Essential Jazz Ear Training Exercises

Ear training is an essential part of a balanced practice routine, but it’s an area that’s often avoided by guitarists in their practicing. Whether you’ve struggled with ear training in the past or were put through exercises that seemed irrelevant or impractical, many jazz players have negative associations with aural skills development.

But, improving your ability to hear jazz melodies, chords, and solos in real time doesn’t have to be a slog. In fact, it can be the most engaging and fun part of your practice routine.

With the right exercises and direct application of these exercises, you can find yourself spending time each day working on ear training in your jazz studies. This time spent will produce results, which will lead to more motivation to practice, and so the cycle continues.

The exercises in this lesson are designed to build that type of positive practice cycle in your playing. They’re effective, efficient, and fun to work on.

Even though you may struggle with some of these workouts at first, keep at it. With time, focus, and dedication, you’ll be transcribing your favorite solos, hearing chord changes in real time, and able to outline any tune with your voice in no time.

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Vocal Jazz Ear Training Exercises

Guitarists often avoid vocal exercises, as they can seem difficult, and often impractical, compared to your musical goals.

But, with the correct approach and exercises, vocal study will help develop your ear, increase your technical knowledge of the fretboard, and increase your ability to jam over jazz tunes all at once. This will not only provide ear training results, but it will also increase your overall ability as an improviser and accompanist on the guitar.

To begin, you’ll explore three ear training exercises that connect your ears to your fingers on the guitar. Connecting your ears to your fingers is the most important aspect of any solid ear training exercise for jazz.

Learning to sing technical items such as scales or intervals on their own will help your ears to develop, but singing while playing, or against something that you’re playing, will go a step further and connect your ability to hear directly with the fretboard.

By doing so, as your ears develop your performance ability will develop at the same time, a win-win in the practice room.

The first exercise focuses on singing along with your technical workout on the guitar.

When singing any of these exercises,  feel free to sing an octave lower or higher than the note you’re playing in order to accommodate your vocal range.

 

After singing along with every note you’re playing on the guitar, you can begin to take things a step further as you hold notes or chords on the guitar and sing the notes you aren’t playing. By doing so, you’ll be training your ears to hear the full notes of a chord, even if all you have as a reference is a bass note.

As well, you’ll learn to zoom in and hear the important notes of any chord or chord progression, the 3rds and 7ths. Hearing guide tones will not only help you learn to hear voice leading movement between chords, but it will also allow you to target these guide tones in your soloing lines at the same time.

  • Hold down a chord and sing the chord tones
  • Sing only the 3rd and 7th of that same chord
  • Play the bass note only and repeat these exercises
  • Play the top note of the only and repeat these 2 exercises

 

The next vocal exercise connects your voice and fingers to jazz songs you’re working on. Vocal exercises are an effective way to learn any new tune and are often the most efficient way to get those tunes memorized and under your fingers on the guitar.

Start with a jazz standard you already know as an introduction, then when you’re comfortable, move on to tunes you don’t know as you expand on this exercise.

  • Pick a standard you want to learn
  • Comp the chords and sing the melody line
  • Sing the bass notes for each chord as you comp
  • Sing the arpeggios for each chord as you play the changes
  • Scat sing a solo while comping the chord changes

Backing Track Exercises

If you’ve been working on improvisation in your practice routine, you’ll know how valuable backing tracks are for learning to blow over tunes and progressions.

But, did you know you could use these same backing tracks in your ear training exercises?

By working with backing tracks in your ear training routine, you’ll be connecting your ears directly to popular jazz chord progressions. As well, you’ll prepare yourself to be able to hear chord progressions in real time, which is an invaluable skill to have when jamming on jazz tunes, especially ones you aren’t familiar with.

Often times you’ll spend time working on ear training exercises, singing intervals etc., that helps your hearing but aren’t directly related to practical situations.

Playing chords and solos over backing tracks by ear is not only beneficial, but it’s directly applicable to jam session and gig situations when you have a new tune put in front of you or are asked to play a tune without the benefit of a chart to read from.

The first backing track exercise focuses on learning chords and chord progressions by ear.

Now, this type of exercise can be tough at first but don’t give up. Even if you only get one or two chords by the end of the track correct, that’s a great start. Use those small gains to build up from, not to be negative about.

Start small, try your best, and with time and repetition this exercise can produce noticeable results in your ear training and performance ability.

  • Put on a backing track, don’t look at the chords
  • Begin to comp along to the track by ear
  • By the end of the track aim to comp the correct chords
  • Write the chords down
  • Check your answers against a lead sheet

 

The next backing track exercise will focus on the soloing side of ear training. This exercise is similar to the previous one, though now you’re soloing by ear over the backing track.

