The 15 Best Ear Training Exercises
It’s no secret:
Ear training is something all great singers do.
And for good reason.
Whether you’re just learning to sing or have been performing a long time, ear training will improve your singing.
Especially if you’re just starting to learn to sing, ear training is the best way to know if you’re actually improving.
The truth is it’s hard to know if you’re practicing correctly unless you’ve trained your ear.
As you train your ear, you’ll have a better idea when you’re singing on pitch and when you’re off.
And even if you’re not singing on pitch, ear training will help you learn to correct it.
So today, I want to show you 15 effective ways of ear training so you’re always in tune.
Before we jump into the exercises, let’s talk a little bit more about what ear training can do for you.
What is Ear Training?
Ear training is the ability to hear different notes, intervals and chords in music.
And like I mentioned before, many students will practice along with scales and exercises without knowing whether they’re on pitch or not.
If you’ve done an online singing course or just watched YouTube videos of singing exercises, it’s hard to know whether you’re in-tune.
But that’s not because you’re tone deaf.
Odds are, it’s because you’re not getting the right feedback to fix your pitch.
When I say feedback, by the way, I don’t mean a screaming guitar amplifier.
I’m talking about being able to hear yourself correctly.
And without feedback, how can you know how to correct it?
Why Do Ear Training?
I’ve seen students spend years doing singing courses with zero improvement!
And it’s been a personal crusade of mine to help these lost souls.
Here’s the brutal truth:
Yes, a voice teacher will tell you if you’re out of tune.
But a voice teacher can also help you fix it!
But even more importantly, ear training will get you more familiar with your voice.
But if you practice ear training, you’ll become more aware of the differences between your voice and your favorite singers’.
And that will help you choose the right songs for your voice.
For example, you can probably hear the difference between a Bass voice type like Tom Waits and a Countertenor like Bruno Mars.
Here’s a great song by Tom Waits called “Hold On”.
And here’s Bruno Mars singing “When I Was Your Man”:
Obviously, Tom Waits’ voice is lower.
But can you hear how high each singers’ highest notes are?
And more importantly, can you tell which one is better for your specific voice?
Ear training will help you choose the right songs and find your unique vocal style.
So before we get into the ear training techniques, let’s talk about how to do it.
Hearing the Pitch vs Singing the Pitch
There’s a huge difference between hearing a note and being able to sing it.
Being able to hear a pitch is called pitch identification.
And the ability to hear the musical tone you’re trying to sing is crucial to ear training.
But it’s only half the puzzle.
The other half is being able to reproduce the note you hear in your head.
Singing the note you hear requires vocal coordination.
In other words, first you’ve got to be able to see the target note in your head.
But then you’ve got to be able to hit the target with your voice.
Many singers can hear a note perfectly but have a hard time coordinating their vocal cords to hit the right pitch.
Actually, Tone Deafness (a.k.a. “amusia”) is super rare, and only occurs in about 4% of people.
So odds are, you’re not really tone deaf.
You just need some help coordinating your voice to sing in tune.
So as we work on ear training today, it’s important that we not only hear the pitch, but we must also be able to sing the right pitch.
A Quick Word on Perfect Pitch
While we’re talking about pitch identification, let’s talk about the difference between absolute pitch (a.k.a. “perfect pitch”) and relative pitch.
Having perfect pitch means being able to identify any musical tone just by hearing it.
Absolute pitch is pretty rare, occurring in about 7% of the population.
And watching someone with perfect pitch identify notes is pretty amazing.
Just watch this kid identify pitches instantaneously.
But if you weren’t born with perfect pitch, don’t worry.
It’s way more important to be able to hear the relationships between different notes.
The ability to hear the distance, or interval, between different notes is called Relative Pitch.
And having good relative pitch is way more important than having perfect pitch.
Having perfect pitch doesn’t do you any good as a singer unless you can also sing the notes.
Remember, there are two parts to this puzzle:
1. Hearing the pitch and…
2. Singing the pitch
And when it comes to perfect pitch, being able to hear the notes doesn’t help you sing any better.
So, no matter whether you have absolute or relative pitch, you need to be able to sing the notes you hear correctly.
And luckily, as you work on the following ear training exercises, you’ll find that both of these skills grow together.
So without further ado, here are 15 techniques ear training techniques that will help you hear and sing the right pitch every time.
