Ear training is a way of developing our ability to figure out and then play or write any music we hear. The ultimate aim is to be able to freely express whatever music we want on the bass guitar and in that sense we’re literally learning to talk through the instrument.
At first you might hear about ear training and have no idea where to even start. I know that was a big problem for me. So I’m giving you these 4 tips to help you set you out on a road to developing that ear.
What Is Ear Training?
Ear training is a way of developing our ability to work out and play any music we hear – be it external music from a recording or live playing or internal music that we hear in our head. The ultimate aim is to be able to freely express any ideas we have through our instrument. In other words, we want to be able to ‘talk’ ideas out through the bass – from conception to reality. Here are some tips to get you started…
As with everything, ear training is a process comprising several steps. The first is simple – just listen.
Tip 1 – Listen
When developing your ear, it is vital to listen to a lot of music from a lot of different styles. You might be a fan of a particular style or genre, but try to diversify your listening to incorporate a variety of sounds and styles of playing and listen analytically. Listen to everything – what is the instrumentation doing? Try to focus on each instrument and work out what it is doing. Be an active listener rather than a passive one – it’s easy to switch off and let the music wash over you – but try and stay involved and follow the music as it changes and progresses.
Another reason why expanding your listening is important is because it diversifies your playing. The best way to pick up new grooves and licks is to hear and recreate them.
Tip 2 – Transcribe
Spend as much time as possible working out recordings by ear and notating them. It can be tricky to pick the bass out in the mix sometimes, especially if you’re listening on low-quality or small speakers.
For help when transcribing, it is beneficial to attempt transcription for all instruments, not just bass. Vocal melodies, guitar lines, brass phrases, chord progressions and anything else you hear will benefit your ear when you transcribe them. Most other instruments are easier to hear and therefore easier to transcribe and you also get the crucial bit of training for your ear.
I expand on transcription massively in my video about transcription that you can check out here if you want to practice this further.
Tip 3 – Sing What You Play
This is a tip that most people hate as it can be quite embarrassing at first – but it’s a great one. You can make any kind of vocal noises that you want, as long as you are recreating the pitches of what you are playing on the bass. The idea here is that we are solidifying the connection between the instrument itself and our musical mind. In learning to sing along with your playing, it can be useful to learn technical detail, but it’s easier at first to just focus on bass lines and riffs. Then you can progress up to fills and finally to more complex, soloistic lines.
The aim is to literally ‘talk’ through the instrument – this will really help you to develop your ear and you may even find yourself singing along automatically once your confidence improves.
For further reference check out Richard Bona and Janek Gwizdala. These players highlight just how far you can develop this technique.
Tip Four – Make Music!
The final tip is to be creative! Make up basslines, fills, songs, melodies… anything you want as the more you experiment and play around, the stronger your ability will be to get what you want out of the instrument.
A helpful analogy is that of a castaway on a desert island. Staying close to base is fine, but eventually, he gets tired of eating just berries and ventures further afield. Over time, the unexplored areas become smaller and the areas of familiarity become larger until eventually the whole island is mapped out. It’s only through exploration and experimentation that we familiarise ourselves with the possibilities of our instrument and become more comfortable with straying out of our comfort zone.
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