When it comes to ear training, it’s the final frontier.

12-tone, dodecaphonic or atonal music.

This is where I have to make a horrifying confession.

I’m not very good with 12 tone music. I occasionally recognise a fragment here or there, but I’m a long way from keeping up confidently.

And this is a good time to explain something about ear training.

There seems to be a belief amongst a lot of musicians that when you train your ears, there’s a magical point where everything falls into place and you can recognise anything instantly.

I think this belief rises from comparisons with perfect pitch. It seems that perfect pitch does often work that way.

But relative pitch is different. Relative pitch is much more like playing an instrument.

As you improve as a player, you learn to play more and more music. As you get better at playing, you get better at all sorts of different things. For example, you can get around your instrument more easily, you can learn music faster and you can improvise more freely.

And if you stick at it long enough, you reach a point where you can play just about anything.

Ear training is just the same.

You start out with individual notes, then you add melodies and chords. You’ll also start out being more comfortable with diatonic music, then you’ll add more chromaticism, then add modulations. As you fit all these pieces together, you start to reach a point where you can recognise (and play by ear) just about anything.

But there’s a limitation to this.

When you practice your instrument, you get better at the things you practice.

If you practice improvising you’ll become a great improviser. If you practice playing the blues, you’ll develop great style when you play the blues.

Ear training is exactly the same.

You’ll only learn to recognise the music that you learn to recognise. If you ignore modulations for example, you’ll always struggle to recognise them.

For me, that’s not 12-tone music. I’ve listened to it a little bit and I enjoy it, but it’s not something that I’ve ever aspired to play, so I’ve never put the time into training my ears to understand it.

Having said that, I do understand the principles of ear training (if I do say so myself) and I can give you some pointers in the right direction.

1. Bring back the intervals

You may have seen me talking at length about how interval based ear training isn’t the way to go. Well this is the point where I suggest you bring it back.

Obviously, with no sense of tonality, you’ll struggle if you only have tonal ear training in your bag, so spend some time working on interval ear training. You’ll notice that if you’ve mastered tonal ear training, standard interval ear training – recognising them one at a time will be very easy. Your ear will put each interval into a tonal context very quickly. So make sure you push both the tempo and the number of notes in each grouping to challenge yourself so you keep progressing.

2. Sight sing atonal passages

And of course, sight singing is still one of the best tools in your arsenal. Sight sing atonal passages (tone rows are a great idea). Scale degrees will still help here as you should be comfortable with a lot of chromaticism by the time you start working towards recognising atonal sequences, so use a combination of them and intervals (whatever works) to sing the passages confidently.

I’m sorry that I can’t be of more help here, as I mentioned this isn’t my area of expertise!

But if you’re having problems or you have any questions, please get in touch. I’m always happy to help out whenever I can 🙂 scott@eartraininghq.com

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