Ear Training for Beginners: How to Play the Music In Your Head

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If you’ve spent any time practicing music, you’ve probably heard phrases like these:

“Just play what you hear in your head.”

“Play like a vocalist.”

“Sing your solos.”

This advice sounds simple enough, but when you sit down and start playing, it can be more difficult than you expect.

Perhaps you hear something in your head, sit down, and as soon as you start playing, the phrases in your mind, also known as an audiations, walk out of your awareness and you’re back in the world of muscle memory and uninspired phrasing.

The best players have the best ears

Playing well by ear is often seen as a coveted skill people are born with and is lumped into quasi-superhuman abilities like perfect pitch. And while some people do have a more natural ability to distinguish between notes and recall melodies, improving our ears and audiation abilities is something everyone can do, but we just tend to ignore this aspect of musicianship in our practice.

Maybe you aren’t as good at audiation as you’d like to be because you’ve never deliberately practiced it.

🧠 What is audiation?

“Audiation is the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. One may audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music.”

GIML — The Gordon Institute of Music Learning

Coined by Edwin Gordon in the 1970s, it is the phenomenon of spontaneously hearing music in your head, coming up with internal melodies, and predicting where music will go based on conventional musical structures and familiarity with the harmony or style of the piece [*]. These aren’t all of the ways audiation can manifest itself, but they are the most fundamental to practicing music.

Audiation feels a bit mystical. The music we think of and sing naturally is almost always phrased well. These instinctual ideations tend to be correctly paced and lyrical in nature. Or more simply put, well-phrased.

Back in college, I heard about a guitar teacher who refused to let his students play a single note until they could sing it first. It sounded bizarre then, but nowadays I think he was on to something.

I’d bet the style of your audiation depends on the genres of music you grew up with, what music you are attempting to create in any particular moment, and your most recent influences.

Why practice audiation and ear training at all?

Because internalizing music is the key to externalizing music, which just means you have to be able to make the music in your head before you can accurately play it for people[*].

In shorter terms, practicing audiation results in better phrasing and rhythmic integrity.

A lot of intermediate players, myself included, have a habit of falling into a musical theory trap, where if we just learn another scale or another arpeggio, we’ll suddenly become a better musician. But that would only be true if playing music were strictly technical. It’s not. Musicianship is a spectrum of skills that coalesce into controlled melodic output.

It’s why guys like B.B. King or Steve Jordan are so good, despite playing what are considered simple licks. The phrasing and conviction in which they play sells it, and that is more important than any theory or flashy technical ability.

Or as I like to say, more complicated ≠ better music

Audiation and ear training get us closer to that lyricism we all love and respect.

Building the connection between your head and your instrument

So if playing what’s in your head is the “secret” to good phrasing, how can you foster the relationship between your mind and what comes out of your instrument?

The goal with any audiation exercise is to foster a more active listening relationship to the sound and intervals of the instrument we are playing — so much so that we can hear, in an instant, a way to continue a phrase or idea.

In order to do that effectively and appropriately, we need to:

  • Have a good understanding of fundamental interval relationships and develop an intimacy with how they sound. “Ooh a flat 5th right here would darken this melody perfectly.”
  • Know the chord changes of the tune we are playing by heart (and in our heads). Otherwise your brain won’t know where to focus its audiation.
  • Know the style well enough to audiate genre-approriate ideas. Thinking of classical licks in a funk setting can be cool but only if you know that’s what you’re doing.
  • Engage our audiation by practicing slowly enough to guide with our minds and not our fingers (or whatever equivalent of muscle memory you have). This is so key. I’ve noticed in my own practice that I’ll start with my mind and then lose focus only to realize my fingers are guiding me instead.

Three ear training exercises for beginners to connect your mind's music to your instrument

Three Exercises For Practicing The Music In Your Head

All exercises in audiation boil down to:

  • Hearing something in your head
  • Identifying (or at least hearing) the intervals
  • Playing them on your instrument
  • Reducing the time it takes to do all three of those actions.

#1 Alternate singing and playing a melody on your instrument

Take a melody of a song you know and enjoy listening to. Starting at the chorus, start singing along with the melody, after 4 measures, switch to playing it on your instrument, then switch back to vocals for two measures, and then back to your instrument for another two.

Mix and match when you start and stop with your voice and instrument, and try to take your hands completely off your instrument to “reset” between each section.

#2 Loop a set of chord changes and hear a melody or lick before you play it. Then sing it, then try to play it first try on your instrument.

Take a backing track in your genre or loop a portion of a song you like with some space for instrumentation. Without touching your instrument, think of a melody in your head. Once you have it, sing it. Once you’ve sang it confidently multiple times, try to play it as accurately as possible as your instrument.

#3 Learn a lick you love, sing a different version of it, try to identify the intervals, and then play it.

Take a solo or melody you can’t get enough of. Isolate a portion of the melody or lick you want to steal. Sing it until you have it memorized with all its dynamic, rhythmic, and melodic nuances. Then, play it on your instrument.

Once you have this base lick down, put down your instrument again, and try to make a variation of that lick in your head. Maybe you add in a few different intervals or mess with the rhythm but keep the general arc. It doesn’t matter — just whatever you happen to hear. Then, sing that variation until you feel comfortable with it, then play it on your instrument.

BONUS: Audiate an entire song without your instrument.

If you’re bored and away from your instrument, try audiating through a song you’re learning in its entirety. Work on identifying the pitches and making the aural visualization as sharp as possible by visualizing yourself playing it on your instrument.

  • Think through the song and make the audiation as specific and honest to the original as possible.
  • Once you can think through it, see if you can visualize yourself playing through it on your instrument.

Happy practicing!

— Nathan

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Written by
Nathan Phelps
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