What Are You Working On?
Summer 2014 has drawn to a close and Labor Day is almost over as of this writing; did you spend September 1st working? Or did you party like a rockstar because that's what you're supposed to do on this ironically-themed holiday?
Whatever the case, we're now officially looking at the fall season with schools back in session, vacations wrapping up and just about everyone falling into a grind of some sort with an aim towards improving or doing better.
If you're a musician, naturally, this is a cycle that never really stops. We're always trying to take it to the next level in some way, even if it's something as simple as learning a new song. Very few people who are musically inclined are happy to settle for status quo. And if they are, in my opinion, they're creatively dead in the water.
For me, there's always a ton of projects and goals that I'm setting, but they typically all come down to one basic thing: a better understanding of music theory. Anyone who has taken one of my workshops over the years knows that a pretty high priority is placed upon this area and the mere mention of the phrase either brings forth nervous murmurs of anticipation or lip-smacking of a variety usually reserved for Full Contact Food Appreciation. It can be a love or hate thing; but there is no doubt that a better grasp of music theory will automatically transfer over into every area of your musical development.
But where to start? It's such a vast subject and that's part of the problem with most folks who simply shrink at the thought of diving in without any idea of what to do first. Frankly, you can bounce around in many areas of the study and pick up what you want, when you want, but I typically like to get people started with interval ear training.
Here's a neat little online app, out of the many hundreds available, that will get you going with ear training for intervals. Intervals are the relationships between notes; the distance between two pitches. Being able to recognize and correctly name these intervals will go a long way towards helping you also recognize different chords and scales as well as being able to improvise confidently.
Most music in the western hemisphere is created from the chromatic scale, a series of 12 notes that are all a half-step, or a semitone, apart. Starting with the first note, or root, you continue on up the scale one half-step at a time. Let's say we start with C. Here are the names of the intervals as they relate to C as the root:
C - Unison
C# - Minor 2nd
D - Major 2nd
D# - Minor 3rd
E - Major 3rd
F - Perfect 4th
F# - Tritone
G - Perfect 5th
G# - Minor 6th
A - Major 6th
A# - Minor 7th
B - Major 7th
C - Octave
You can start with any note and end with that note. Now, I won't get deeper than this right now, but all I'll say is: start using this ear trainer. You will suck at first, if you're not used to doing it. But it's got a few neat little features built in that will help you learn quickly.
First of all, on the bottom left is a button marked "Reveal Answer." Once the interval plays, listen to it and take a guess by clicking one of the interval names. If you get it right, the button you correctly chose will light up green briefly before the next question is played. If you guess incorrectly, the correct interval name will light up red and the game will pause until you click "New Question." But, if you'd rather begin by having the interval named for you, click "Reveal Answer" and the last interval played will light up in green. You can do this for awhile until, eventually, you'll hear all of the intervals played in different keys.
At the top right of the app are three icons. Click on the middle icon that looks like a couple of caterpillars (I know there's a name for those, but hell if I know what that name is.) This will open a dialog box that allows you to customize certain features including the number of intervals (don't mess with that just yet, unless you're more advanced), which direction the notes will sound, the speed, type of instrument, range of samples and more.
My advice is to leave these settings as-is if you're just starting off. They're optimized to keep things as simple as possible and, believe me, that's exactly what you want at this point in the game. But if, for some reason, the sound of a piano really makes you want to barf, then you can change the instrument to something else like a guitar, flute or clarinet. Personally, I like the bassoon. It sounds like a boat horn.
If you are familiar with a piano keyboard and think that it will help you to visualize the intervals, click on the icon of the white and black keys on the far right and you'll get a neat little keyboard pop-up that you can play using the mouse pointer. You can also mark keys if you find that to be useful.
Finally, click on the "i" in the circle to access a panel that will allow you to further customize your experience; again, I recommend leaving it set to the defaults shown here.
One of the neatest features of this sweet little app is the ability to keep track of your score. It's always important to have a gauge of how you're doing, whether you're improving or actually getting worse at something.
Click on "Show Progress Report" and you'll open up another dialog box. This one allows you to enter your name and then it keeps track of your score, time, customized settings and even allows you to print out a copy of your report. It's not as personal as some of the ear-training apps available for mobile devices, but it's absolutely free, so there's that.
One of the weird little quirks of this app is that once you start changing settings in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, you then click an arrow in the upper left-hand corner which takes you back to the exercise page of MusicTheory.net. That's not a bad thing; there's plenty of good stuff there you should have a look at. But remember to scroll down to the "Ear Training" section and click on the "Interval Ear Training" link to get back to practicing.
When I first started interval ear training, I totally sucked. But I kept at it daily, drilling and listening, listening and drilling until I noticed a marked improvement in my performance in about two weeks' time. From there, it just got easier and easier and, if you persevere, you'll find the same will happen for you too.
If you feel like making more of a commitment to this entry level method of learning music theory, I highly recommend Better Ears, an app for mobile devices that performs similar functions to the MusicTheory.net trainer, but takes it to a fantastic level, including letting you know exactly where you need improvement (i.e., you're not doing so hot on your Minor 6ths - maybe you should bone up on those) and keeping track of your progress over a wide range of exercises.
Have any of you tried interval ear training or any other ear trainers? What have your experiences been like? Are you getting better or just getting frustrated? What apps have you been using and are you using them at home or on your mobile device? Please share your feedback in the comments section below and I'll look forward to hearing how you're all doing!