The ability to accurately hear and analyze music is one of the hallmarks of a great musician. Most music students develop it through ear training. But traditional methods can leave them frustrated when they try to apply the concepts they've learned to actual music. Bruce Arnold, a guitarist and music educator in New York City, approaches ear training in a way that lets singers know where they are at all times in relation to the music, he says, enhancing their ability to hear, improvise, harmonize, and sing in tune.
An interval is the distance between two notes. In the C major scale, C is called the root or tonic, D is the second, E is the third, and so on. Going from C to E would be an interval of a third. Traditional ear training teaches you to hear and memorize these intervals, such as a major third or minor sixth. Unfortunately, the ability to recognize isolated intervals often isn't much help when working with actual music. "The problem is, an interval of a fourth can happen 12 different ways in a key, so they sound different depending on which scale tones are used," says Arnold. "If the interval of a sixth is being done on the sharp four up to the flat three, most people would no longer hear that as a sixth; they would probably say, 'What is that?' "In his experience, this is one of the reasons that learning intervals by themselves is of little use.
Instead, Arnold teaches students to hear each pitch in relation to the music's key—what he calls contextual ear training. Instead of trying to calculate a pitch based on the distance from a previous note, you learn to recognize what all 12 possible tones sound like in the key based upon their unique color. For example, in the key of C, if an F is played, you instantly hear it possessing the color or flavor of the fourth; you don't need to figure out the interval from the root. "You just know what it is," Arnold says. "In a way, you don't even need the interval processing."
Arnold points out that the ability to hear pitches in this new way has immediate benefits and applications for a singer: "If you're vocally improvising and you hear someone play a chord with a flat third and a flat seventh, you know you're now in a minor sound and you can react musically to that." The singer will also have greater command of the melodies created in this minor key. "You know how to improvise with these types of melodies, because you haven't stored the information just as a bunch of intervals." Again, Arnold says, interval training alone fails because intervals "won't give you any idea what to do on a major chord, minor chord, or whatever."
Another benefit is a greater ability to sing in tune. "Singers who come to me often have intonation problems," he says, "because they're trying to sing the distance between one note to the next rather than hearing each note and how it sounds in the key center. Once you have that ability, you're going to sing those notes in tune."
Students in Arnold's ear-training program listen to daily exercises that cement these concepts and relative sound colors in their memories. Each note is played against a key center repeatedly, building recognition of the note's unique sound. "You want to hear these pitches like you recognize color," he says. What's more, Arnold claims that his students develop advanced skills in a relatively short amount of time. "Experienced jazz musicians hear this way," he says. "I'm trying to shorten the learning period, so rather than having to spend 20 years on stage, you can spend a couple of years with my ear-training books."
Arnold also encourages singers to learn some music theory in combination with their ear training. "Singers are so disrespected in the industry," he says. "I want to make them as knowledgeable as any instrumentalist on the bandstand." He says that with a knowledge of music theory, singers "become more confident, and they don't have to put up with musicians wanting to put them down."
While gaining this ability does take a bit of time and study, Arnold insists that anyone can do it: "Some students may take longer than others, but I've never had a student that didn't get it sooner or later." To anyone who purchases his program, he makes himself available to answer questions and guide students down the proper path. "I've created a website with additional files, FAQs, and I'm available by email for questions as well," he says. "How often do you get an author that you can contact?"
Additional information on Arnold's courses is available at Muse Eek.