Again, this can be tough, and frustrating, at first in the practice room. But stick with it, over time it’ll become easier and you’ll see positive development in your ability to solo by ear over any tune on the guitar.

  • Put on a different backing track, don’t look at the chords
  • Begin to solo over the track by ear
  • By the end of the track be able to outline the changes
  • Write down the chord progression
  • Check your work against a lead sheet

 

Band in a Box is a great tool to create backing tracks and a fun way to do ear training.

Transcribing Exercises

One of the most important jazz ear training exercises that you can do is transcribing. Transcribing is when you learn anything, chords-melody-soloing, from a recording by ear. From there, you can write it out, play it on the guitar, or both.

Transcribing is not only a great way to build your ability to hear music quickly and accurately; you will also build your vocabulary at the same time.

As you’ve already focused on tune and chord exercises earlier, the following transcription exercises are built around learning licks and solos by ear.

This first exercise will introduce you to learning licks and longer improvisations by ear, as well as expand your soloing chops at the same time.

Go slow with the first part of the exercise, the singing section. If you can get a solo into your ears, singing it from memory with confidence, it’ll be much easier to take it to the guitar than if you skim over the singing part of the exercise.

  • Pick a Jazz guitar lick or solo to transcribe
  • Sing along to the recording by memory
  • Play the solo along to the recording by memory
  • Sing and play the solo over a backing track by memory
  • Write the solo down and analyze the notes

 

In the next exercise, you’ll work on taking material from a transcription and expanding upon it. This is a very important step when working on any transcription, as it’s the bridge between learning and application on the guitar.

Because it’s such an important approach to learning by ear, it would be best to transcribe one short lick and then run it through these exercises, compared to transcribing a long solo and leaving it there in your studies.

  • Pick a lick from the solo and sing it while comping the chords
  • Repeat in multiple keys
  • Sing the bass notes to the progression, such as ii-V-I, and play the lick
  • Repeat in as many keys as you can
  • Repeat with other licks from the solo

 

As you can see, these are both great jazz ear training exercises, but learning a whole solo by ear can be intimidating. If you’re new to transcribing or haven’t done it in a while, it can seem like a daunting task to tackle. But, you don’t have to start by learning Coltrane solos by ear on day 1.

Instead, start with easier to hear solos and work your way onto more difficult transcriptions from that point. To help you get started with the right transcription for you, here’s a list of different solos for different levels of players that you can transcribe.

Some will be guitar solos, some on other instruments, but all are classic improvisations that are worth learning as you continue to develop your ear training and improvisational skill set.

 

Beginner Jazz Guitar Transcriptions

  • Chitlins Con Carne – Kenny Burrell
  • So What – Miles Davis
  • Lester Leaps In – Lester Young
  • Movin’ Along – Wes Montgomery (Single Notes)
  • Cool Blues – Grant Green

 

Intermediate Jazz Guitar Transcriptions

  • You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To – Jim Hall
  • Says You – Wes Montgomery
  • Billie’s Bounce – George Benson (Single Notes)
  • How Deep is the Ocean – Kurt Rosenwinkel
  • A Go-Go John Scofield

 

Advanced Jazz Guitar Transcriptions

  • Joy Spring – Joe Pass
  • Giant Steps – John Coltrane
  • On Green Dolphin Street – Lenny Breau
  • Bobo – Adam Rogers
  • Moment’s Notice – Mike Stern

 

Jazz ear training is an essential study for any guitarist that wants to take their playing to the next level as an improviser.

While singing intervals and other technical exercises can be helpful, working the practical exercises in this article will help get you from A to B while building a strong aural foundation at the same time. Add a few of these exercises to your practice routine and see how they help raise your game over the short and long term.

Even a few minutes a day will be enough to see improvement, so get started today!

Do you use similar ear training exercises? Let us know in the comments below…

  • Terry T says:

    Thanks! Ear training is what I need badly.

  • ricco says:

    this is possibly the most powerful, exciting and fun
    exercise you have brought us yet, thanks!

  • jeff Means says:

    A great set of exorcises. Thanks

    Jeff

  • Thomas says:

    I’ve actually been looking for this kind of training in youtube videos but didn’t really find anything satisfying. This is much better. Glad I subscribed to your newsletter.

  • sam hales says:

    Bang on.

  • RUBEN says:

    gracias querido maestro …desde argentina !!..un abrazo

  • Brad says:

    Great article Matt. I’d like to know what you start on first when learning a new song, the melody or the harmony i.e. chords.
    Thanks all the fine articles

    • Matt Warnock says:

      Thanks, I always learn the melody first.

  • Oscar says:

    Wow, this is a great exercise, and it’s great fun too!
    Great many thanx, Dirk!

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