While You’re Doing these Exercises:
While you practice the following ear training exercises, it’s incredibly important that you actively listen to your singing.
Don’t just do the exercises.
Remember, that focusing on the exercises is one of the secrets to a great vocal warm up.
So apply the same attention to these exercises and practice them daily.
Ear Training Technique #1: Cup Your Ears
While it may seem obvious, the first step in ear training is being able to hear yourself correctly.
Now while you’re practicing the following exercises at home, it’s very important to boost the volume of your feedback loop.
A feedback loop is simply being able to hear what you’re singing clearly.
Having a clear feedback loop means you’ll be able to hear when you’re flat or sharp and be able to correct it if you need to.
One of the best ways of boosting the volume of your feedback loop is cupping your hands behind your ears.
By cupping your ears with your hands, you automatically boost the volume you hear by trapping the frequencies of your voice in your hands.
Normally when you sing, the sound waves of your voice travel straight away from your mouth.
Then, you have to wait for the waves to hit the closest wall and travel all the way back to your ears before you hear yourself clearly.
And even though this process takes only milliseconds, it can still prevent you from hearing yourself clearly.
Many singers will actually block one ear with a finger in order to hear the vibration in their head more clearly.
But since we’re not Mariah Carey yet and practicing in our practice rooms, I’d recommend cupping your ears instead.
You can hear yourself much more clearly than plugging one of your ears.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Fold your fingers toward your palm to create a “cup” shape with your hands.
2. Place your cupped directly behind your ears with your fingers touching the back of your ears.
3. Sing the note or phrase you’re practicing.
***You will notice how much more volume you get by cupping your ears this way.
And if you can hear yourself more clearly, you’ll be amazed at how much your ear training improves.
If you feel that you look too silly doing this exercise, a popular alternative is singing in a corner.
With this exercise, you’ll simply sing into the corner between two walls.
By trapping the sound waves into this smaller space, you’ll be able to hear yourself much more clearly.
The downside to singing into a corner is not being able to see monitor your mouth position and relax your jaw, both of which are a crucial part of a vocal warm up.
Ear Training Technique #2: Use a Microphone and Audio Interface to Hear Yourself
Another way to boost the volume of your feedback loop is to use a microphone and headphones to hear yourself better.
In this exercise, simply insert your microphone into a mixer or audio interface and monitor your singing in a free recording software like GarageBand.
Sound too technical?
Here’s how you do it:
1. Just plug your microphone into an audio interface or mixer.
2. Then connect the audio interface or mixer to your computer.
4. Click the “Monitor” icon (the one in orange) when you’re plugged in and you should be able to hear yourself very clearly.
You don’t even have to record anything, unless you want to.
You’ll be amazed at how well you can hear yourself.
And while this set up may sound very expensive, you can pick up all this equipment for around $200.
Just pick up a Schure SM 57 microphone (I discuss the different kinds of microphones for singing in this article) for about $99 and a Presonus Audiobox Interface for $99.
***As a bonus: When you’re ready to record a tune, you’ve already got a great mike and premium recording software.
Ear Training Technique #3: Match an Individual Pitch
Whether you’ve been singing for 20 years or just starting out, all ear training begins with matching an individual pitch.
Remember that pitch is the musical tone that you’re trying to match with your voice.
During voice lessons, I have my singers match pitch all the time.
Sometimes even advanced students need to hear all the notes in a phrase before they can sing it.
Now, there are tons of examples of individual pitches out there to sing.
You could sing the first note in one of your favorite songs.
If you’re a guy, take a look at “Imagine” by John Lennon.
Here’s the music for the first phrase:
The first three syllables are all on the pitch G3.
That’s three chances at getting the first pitch right!
So start off by matching those notes.
Or, if you’re a girl, check out the song “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse.
Here’s the music for the first phrase:
Except for the little run that she does at the beginning, the whole first phrase is on the same D4 pitch.
That’s plenty of time to get the pitch right when you’re trying to match notes!
Feel free to ignore the run that she does and just try to match the D4 pitch that she’s singing.
Or, for another approach, you can just match random individual pitches.
Here’s a cool video that has tons of different pitches to match and helps you find your range.
Simply pause the video when a new notes plays and try to match it.
If you’re cupping your ears or singing into a microphone, you should be able to hear yourself sing these pitches clearly.
You can also check whether you’re on pitch by singing into this cool vocal pitch monitor app.
