Ear Training Through Games and Exercises

by John Piper

Musicians who do not have perfect pitch can improve their ability to identify musical pitches. Students often recognize pitches by learning intervals with familiar melodies. The wedding march commonly called "Here Comes the Bride" may help students to recognize a perfect fourth, for example. However, this process fragments the melody as the listener interjects a secondary melody to identify an interval and then calculates the name of the notes in the original melody.

To improvise, a player spontaneously creates a melody that fits the chord progressions and meter of the music and imaginatively blends new sounds with the basic song. A student who can hear a good melody in his head may still struggle to play it in context. The task is arduous unless students can identify the pitches in relation to the key or the adjacent chord.

The first step in ear training is to learn the solfeggio syllables for relationships in any key, then to play and sing a line to establish the key.

Each pitch has a discernible relationship to the root of the scale. Ti seems to lean toward the pitch do. Most listeners already know some pitch relations, as with ti, but have not been formally trained to recognize them. Instead of starting at do and moving toward a given note, begin with the note in question and progress to do on the shortest diatonic path. This method quickly demonstrates the relationship between pitches, eventually allowing students to identify notes without singing the scale back to the root.

First play a C major scale, then play any white note at the keyboard. Next play and sing the syllables up to or down to C, using the shortest diatonic path. From A the path is la, ti, do; from F, the path is fa, mi, re, do.

After some practice these patterns will become familiar, and students will begin to anticipate the notes back to do. They should practice the patterns in random order for several minutes each day.

Record 10-20 minutes of these exercises on tape in random order, holding the first note for a few seconds before resolving it to do along the shortest diatonic path. Students should listen to the recording and identify the held note before the pattern moves back to do. As the pathways become familiar students will recognize the held note by its solfeggio syllable without hearing the rest of the pattern.

Ear training games help students develop aural skills. The following games have worked well.

Around the World

To improve students sill at identifying pitches in all keys, modulate the following pattern up a half-step after each scale until every scale is covered.

After modulating back to C, begin again and shift up by whole steps. To cover all scales in whole step modulations, begin at both C and C# and modulate by whole steps. Continue by minor thirds from the three starting positions of C, C# and D, major thirds (four starting positions C, C# D, and D#), perfect fourths (one starting position), augmented fourths, and perfect fifths (one starting position).

What's My Line?

This game trains students to recognize pitches even when the note's relationship to the root changes and to anticipate key changes. A student chooses a note and sings and plays back to do. As the game progresses, the starting note will always be the same, but the pitch for do and the key will modulate downward each time. Thus, although the starting note is the same in the second pattern, the syllable is re; the third time, mi; and so on. Students should sing back to do slowly each time to hear each modulation before continuing; they should also cheat by using the keyboard when they cannot hear the modulation or anticipate the next root note.

After playing this game students will begin to anticipate chord and key changes rather than simply following the changes.

Identifying Personalities

After playing a C major scale, a student closes his eyes, plays two white notes at random, and moves back to do with one pitch at a time. It may help student to face away from the piano or play with crossed hands, forcing them to hear the answers rather than simply identifying notes by their location on the keyboard.

Non-diatonic notes can be identified just as easily, but only after developing a strong sense for diatonic pitches. I recommend learning only one non-diatonic note at a time and in the following order.

Students can apply the games they learned previously to non-diatonic pitches, or better yet, develop original ear training exercises.

©The Instrumentalist. December 1997

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