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The Ultra Zone: Steve Vai's Course In Ear Training, Part 2

The Ultra Zone: Steve Vai's Course In Ear Training, Part 2 is revisiting Steve Vai's classic mag column, "The Ultra Zone," for this crash course in ear training.

As I mentioned last time, a valuable method of training your ear is to practice singing the notes that you play on the guitar. I’d like to elaborate on this fun approach and offer you some specific advice on how to go about doing this on your own.

A good way to start this training method is to stay within one scale and key and make sure that you can follow with your voice any melodies or licks that you play. Obviously, you can only sing one note at a time, so you’ll probably want to stick with playing single notes, at least for now, so you can zero in on specific pitches.

Let’s say you’re using the A-minor pentatonic scale, illustrated in FIGURE 1A, as your starting point. FIGURE 1B is an example of a line to play and sing simultaneously. This drill can be challenging, but it’s ultimately rewarding.

The next level of this exercise is to venture outside the fixed structure of one scale and add chromatic “passing” tones—the notes that fall between the scale degrees—to the lines you’re trying to sing and play.

FIGURE 1C is an example of how you might go about doing this within the A-minor-pentatonic pattern we just looked at. Venturing away from the fixed structure of the diatonic key presents a great challenge to your ears and will strengthen your “pitch-recognition muscles” immensely. If you practice this drill every day, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your ears will “grow.”

An essential element in ear training is the thorough understanding of intervals. An interval is the distance or gap between two notes: if you start on an A note and go up two frets to B, the intervallic distance between the two notes is a major second. If you were to go up four frets from A to C#, the interval between these two notes would be a major third.

FIGURE 2A depicts the A-major scale and indicates the intervallic relationships between the tonic (root note) and all the other notes in the scale. FIGURE 2B shows the chromatic scale, starting on A and covering an octave and a half, with the intervals indicated. I highly recommend memorizing all of these intervallic relationships; a good way to do this is to recite each interval name while playing the notes of the scale.

There are many different exercises one can do to strengthen interval recognition. Here’s one that I like: get a tape recorder and record yourself playing pairs of notes, using root notes combined with either major or minor thirds, as illustrated in FIGURE 3A. Play random pairs of major or minor thirds all over the guitar neck and, after each pair is played, wait a moment and then say either “major” or “minor” to identify the interval.

After filling up a 60-minute tape with this random stuff, listen back and try to identify the intervallic relationship by saying “major” or “minor” before your voice on the tape provides the answer. The purpose of this exercise is to train yourself to quickly identify major and minor intervals in all keys, anywhere on the guitar.

The next step is to proceed to other intervals, such as fourths and augmented fourths, which are one half step (one fret) higher than fourths. FIGURE 3B shows random pairs of fourths and augmented fourths; again, fill a 60-minute tape with pairs of notes, then go back and try to identify the intervallic relationships. Another idea is to make a tape of fourths combined with major and minor thirds, or fourths and augmented fourths combined with major and minor thirds. Then, continue this approach using all of the intervals in different combinations.

Another good exercise is to play every type of interval against a fixed root note. For example, if you choose the key of B, begin by playing a low B, and then play a variety of higher notes against this low B. After the higher note is played, identify on the tape what the interval is, and then move on to another interval. This type of exercise is illustrated in FIGURE 4.

By the time you’ve gotten this drill down cold—to the point where you consistently attain a near-perfect score—you will have established a firm grasp of intervals. You may have to make three or four 60-minute tapes, each in a different key, but, in time, you’ll end up knowing this stuff inside out. The study of intervals is something that many musicians work on their entire lives.

I’ll be back next time with some more ear training advice.

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