What are aural skills? The study of Aural Skills, also called ear training, is the study of pitch, scales, chords, and rhythms. The goal is to develop your inner hearing. The basic tools are your eyes, your instrument and your singing voice. You learn to “hear” what your eyes see, and repeat what you hear on your instrument and with your voice.
Why is this valuable? Because as you develop your ability to understand what you hear, you will learn music faster, sightread more confidently, memorize more securely, and improvise or play by ear more freely.
In a previous blog post, I outlined the MASTER system of sightreading. The “E” in MASTER stands for Ear Training, one of the important skills of a good sightreader.
Your inner hearing is probably the most important skill for fluent sightreading. If you can “hear” in your mind what the music will sound like, you will be able to play it correctly and musically. Think about reading aloud in a language that you can pronounce but don’t understand. You can say the words, but they make no sense to you and so you convey no meaning to the listener. But when you understand the words, the listener hears the story. In a similar way, ear training allows you to sightread with understanding.
Music students in a college or conservatory have ear training classes two or more times a week. I should know. Not only did I take those classes when I studied at Curtis, but I taught those classes for 19 years, and I witnessed the increase in skills that comes with regular training. But in just 5 minutes a day, every day, you can start to make big improvements in your aural skills.
Here are seven ways to start developing your aural skills. The first three are simple drills that you should do when you do your technical work each day. For the others you will need a book of short, simple pieces. Two good books to use are Little Harp Book by Grandjany, and for a more interesting tonality, Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. Do one of these drills each day and watch your improvement!
1. Sing your scales. You know you should be playing scales every day. Try singing them too.
2. Sing your arpeggios too. A little more challenging than singing scales. Match the pitches carefully.
3. Play scales of thirds, fourths, fifths and sixths. Sing both notes, bottom and top, either while you play or after you play each note.
For the following drills, select a short, simple piece of music.
4. Divide the melody into short 2 bar or 4 bar sections. Play each section and then sing it back.
5. Count the beats aloud while you tap the rhythm of the melody.
6. Sing the notes of the melody in reverse order, playing each note after you sing it to check your pitch.
7. Play one hand while you sing the other.
A couple of tips:
- When the notes you need to sing are out of your vocal range, just switch your singing to a more comfortable octave.
- Singing the pitches and calling them by their names (F, G, A, etc.) doubles your ear training results.