Growing up, I remember my mom telling us kids that, "There's a difference between hearing and listening." Unfortunately, I didn't pay attention long enough to remember what she was talking about.
...pause for laughter...crickets...
I digress. Today I'm going to be talking about that aspect of music education that is far too often overlooked: Ear Training. If I'm being honest, I myself didn't really understand the profound value of ear training until I was studying music in college and was required to take three semesters of Ear Training class.
For me, musical ear training was a skill set that I didn't really realize the value of until I already had it. And I wish I would have sooner. So, I'm going try to help you and your music student see the value earlier than I did by giving you 3 reasons why ear training matters and 3 suggestions on how you can help him/her develop their ear.
Why ear training matters for your student.
1) It de-mystifies the music they hear.
I remember being an early college music major; I was so absorbed with the music I was working on (usually classical or jazz music) that I hardly ever heard pop music. But once in a blue moon, probably when I was driving home for break, I would hear one of those simple pop tunes on the radio, and it would consume me! All of a sudden, because of my studies, I could hear harmonic structures and instrumentation and melodies, and I could explain a bit of how the musicians achieved the feeling they portrayed. Music had become ever-so-slightly de-mystified for me.
2) Ear training fuels creativity.
Along with that, once you can hear and analyze what's going on in a song, you now have that sound permanently at your disposal for composition, improvisation, or interpretation of other music. As students advance in ear training, they can better understand the characteristics of a song, which places more and more "tools in their tool box," as I've heard it explained before.
3) When we learn to listen, we learn to think and feel in real-time.
When we truly listen - not just hear - our brains interpret the information they receive from our ears, and they categorize it in a multitude of ways: emotion, dynamics, appeal, rhythm, mood, tonality, etc. Active listening is a skill that is invaluable in all walks of life. Ear training helps us hone that skill.
How you can help your student develop their ear.
1) Listen to music analytically together.
Even if you can't tell a banjo from a harpsichord (which some can't), you can still encourage your student to develop the habit of analytically listening to music, as opposed to passively hearing it. Have them really think and feel as much as they can by prompting them with questions, such as, "What was the mood of that song, and what was in the music that made you feel that way?", "What are the musical differences between this song and [a different song]?", and "What was the instrumentation of that song?"
2) Encourage your student to practice playing by ear.
This strategy will be most effective when your student is also involved in music education - whether it's lessons, or school ensembles, or whatever. The concept here is that as students grow in their theoretical and performing proficiency, they should be developing their ear in the same areas. For example, when a student learns how to play a major scale, he/she is also learning what a major scale sounds like and should (with practice) be able to identify major scales in recordings of songs. So, the more they learn how to play on their instrument, the more of a song they should be able to play by ear.
3) Provide opportunities for your student to play music with others.
Musicians who play well together listen well together. They simultaneously listen to what the other musicians are playing and play in a way that syncs up with what they hear. With my students, I often compare this concept to peripheral vision. You only have the ability to focus your eyes on one thing at a time, but you can still see and be attentive to other things within your periphery. Likewise, great musicians can still be attentive to what other musicians are doing even when they are focusing on what they're playing, and vice versa.