Getting Started

Getting Started with Ear Training

By Rebecca Carlson
How to learn piano ear training.

What is ear training? Simply put, ear training is training your mind to hear and understand relationships between notes. At Hoffman Academy, ear training is part of our curriculum from the very beginning. As you practice training your ear, you will be able to look at the notes on a piece of sheet music and have a good sense of what the music will sound like before you even play it.

Want to learn songs by ear, or develop the ability to quickly play a chord progression or melody from one of your favorite songs? It all starts with simple ear training.

Why is ear training important?

There are so many reasons why ear training is important for young piano students:

  • Music is an art of SOUND. Just like painters rely on their ability to see fine details of shape and color, pianists must develop their ear to hear the nuances of melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color, and phrasing.
  • Ear training allows piano students to self-correct because they will instantly and easily hear their own mistakes as they play them. Self-correction is empowering whereas waiting for a teacher or parent to tell you that you played a wrong note is discouraging and de-motivating.
  • Ear training empowers and unlocks the ability for students to learn a song by ear. This is especially useful when sheet music may not be readily available. If they hear a song they like in a movie or anywhere, they can enjoy figuring it out for themselves.
  • True fluency in the language of music means that you can go from sound to symbol OR from symbol to sound. In other words, you can hear music and convert it into musical notation (dictation) AND you can see music on the staff and accurately convert it into sound.
  • Having a strong ear improves the ability to memorize, compose, and improvise music.

How to get started

The very first step to training your ear is learning to sing! When you sing the melody of a familiar song, you are using your ears to help you sing the correct pitches. Every time you learn to sing a new song, you stretch your ability to hear and understand music. It’s one of the most effective techniques of ear training.

Try it! Find a song you like but maybe haven’t heard very often. Listen to it once, then listen to it again and try to sing along. Last of all, turn off the music and see if you can sing the melody all by yourself. Don’t worry about the words. If you don’t know them, sing a simple syllable like “la la la.” This is a great exercise to get you ready for more advanced training.

What are the two types of ear training?

The first is musical ear training, in which a musician learns to recognize and distinguish intervals between tones in a musical scale, harmonies, chords, and chord progressions. Musicians with well-trained ears can hear a song and then sing or play it on an instrument without ever seeing the sheet music. A musician with good ear training and who knows how to read music can do even more! They can look at a piece of written music and hear in their mind how it will sound, and they can also listen to music and write down what they’ve heard.

The other type, known as audio ear training, has to do with music recording and amplification. It goes beyond musical pitches to the quality of the sound. Recording artists, sound engineers, and music producers use this to create great-sounding musical recordings and live performances. They learn to hear the balance of the instruments and voices, the various tone qualities, and other factors. Then they use electronic tools like mixers and filters to alter the sounds electronically and create a perfect blend for listeners to enjoy. Audio ear training encompasses the spectrum of sound waves created by each unique instrument, and the way those sound waves work together to make a great listening experience.

Do ear training exercises work?

Yes! The best way to practice is with ear training exercises. There are lots of websites and apps that can help you with your practice. Here are some of our favorites: offers a comprehensive collection of music theory exercises for both keyboard and guitar. Scroll down the page to find their free training drills, which include notes, intervals, scales, and chords.

Theta Music Trainer has free games for both audio and musical ear training.

Hoffman Academy Premium also has an online game called Mystery Melodies, which is a great way for young music students to learn to match melodies they hear with written music. 

Is the piano the best instrument for ear training?

A well-tuned piano is a fantastic instrument for training your ear. Here are some of the advantages of piano ear training:

  • Each piano key will produce one note, accurately pitched every time. 
  • A piano keyboard has over seven octaves, allowing you to train your ears with both high and low notes.
  • All twelve tones of the chromatic scale are set out in order from low to high, there at your fingertips for you to experiment with. 
  • If you want to learn to hear chords and harmonies, you can play up to ten notes at a time with your own fingers. 

Whenever you’re playing the piano, your ears are listening and learning. This is why it’s so important to keep your piano tuned!

How do you train your ears on the piano?

Here’s a fun game you can play using the piano to practice your ear training skills:

  1. Have a friend or family member play a simple melody of two or three notes on the piano. You can limit them to a small range of notes in order to keep things simple – for example, the C major pentascale. Make sure they play a pattern they can remember in case you need to hear it again. Don’t look – just listen!
  2. Try to play back what you heard on the piano. If you’re having trouble, try asking yourself: Are the notes moving up, down, or repeating? Do they sound close together or far apart?
  3. Switch roles and see if your friend or family member can figure out what you played!
  4. As you get better at this game, try longer melodies, or a wider range of notes.

Another thing you can do is try to play the melody of a song you’ve heard, but haven’t learned to play on the piano yet. Think of a tune you know, or maybe find one on your favorite music streaming service. 

Quick tip – folk songs and pop tunes that are easy to sing along with will tend to have simpler melodies that are easier to play by ear. 

Find the first note on the piano by moving up or down the keyboard until you find a note that matches. Play that note so you’ve got it in your head. Now think, does the next note of the melody stay the same, go up, or go down? If it moves, is it a step or a skip, or maybe even a leap? See if you can find that second note on the first try. If not, keep trying until you do find it. Now you have two notes. Great job! Move on to the next note, and then the next.

Even though this might seem difficult at first, if you work at it, eventually you’ll find that playing any melody on the piano will be as easy as singing it. Just remember, you can already do it with your voice. It’s just a matter of training your fingers to recreate what your ears have heard. 

If you want to learn to play piano chords by ear, get started by learning your piano chords here.

Take time for ear training and your skills will grow!

Although being able to play music by ear can seem like magic, something only a musical genius would be able to do, it’s actually a learned skill like riding a bicycle or baking a cake. Granted, it will take practice, but with time and effort you’ll be able to enjoy the ability to hear, understand, and recreate the music you love.

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