Ear Training for Young People

I frequently get parents contacting me about teaching ear training to their children. The only way I have found this to work is for the parent to do the ear training with the child. Keep in mind that most likely your child will outpace you, so try to keep your spirits up. :) This ear training method is entirely about using your short term memory to learn, and there are several reasons why children usually take to it more easily.

A child learns faster because they are not burdened with all the baggage that older people have when learning something new. That is, young children usually don’t have layers of referential information built into their learning process and that condition helps them absorb memory based things more quickly. A child also uses his or her short term memory better mainly because it’s one of the first learning tools they develop. They are information sponges from the get-go.

One of the main problems adults have in learning ear training is understanding that they should not be relating the sound they are hearing consciously to anything else. I know that seems to go against what I’ve written before in FAQs for these books but there is a subtle difference. Usually I would say that when you guess a note or sing a note you are relating it to the “key center” via the chord progression cadence you hear before answering. This is still true but don’t obsess on the key center; the key center is there as a matter of course, because you’ve learned it just the way you learn how to identify color. You see color all the time but most of the time you don’t think about it. If you left the room you’re in right now and were quizzed about the various colors of objects in the room you most likely would be able to answer correctly. It’s the same with ear training so you need to trust that after hearing the cadence you are in a key center and not concentrate on holding the “root” of the key center in your mind or trying to hear each note within the cadence. Remember if you were unable to hear key centers music would sound like random noise so everyone can hear a key center though often their key center retention is weak.

Adults (as opposed to kids) tend to get upset when they don’t get the correct answer for an exercise. This comes from years of being taught that the right answer is “good” and the wrong answer is “bad.” A child usually hasn’t had decades of this type of programming so they just answer right away because they are not scared about getting it wrong and they don’t get as upset when they miss an answer. (Assuming a patient and loving parent.) On the other hand an older person can get quite upset if they listen to 20 ear training examples and get none of them right. This can set off self defeating thoughts like “I suck,” “I’ll never be a great musician.” Then, as a protection mechanism, the brain releases chemical reactions to protect our minds as we get more and more upset. These protective chemical reactions help us forget these situations, which is exactly what you don’t want to happen because this ear training is again all about building up a short term memory of what a pitch sounds like, until through repetition these sounds go into your permanent memory. So it’s truly important to keep a positive frame of mind when doing the ear training. If you get upset, just stop and wait until you are in a better, happier state of mind.

Kids love games and they also love doing things with their parents –especially if they do better than their parents! So make the ear training a daily situation where you bond with your child and also teach them a valuable skill and as an added bonus your musicianship is also improved. Below is an email I received from a parent about her experience with her child and some of the added benefits she received from the ear training.

“Dear Mr. Arnold, it has been several months since I updated you with the progress made by my 7 year old son and me. We started One Note Intermediate and Contextual Ear Training in late January 2010. We can both name all seven diatonic notes with accuracy and speed, and the non-diatonics are starting to stick. We can both sing 1, 2,3,4,5, and 7 and some 6’s. We are currently working on 6.

Just last week, I was admitted into our church liturgical choir. Admittance is based on passage of quite a few skill tests, including sight reading 4 unfamiliar hymns, perfectly. Before I started your program, sight reading seemed an impossibility. During the sight reading test, I was singing a hymn in an unfamiliar key signature (I need more theory work) and I sang a 4 when I should have sung a 5 (having guessed at the key degree, but not the pitch). But, the very next note was a lower 6, and I jumped down to it solidly and continued on from there. The proctor commented how solid I was getting back on melody on the six. She said that in her experience once a person gets off, they have real trouble getting back on the melody. Of course you know why…jumping around based on interval distances has its drawbacks, but I knew what a 6 sounded like, so I was able to jump right to it, no matter what the distance!

By the way, the proctor and everyone else knows all about you and your programs. When I entered the prep choir three years ago, I had trouble even discriminating between a higher and lower pitch. The Choir Director heard me sing recently and his comment was “Your pitch matching has really improved!” I said, “thanks to Bruce Arnold!””

Below are links to the books I would start with for a child. I’ve given both digital downloads and physical book links. Remember the digital links give you a PDF and MP3s; the physical book links give you a physical book and CDs.

Digital Downloads with PDF and MP3s

EarTraining One Note Intermediate Book and MP3s
Contextual Ear Training bundle Book and 4 CDs of MP3s

Physical Book with CD(s)

Ear Training: One Note-Intermediate Level

Contextual Ear Training Memorizing Sound Through Singing