I stood in the parking lot outside the venue and screamed.
The week prior I’d sent an email out to thousands of people, talking about how I was putting the finishing touches on the new course I’d been working on, and how I even had a name for it: Effortless Ear Training.
And here I was, testing & using my new course… and failing.
Not only was it not “effortless,” it straight up failed to do the thing I most needed it to do: teach my ears to hear in high def.
Specifically, I was trying to hear individual notes played over chords and ID them by chord degree: was the guitar playing the root? The third? The fifth?
For every one I answered correctly, I got a dozen wrong. The app automatically cued those wrong-answer questions up again, and I was falling behind fast.
It felt like using a Solo cup to bail water out of a boat with a basketball-sized hole in it.
I called my wife and cried.
Honey, I complained to her, I spent months working on this stupid thing and it’s worthless. Total garbage.
Why don’t you go for a walk? she suggested.
So I did.
Holy Jeez… I Do Not Have Real Problems
The venue I strolled away from was the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa, where they recently suffered devastating wildfires.
The neighborhood I walked through looked like this:
Everywhere you looked you saw burnt trees, the charred remains of cars, and eery Stonehenge-looking circles of chimneys. The smell of smoke was still so strong it gave me an instant headache.
On a scale of 1 to 10, these people’s problems were a 9. They lost everything.
My embarrassing failed course was a 0.5, barely even registering.
And then I saw something else:
People were rebuilding!
They had hope!
The folks in the audience that night were singing & dancing!
Hell, if they could lose everything they owned, dust themselves off, and get to work rebuilding their lives, I could sure as shit make a new ear training course.
How Did I Get Here?
So how exactly did my first attempt at making an ear training course go so wrong?
Well, I started by taking everything I hated about other ear training programs and throwing it all out the window.
- Long “ingraining” tracks? Gone.
- Bad MIDI piano? Gone.
- Singing along? Gone.
- IDing intervals by comparing them to famous melodies? Gone.
- Workbooks? Hell no.
- Fussy music school vocabulary over an actually-useful modern understanding? Not on my watch.
But I threw out the baby with the bathwater.
As it turns out, some aspects of traditional ear training are there for a reason.
(There’s still no excuse for making them such a soul-sucking shitshow, but we’ll save that rant for later.)
So what IS necessary for great ears?
- Consistency. It can’t be done in one sitting. And it can’t be done in fits and starts. We need a sustainable structure.
- Constant testing + immediate feedback. The first version of Effortless Ear Training was only this. And it absolutely works… for some aspects of ear training.
- Singing. Singing is a proxy for hearing clearly—you can’t sing what you can’t hear. And our brains are all too willing to fill in the blanks, to make us think we heard clearly. Singing exposes the gaps.
- Greasing the groove. Before we test our ears, we have to prime them—especially when it comes to those aspects of ear training that are resistant to easy learning with the constant testing/immediate feedback method. But it’s not enough to prime them by hearing, say, 5 minutes of minor thirds. We have to sing them. It’s like having your tennis instructor standing behind you, guiding your arm through the perfect swing.
- Real world usefulness. It’s great if some course or method can teach you to ID common intervals, but that’s not terribly useful on its own. We need a way to translate the nerdy music-school mechanics of ear training into actionable tools for learning songs by ear, for copping solos from our heroes, and for feeling confident and relaxed in challenging musical environments.
In fact, that “real-world usefulness” is so important, I’ll be back this time next week to talk about a question I don’t see addressed nearly enough: