Professional musicians will tell you that the most important skill you need as a musician is a good ear. If you think about how you learned to talk, you learned it by ear–first from your parents and then from everybody else. Only after you could speak fluently were you taught to read and write. Most of the world’s great musicians learned music the same way.
But this not usually the way music is taught here in the US. (A notable exception to this is the Suzuki Method, which does stress learning by ear before learning to read.)
When I was six years old I started taking piano lessons. I dutifully played my assignments out of the John Thompson piano book, but it just wasn’t very much fun. As soon as my parents would let me, I quit. Unfortunately for a lot of kids, it’s still like this today.
That might have been the end of my musical career except for what happened to me when I was a little older. I was like 12 or so, and back then we used to go visit our relatives up in Connecticut every summer–lots of cousins, aunts, uncles and friends, all in this one small rural town.
One summer, my cousin Mark Janetatos, who’s a couple years younger than I am, all of a sudden (it seemed) was able to play the guitar amazingly well. He could play and sing lots of the songs you would hear on the radio. I was shocked. Shocked and amazed and extremely jealous. I would sit in front of him and ask him to play different things until he finally got sick of it and put the guitar in its case.
All I could think about was playing guitar, but I knew that I couldn’t. I was hooked for life and I didn’t even know it. When I asked him how he learned to play he said he just played by ear. He said it as if it were obvious. Well, it sure wasn’t obvious to me. I asked my mom about it. She is a highly skilled violinist and pianist in the classical tradition. Instead of helping me understand this mysterious way of playing music, she kind of dismissed his (obviously) superior aural skills. She said that good musicians don’t play by ear, good musicians read music.
I KNEW she was wrong. I knew that to me at least, the most important skill was playing by ear, and if you could also read, well that was just the icing on the cake. But being able to hear something and then play it–THAT was what I wanted to be able to do!
So I did. It took me a long time, and I often got very frustrated, but I was determined to learn to play guitar like my cousin. So I started on the long path that I’m still on. Every time I would get something right, I knew it and it made me want to keep going. So to make a long story short, it led me to becoming a professional musician and teacher.
Recently I found a very good website with an ear training tool that will run in your web browser. I’ve seen lots of online ear trainers but this is by far the best one. It was designed by the author of the blog IWasDoingAllRight. His name is Rick and I’m very grateful that he made this ear training tool.
Here it is.