Students can get caught up in the physical part of playing an instrument and go about it mathematically and not musically. It is possible to learn a scale pattern or chord shape and memorize the fingering and still be able to play it correctly even if your ears are covered up. This is how a robot might practice but the sound is not attached to the note and the human element of feeling and emotion is missing. Ear training is a great way to develop your musicianship and here are a few practical tips and exercises that you can add to your practice routines.
Sing as you play – If you are practicing a scale or a melody, try to match each pitch with your voice as you play each note. This will help you internalize the music and develop the skill of being able to play anything that you can sing.
Find the key – Listen to a song and play on the low E or A string by starting at the first fret and going up one fret at a time and see if you can identify which note sounds the strongest and might be the root of the key for the song. If you know a major scale or minor scale, you can play the scale from each fret until you find the position that seems to fit the song and this will give you a pretty good guess for the key as well.
Mimic the vocals – This incorporates a little bit of the previous exercises and you can first try to sing the vocal melody of a song. If you know the key for the song, you can then play the correct scale and try to find the notes of the vocal melody. It is not a requirement to know the key of the song or the scale to use in order to find the notes of the melody on your instrument. Just match the notes you are singing and try to imitate how the vocals are phrased by using slides, bends, and legato techniques.
Root out the chords – Start by listening to the bass or the lower parts of the chords and stop the recording when you hear each new chord. Like finding the key, you can start playing notes up the fretboard one fret at a time until you find the match for the chord you just heard. You will probably need to playback each chord change a few times to make sure you have each new chord. You can check yourself by searching for the chords to the song on a website like Ultimate Guitar.
Active Listening - At least once a day I have a student play something and ask if the notes were right. My immediate response is to have them play the example again and listen to the notes and tell me if they think it sounds right. If they still aren’t sure, then we will listen to the song again to memorize the “sound” of the example. It is important to have a firm grasp on the rhythm as well as the pitches. I like to use a familiar tune like “Happy Birthday” to demonstrate this concept and I will play a wrong note on purpose and have the student stop me when I get to the wrong note. Then, I will change the rhythm of a couple notes and ask them to point out where it happened. Students almost always figure out the wrongs notes and rhythms because they know “Happy Birthday” inside and out.
There are many traditional ear training exercises that I would recommend involving identifying intervals and qualities of chords. There are great websites and apps that have listening exercises for these skills and you can track your progress on many of them. It is a lot of fun to be able to play by ear and the goal is to become a better musician overall so keep listening and learning.