Simply sing the pitch of the music and check whether you’re on or off pitch.
Ear Training Technique #4: Match the Pitch of Different Instruments
While you’re learning to train your ear, it’s important to listen to the other instruments that make up music.
Whether you listen to Rock, Pop or RnB, 99% of music has more instruments than just voice.
So as you start training your ear, it’s important to actively listen to what those instruments are doing.
A good way to start becoming aware of these instruments is to match an individual pitch of the instruments in a song.
For example, can you match the pitch of the first note of the Cream song “Sunshine of Your Love”?
Here’s the music:
The first two notes and the fourth note are all a D4.
Try to match the pitch with your voice.
Or, can you match the piano riff at the beginning of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles?
Here’s the music:
The piano is playing an A4 for almost 3 whole measures.
That’s tons of time to match the pitch.
I should mention that A4 is actually quite high for many singers.
If you’re struggling to hit this note, simply sing an octave down on an A3 instead.
Now that you’ve got a better idea what the other instruments are playing, you can start singing better with other instruments..
And learning to match the pitch of what the other instruments are playing is one of the best ways of training your ear for the harder stuff.
Ear Training Technique #5: Sing the 7 Most Common Intervals
An interval is the distance between two notes
Intervals are everywhere in music.
Look at any music phrase and you’re find that the notes are at different distances from each other.
Almost all great music includes different intervals.
One of the few exceptions I can think of is Mr. Brightside by the Killers.
He sings the same note over and over again.
But since the music is so interesting, you barely notice.
Now intervals are all measured according to where they fall in the major scale.
The major scale is a series of tones that sound strong and happy.
While you can play the major scale in any key, let’s just use the key of C as an example.
In the key of C, the major scale goes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
Then you have a C all over again and the pattern repeats.
Now the distance between any of the notes in a scale is called an interval.
And if you look at the major scale, there are really only 7 major intervals you need to learn
The Major 2nd, Major 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Major 6th, Major 7th and Octave.
If this sounds complicated, don’t worry.
Luckily, there are tons of easy songs you can use to train your ear to the different intervals.
Here are all seven of the major intervals and some songs to help you memorize them.
The Major Second Interval:
The first interval to learn is the major second.
In the key of C, a major second is the distance from C to D.
The song “Happy Birthday” has a major second interval right at the beginning on the syllables “-py” and “birth”.
The Major Third Interval
The next interval to learn is the major third.
In the last example, we learned that a major second is the distance from C to D.
A major third is the distance from C to E.
The song “When the Saints Come Marching In” starts off with a major third interval on the words “Oh” and “When”.
The Perfect Fourth Interval
The next interval to learn is the perfect fourth.
Again, if we count up four notes from the starting pitch C, we have our perfect fourth interval from C to F.
“Here Comes the Bride” is a great example of a perfect fourth interval.
The Perfect Fifth Interval
The next interval to learn is the perfect fifth, or the distance from C to G in the key of C.
The perfect fifth is a very popular interval.
You can hear it at the beginning of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the words “Twinkle” and “Twinkle”.
The Major Sixth Interval
The next interval to ear train is the major sixth.
In the key of C, the major sixth is the distance from C to A.
And it’s easily recognized as the first two notes of the “NBC” theme.
The Major Seventh Interval
The next interval to learn is the major seventh, or the distance from C to B in the key of C.
The major seventh interval sounds very tense since it’s so close to the octave above the first note.
You can train your ear for it by listening to the first two notes in the chorus of the A-Ha song “Take On Me”.
The Octave Interval
The last interval to ear train is the octave.
In the key of C, this is the distance from the low C to the high C in the major scale.
You can hear this interval in the first two notes of the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the syllables “Some” and “where”.
As you learn to hear each of these intervals, start practicing them using each of these songs as a reference point.
After a while, you’ll be amazed at how you start to hear them in all the songs you love.
Ear Training Technique #6: Sing the Two Most Common Scales
Now that we’ve sung the seven major intervals, it’s time to put them together and sing entire scales.
Most vocal melodies are made up of some part of the major or minor scales.
Even the most obscure scales and modes come from the major and minor scales.
If you think that scales sound too complicated for you, don’t worry.
For most people, the major and minor scales are taught to us from a young age in the form of nursery rhymes.
And those same notes are a part of every piece of music we sing.
Just watch Bobby McFerrin get a crowd of hundreds to sing along with him with no prior rehearsal just using his body.
