off the top of your head will help greatly in everything making musical sense. If you need to, you can go old school and make flash cards. Just memorize the whole Magilla. I promise you it will be well worth your while down the line.


The following seemingly “simple” ear training exercise, is, in my experience, one of the most useful exercises I’ve found in all of my studies. I’ve adapted and expanded the original idea I read about years ago, and it has definitely helped my ear.

On the surface, it looks like just an easy “pick out the melody by ear” routine, but in truth it helps to develop scale recognition, interval distance, chord arpeggios and inversions, and familiarity with keys you’d normally avoid like a musical plague.

Below are 50 well known Americana, children’s, Folk, and Xmas songs as a starter list. If you don’t know a song, or are unsure of the exact melody, check out any simple Youtube clip featuring the song’s lyrics and learn the tune well. This list will give you weeks of material to fool with. If you were born in the U.S.A., you should know many of these tunes by osmosis, but foreign-born players are free to substitute simple/folk songs from their own country as well

Here is the way this little game is played.  We look over the list, find a song where we know the exact melody, Pick a key, start a metronome going, and play it. Easy, right? Piece of cake, right? (cue evil laughter track)

Ready to try it?, let’s begin with a song everyone knows – “Silent Night”- we’ll do this in the key of C. Start a metronome going slowly (you’ll thank me later) and with the right hand only, play the melody line- try not to make any mistakes- don’t go back if you make a mistake- keep calm and play on til the end of the song. Now do it, the metronome awaits. (You can always add some left hand block chords to fill in the harmonies and test your knowledge of inversions if right hand only is too easy for you

Make some mistakes?  That’s okay – we all do, Wait. you didn’t make any mistakes? Congrats!, you graduate to the next level. This time we’ll make it a little more challenging. We’ll play the song again, but this time we’ll do it in the key of Ab (uh-oh…)

How’d that go? Probably not as well. The thing is, you can ratchet up the difficulty level in this exercise until it stops you in your tracks (and at some point it will, trust me) – and yet, we’re only dealing with these same simple folk songs- Still think you’re hot stuff? Try “Oh Holy Night” with simple left hand arpeggios in the key of Db. Good Night. (BTW, if you played it flawlessly, just close out this page and move along, there’s nothing to see here)

All Through The Night
America (My Country ‘Tis Of Thee)
America The Beautiful
Anchors Away (U.S. Navy theme song)
Auld Lang Syne
Aura Lee
Away In A Manger
Deck The Halls
Down in The Valley
Hava Nagila
Home On The Range
I Dream Of Jeannie
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
Jamaica Farewell
Jingle Bells
Michael Row The Boat Ashore
My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean
My Country ‘Tis Of Thee
My Grandfather’s Clock
Oh! Susannah
Oh Come All Ye Faithful
Oh Danny Boy
Oh Holy Night
Oh little Town Of Bethlehem
Oh My Darling Clementine
Ol Black Joe
Old Macdonald
Red River Valley
Rock A Bye Baby
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer
She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain
Silent Night
Sing A Song Of Sixpence
The Cassions Go Rolling Along (U.S. Army Theme)
The Battle Hymn Of The Republic
The Camptown Races
The Girl I Left Behind Me
The Marines Hymn (U.S. Marines theme)
The Star Spangled Banner
The Streets Of Laredo
This Land Is Your Land
This Old Man
We Three Kings
When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again
When The Saints Go Marching In
When You Were Sweet Sixteen
Wild Blue Yonder (U.S. Air Force Theme)
Yankee Doodle

If you’re really motivated, you could make your own flash cards for this exercise as well – (very old school, but still very effective). Make 2 piles of index cards, and have one song title written on each card in the first pile, and the 12 different keys, one per card, in the second pile.- shuffle them – place them face down, and flip em

You might get results like: (America – Bb) (Auld Lang Syne -D) (My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean- F#)- you’ll never know what challenging combinations lie in wait until you turn the cards over. If you want to make it a little easier on yourself, a good tip is to pick one key only, say, G, or Eb, and play a bunch of tunes in that one key alone. I find that really helps with learning key-specific scales and arpeggios, and you’ll become so familiar with that particular key, it won’t be a scary place anymore. Start at the key of C, and work through the full cycle of fifths until you’ve played tunes in every key. Yowza.

I’ve thrown this exercise at some otherwise great musicians, and while some did pretty well, some had a result that was totally FUBAR- but, it helped them see the areas where they could improve – and having a good ear is arguably one of the “must have” skills for all musicians. I would do some odd session work on guitar, and being only a fair reader, having a good ear saved my butt a few times, so it should be one of the main focuses in your studies

It’s all good, If you do this exercise on an ongoing basis, you’ll eventually be comfortable in any key, and that my friend, is a great feeling.