Music Apps for Building Ear Skills

Doesn't look like a music app post? Please bear with me... If I could, I would head to our local Lifetime Fitness Center everyday. A habit or a hobby--not sure which--I try to squeeze in a workout as much as possible. One of the main reasons is because I like to build muscle and keep the metabolism up so I can eat my husband's scrumptious cooking. The other reason I workout? Because I'm addicted to step class (among other classes) thanks to an outstanding instructor named Heidi.

This is a resort-like fitness center one-stop-light-away from our house!

She can "holler" at us with her New Orleans' drawl and yet everyone remains extremely loyal to her group instruction because she works us hard and we see results. In addition, Heidi cues and designs steps and combos like no one else which makes for an exceptionally good workout for the body as well as the brain. Yep, step class, the trend started by Jane Fonda years ago-gulp--many more years than I'd care to admit.

I stepped right along with this video before my young boys popped out of bed.

Why am I talking about my exercise regimen in a piano-related blog? Because I'm amazed at how a Heidi-cue will prompt me to move my feet to the beat for 8 to 16 counts. When Heidi says "V around the world" or "ham-string-straddle-knee hop" I know which foot to use, which way to go on which beat. Of course, this was after enduring the first class or two adjusting to Heidi's lingo and that 12-inch step in front of me. I, along with my husband, as he is now a huge fan of the class as well--have become imprinted with Heidi's cues and combos and are forever faithful to following her every command.


So, if my body responds to verbal cues accompanied by just a few visual aids from Heidi on the stage, it seems my ears could also train my fingers in a similar fashion. Why don't I seem as committed to building my ears and fingers on the bench like I am to strengthening my biceps and quads at the gym? If my ears can train my body, why can't they train my fingers?

I believe there is one simple reason for weak ears: because I'm lazy. My eyes have dictated every move to my 10 fingers for so long, that my ears sit back with their feet up and moan whenever they are called into action. Unfortunately, my well-trained eyes have made my ears dull, insecure and withdrawn.

This means a call to action, a crash course for those flaps on the side of my head. Thankfully they have begun to see the daylight thanks to my online lessons with Bradley Sowash. They are getting a full workout and thus shaping up, but of course, there's still room for improvement.

To provide a guaranteed play-by-ear program in this small post would be presumptuous. But here are just a few thoughts and tech-savvy tips to build ear power.

1) Follow a Format Similar to Heidi's Step Class.

  • Review Simple Steps We warm up with repetitive moves that are basic and familiar.
  • Create a Combo of Simple Steps  Next, she creates a string of simple steps and calls it a combo.
  • Introduce New Steps These may be new moves or variations of steps we've learned before.
  • Create a Combo with New Steps. This is when the brain must kick in to remember the order.
  • String All the Combos Together. By the end of class we step 6 to 8 combos and look pretty darn confident with ourselves and quite sweaty as well. Complete focus is a must or tripping may result.
  • Interval Training. Each of our step classes includes a break from choreography in which we repeat a challenging move for 30 to 60 seconds to increase our heart rate and condition muscle tone.

All of these moves are called out by Heidi while she does them herself in front of the class. Although I watch her at first, as the class continues, my feet rely upon her verbal commands and move instinctively to the driving beat. Couldn't something similar be done when learning  melodies and chord progressions by ear?

2) Learn From a ProBradleySowash

I believe the process of splitting things into bite-sized pieces as described above is key to building ears of discernment. A breakdown of steps to playing by ear are outlined by Bradley Sowash in his handout How to play by ear. In addition, I've noticed that taking lessons from him demands "ear" playing and has definitely whipped my listening skills into shape.

3) Interval Training

A "necessary evil" in the step class to build a stronger heart is drilling a challenging move for 30-60 seconds. Similarly, this repetition is essential to the process of  building ear strength and there's really no better tool for this task--called ear training in the music world--than the iPad. I recommend these apps or "bar bells" for training the ears.

Tenuto Building ear muscles takes repetition and opportunities to compare sounds. Tenuto is THE app for drilling chord qualities, inversions, intervals and more.

Right Note Picking out a melody demands the ability to hear distance between pitches. This app offers oodles of exercises that allow you to "poke around" for the correct pitches of intervals and melodies on your own piano . The app hears your answers with the help of your iPad mic and offers feedback and shows your progress.

Better Ears For quite some time, I've been looking for an app that tests hearing of chord function and progressions. I finally found it with this app. It begins with the drilling easy progressions featuring I and V chords and gradually gets more difficult.

NoteStar This app offers a growing library of popular pieces. Find a favorite and play along with the digital sheet music and audio backing track and vocals.  Challenge yourself to peek less and less at the page and listen and imitate what is heard to build playing by ear skills.

iReal Pro This app generates lead sheets and provides a back-up band with drums, bass and keys. Play along with the band but also listen to the band and challenge your ear to copy the bass line, piano chords, the groove or all three.

Anytune When you are ready to test your ear skills without a score, choose a piece from your iTunes library, download it into Anytune and learn the piece by ear with this app's powerful features. Anytune will slow down the tune without changing pitch and can loop any part of the song so you can review it over and over until it is learned.

Yes, we use our ears when we read from the score so I know my statements about my lazy ears are slightly exaggerated--makes for a better story. But as a designated eye player, I tend to default to my vision and I want to balance my skills so that I can call on my able-bodied ears for help when learning new music.

What are the steps you've taken to build your ear skills?

Using the apps above is a start.  In addition, consider 88 Creative Keys Camp which offers tracks for students, adults and teachers that build ear, eye and creative skills for fit, well-balanced 21st-century musicians.

Care to indulge me? Check out my first "vlog" featuring footage that shows my feet hard at work with the rest of the step class.