See what I mean?
Scales are a part of every piece of music you look at.
So if you can learn to sing the major and minor scales, you’ll be able to sing pretty much anything.
Here are the major in minor scales in good keys for guys and girls.
As you’re singing these notes, try to match your voice with the pitch as it’s played.
Here’s the C Major Scale for guys:
This is the C Minor Scale for guys:
Here’s the G Major Scale for girls:
This is the G Minor Scale for girls:
Ear Training Technique #7: Learn and Sing the 7 Different Modes
Modes are sets of musical scales, each with a fancy Greek name and an individual pattern with a certain feel or mood.
We’ve already covered two of the most popular modes already (Ionion and Aeolian mode—although not by that name).
In the last ear training exercise, we called Ionian and Aeolian mode the major and minor scale.
There are 7 modes total.
And each one comes from the major scale by starting the scale on a different note.
It’s actually pretty easy
Let’s look at the major scale in the key of C.
The scale goes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
Each mode comes from starting that pattern on a different note.
The Ionian Mode
The Ionian Mode, or major scale, starts the scale on the first note C.
So the Ionian mode is the same as the major scale and goes C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
The Dorian Mode
The next mode, Dorian Mode, comes from the second note in our C major scale, D.
So Dorian mode just repeats the pattern starting from D.
So: D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.
The Phrygian Mode
Then Phrygian Mode starts from the third note.
So: E, F, G, A, B, C, D.
The Lydian Mode
Lydian Mode starts from the fourth note.
So: F, G, A, B, C, D, E.
The Mixolydian Mode
Mixolydian Mode starts from the fifth note of the C major scale.
So: G, A, B, C, D, E, F.
The Aeolian Mode
We’ve already covered the Aeolian Mode (a.k.a “Minor Scale”) that starts from the sixth note.
It goes: A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
The Locrian Mode
The Locrian Mode comes from starting the C major scale from the seventh note.
So: B, C, D, E, F, G, A.
Modes in Singing
Keep in mind we could have started these scales in any key.
We chose the key of C since it doesn’t have any sharps or flats.
Now that you see how each of these scales is formulated, try experimenting with them by training your ear to sing them.
If you’re a guy, cycle through each mode by starting in the key of C and going up one scale degree each time just like the scales shown in the previous examples.
If you’re a woman, you can go through each mode by starting in the key of G and moving up one scale degree each time.
In this case you would start with the G major scale, or Ionian mode, like this:
G, A, B, C, D, E, F# (don’t forget the F# since we’re in the key of G).
For Dorian mode, which starts on the second note, you’d start on A like this:
A, B, C, D, E, F#, G and so on.
Getting familiar with modes is an amazing way to train your ear to all the possibilities of vocal melodies.
Once you’ve learned the major and minor scales, learning each mode will add even more expression to your vocal palette.
Ear Training Technique #8: Sing Simple Melodic Songs
Now that you’ve heard the most common scales and modes, let’s see how they’re used in some popular songs.
The truth is:
Major and minor scales are everywhere in pop music.
Check out “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers.
Here’s the sheet music:
He’s basically just singing up to the fourth note in the C major scale and coming back down.
A lot of the song has this scale-like quality.
Or take a look at “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen sung by Rufus Wainwright.
In the “It goes like this…” section, he’s basically singing up the C major scale going from G to E.
Here’s the sheet music:
If you can’t read music or don’t have a piano handy, no worries.
You can just look at the notes and see how all of them are staying very close to each other in the phrase.
That means the phrase is similar to a scale, rather than having a lot of big jumps and intervals.
For examples of a minor scale, let’s look at “Castle on a Cloud” from Les Miserables.
Here’s the sheet music:
The melody of the first line “There is a castle on a cloud” is basically just a minor scale.
Another great tune with a minor scale is “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers.
Here’s the sheet music.
The first line “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” is basically just a minor scale walking up from E to A.
As you listen to your favorite songs, try to figure out whether the song is using a melody from a major or minor scale.
You’d be surprised how much better you can hear which is used.
Ear Training Technique #9: Choose a Random Pitch and Sing Songs
Now that you’ve heard how intervals and scales are used in some songs, challenge yourself by singing them in different keys.
Go to a keyboard or guitar and pick a random note.
Now match the note with your voice and use that note as a starting pitch for one of the songs we’ve covered.
