Ear training isn’t something that I do enough with my students. It’s really difficult trying to fit so much into a half-hour lesson, which is the length of time that most of my students choose. I use the phrase train your ears, because I’m going way beyond the discipline of listening for intervals. It also involves listening to styles of music. You need to use different types of articulation. Hearing with precision is an important part of playing with precision. Let’s get the dissonance out of the way first!
A dissonant interval is one that sounds wrong. Technically speaking, it’s either a 2nd, 7th, or a tritone, which itself has two different names! Each of the above intervals, when played in isolation, sounds like someone made a mistake. That’s frequently the case, since dissonant intervals aren’t a large part of beginner repertoire, except when a mistake is made. I try to use the mistake as a learning opportunity, so I say “Does that sound right?” Most of my students will instantly know that I only ask that question when it doesn’t sound right!
Sometimes, the student played the correct notes but is practicing at a slow tempo that exaggerates the dissonance. In other words, when sped up to a proper tempo, the dissonance will make more sense as a part of the longer phrase. In cases like that, I point out that such dissonances are ways of transitioning between consonant intervals on either side. Sometimes it takes a brief dissonance to travel between those two places.
I especially love discussing the tritone. It’s a series of three whole steps connected together, which make a sound that is very unstable, and typically resolves up to a 6th, or down to a 3rd. It’s a fun interval to discuss in lessons since for centuries it was considered the devil’s interval. It certainly has the sound of conjuring no good when heard in isolation. However, these two notes are sometimes just part of a larger dominant 7th or 9th chord, and the notes determining that are in the opposite hand.
Technically speaking, the 3rd and 6th are the consonant intervals, while the 4th, 5th, and octave are perfect intervals. I will take students through the differences between these intervals when it’s the right time during theory discussions. However, for the purpose of this post, I’m mostly concerned about the differences between notes that sound right and those that don’t.
Listening for Inversions
Listening goes well beyond whether something sounds correct or not. It also concerns whether a chord or note is played in the correct disposition. I’m not talking about whether it’s sunny or cranky, but what note is at the bottom. In any chord, we can have the root at the bottom, called root position. Sometimes the third or fifth is at the bottom, which is called first or second inversion, respectively. This gets a bit complex, but essentially we need to listen to determine that the notated chord is what we played.
Listening for Style
Often it can be helpful listening to a recording, especially when the style of the piece is unfamiliar. Even in beginner pieces, there’s sometimes an indication that the eighth notes, which are written as though they are even, are to be played in a swing style. In that case, they sound like they belong to a triplet, where the first note is twice as long as the second.
Some styles of music are hard to pick up from the page. I’d include anything that isn’t standard to our ears. I worked with an early advanced student on a Bossa Nova piece that just didn’t click until he listened to a recording of the piece. The printed score is where we start, but it shouldn’t be where we end our work!
Listening for Articulation
Broadly brushed, there are three basic articulations, with increasing length, from staccato to detached to legato. These are details that aren’t emphasized in depth at the very beginning of musical study, but become more important as the student climbs through the beginner levels. A performer on a recording making these differences can often help the student understand how to produce them herself.
This is just an example of the type of listening we do in lessons, in order to try to connect the notation on the page to the notes on the piano. Combining theory with listening can be an effective technique, even if I don’t point that out per se. Students who become good critical listeners to their own playing tend to be more successful pianists. For that reason alone, I try to let the student figure out the error, instead of taking the easier route of pointing out what went wrong.