You could sing one of the songs we discussed in the intervals section like “Happy Birthday” or you could do something that uses a scale like “Lean on Me”.
No matter which key you choose to sing the songs in, try to keep the pattern of the notes the same.
For example, “Lean on Me” starts on a C and goes up to the fourth note of the scale, F.
But let’s say you went to your piano and decided to sing it in the key of E.
Make sure that you’re singing E, F#, G#, and A since those are the first four notes in the E major scale.
Ear Training Technique #10: Play the Melody on a Piano As You Sing
Most songs have a vocalist singing a melody while the other instruments play chords.
A Chord is just a combination of two or more notes played at the same time.
But that can be a lot to listen to.
So as you start singing different songs, pick out the notes of your favorite songs on piano or guitar so that you’re focusing on the melody.
First, pick out the individual notes without singing.
Next, start singing along as you play the notes on the piano
Make sure that your voice is matching the pitch of the piano as you sing them
This will increase your awareness of the actual notes that you’re singing rather than just hearing a bunch of musical noise.
Ear Training Technique #11: Sing Along with Another Singer
Now that you’ve sung along with the individual notes of the song, it’s time to sing along with real singers
Choose singers that have good vocal technique and sing songs you love.
I know it sounds silly but it’s so important that you work with songs you love.
That’s because you need to still want to sing the song even if you’ve practiced it a hundred times.
If you don’t know where to start, check out this playlist of great singers and songs on Spotify.
You can learn a lot about volume, pitch, tone and rhythm just by listening to another singer.
So start by actively listening to the singer and notice how they use their voice to hit all the notes in the song.
Then sing along with the singer.
Remember, some singers will hit high notes in different ways.
Some will sing those high notes in falsetto, while others will belt.
Here are the three ways to hit high notes with exercises for each.
Ear Training Technique #12: Sing the Song Without the Singer
Now that you’ve sung along with someone else, it’s time to go solo.
The best way of learning to find your vocal style is to begin singing without the other vocalist.
If you don’t know how to play the piano or guitar, don’t worry.
There are lots of ways to get music tracks without vocals
Here are a few great YouTube karaoke channels with your favorite music:
Just check them out for ideas.
If you’re not finding the song you want, you can always search the song title + “Karaoke” and you’re bound to find a track for the song you’re looking for.
As you start singing the song without a vocal track, you’ll become more aware of your own pitch and how your voice sounds on its own.
Ear Training Technique #13: Record Yourself Singing and Listen Critically
Now that you’ve sung along to a backing track, it’s time to record yourself and listen critically.
If you don’t have a recording set up yet, just follow the steps in Ear Training Technique #2 and hit record.
After you’re done recording listen critically to what you’ve done.
Are there parts where you’re off pitch or rhythm?
If so, print out a copy of the lyrics and highlight the areas where you had trouble and make an effort to fix them.
Ear Training Technique #14: Download a Vocal Pitch Monitor
If you’re not sure if you’re on pitch when you’re singing, try downloading a vocal pitch monitor.
A vocal pitch monitor allows you to watch your pitch as you sing.
The pitch monitor can be a great alternative for people who prefer a visual approach to singing.
Watch for any inconsistencies in your pitch
In general, you want to make sure that your pitch remains steady and in line with the vocal melody.
Here’s the first line of “Lean on Me” in a vocal pitch monitor.
You can double check your pitches on the piano as your sing and match them with the correct notes on the vocal pitch monitor.
If you find any areas where you’re consistently flat or sharp, get help from a qualified voice teacher.
Ear Training Technique #15: Sing With a Voice Teacher
There’s really no substitute for working on ear training with a qualified voice teacher.
Not only will a voice teacher hear when you’re on and off pitch, but they’ll be able to help you fix it.
Rather than guessing if you’re in tune, a voice teacher will be able to hear the smallest changes in your voice.
Singing in front of a voice teacher can be a little intimidating, but don’t worry.
Finding the best voice teacher for you is the next step in training your ear.
That’s because a voice teacher only wants to help you sing better.
If you’d like to get started, book a free singing lesson or Skype vocal evaluation.
I hope you’ve found some of these ear-training techniques helpful.
You’ll find that as your ability to hear and sing the pitch correctly improves, you spend a lot more time on the stuff that matters.
If you’re having any trouble with the ear training exercises, feel free to book a free in-person voice lesson or Skype vocal evaluation.