Listen Up: How to Train Your Ear

ear training

Some musical education can help expand your audio experience and have you hearing tunes in a whole new way.

Nov. 05, 2007 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

A person doesn’t have to be a trained musician or musicologist to be able to enjoy audio. Still, the skill of listening, from a trained musical perspective, can help foster greater understanding of audio and improve your audio experience. And you don’t even have to be a tried and true “audiophile” to do so.

According to Chris Maggio, a professional, classically trained guitar player and co-owner of Wakefield, Mass.-based Sarrin Music Studios, formalized music education that focuses on ear training and listening will teach song structure analysis. “A music training curriculum develops the ability to hear music so it can be processed in a way to hear a melody line and put it in terms of writeable script,” he explains. “Another aspect is to decipher a harmony and the note within it and how it relates to chords.”

Providing an example, Maggio adds, “Part of ear training, is tempo. The idea of ear training is in being able to take it from what it sounds like and transcribe it onto sheet music or chord progressions. Ear training is an abstract thing. It could be as simple as learning intervals, which refer to the distance between two notes and the relationship between the notes. A typical class may involve a melody on a piano and the starting note. You have to hear the melody and then write it down.”

Maggio says people can learn the fundamentals of listening by examining simple passages within popular music. “I would say they could learn musical dynamics,” he says. “You can hear pitches and chords and how they work. You may not exactly understand everything, but you can hear, for example, the pitch of a drum. A great example is the Phil Collins’ song ‘In the Air Tonight.’ Everyone knows the part of that song when the drums come in and you don’t have to be a drummer to play that on your dashboard.”

Classic songs like “In the Air Tonight,” “Baba O’Riley” by The Who and the opening riff of “Walk this Way” by Aerosmith are memorable, Maggio explains, because of their melody lines. These lines, he says, draw people in and provide a way for people to learn a sense of rhythm and melody.

Maggio advises those interested in learning about songwriting and music to try to learn how to read and write it and, if possible, to learn how to disseminate the tonal differences between instruments. “When you are listening to music,” he suggests, “try to focus on one instrument and listen to it throughout the song. Do this for each of the instruments. Then you can hear changes in the music. Learn to listen to learn what an electric guitar is, an acoustic guitar, the difference between an organ and a keyboard. When someone brings in an Eagles song [for Maggio to transcribe and teach] there could be as many as three or four guitars playing at the same time. I will focus on each line to focus on what each person is doing to break it apart.”

The Right Listening Material
Focusing specifically on the honing and teaching of listening skills on electronic systems installers and consumers, companies like Transparent Audio have developed training curriculum that integrates entry-level and high-performance electronics.

A trumpet player with a degree in music along with significant training in physics, Transparent product designer Josh Clark explains the methodology he uses to evaluate Transparent’s products by pointing out that he listens to natural acoustical instruments like strings and brass. “I try to use a wide variety of different recordings with different musical instruments and different recording venues,” he says. “For example, I might choose a short one, a two-minute selection from a Mozart Piano Concerto that features a solo piano playing with an orchestra in a small concert hall. Then, for a different type of recording, I might use a female jazz singer playing with a combo of acoustic bass, piano and drums in a small jazz club and, as a third piece, a gospel singer singing in a church.”

According to Clark, Transparent uses recordings that capture the sound of the musicians playing live. “I would use a recording of an orchestra playing in a concert hall because I can actually go out to hear a similar orchestra play in a similar concert hall and compare the two sounds,” he says. “In the best audio systems, the two experiences can be remarkably close.”

Clark says that with an album made in a recording studio, where the instruments have been amplified, equalized, mixed and processed, he would have no way of knowing how those instruments should actually sound. “Many of my favorite albums were made this way,” he says, “but I don’t rely on them to judge an audio component.”

Keep an Ear on Compression
Bobby Owsinki, founder, engineer and producer at the Studio City, Calif.-based Surround Associates recording studio, has a slightly different perspective. Owsinki says that, while he may not be a believer in the concept of “critical listening,” he employs a set of standards based on his recording experience to evaluate a recording. When listening for evaluation purposes, he says, he listens for distortion and frequency balance. 

According to Owsinki, focusing on such distortion and frequency balance within a recording would be beneficial to anyone wanting to develop his or her listening abilities. A quality audio system, he says, should be capable of conveying the efforts of the recorded musicians, the engineer and producer so long as the recording isn’t heavily compressed. Owsinki explains that compression is a studio technology designed to maximize the loudness levels of a recording regardless of what equipment it is played on. The problem with compressed audio, he notes, is that it can strip the recording of its dynamics and naturalness and, when compression is overused, it can be detrimental to the quality of the recording. “Compression and limiting has always been used. It’s just that today it’s overused pretty much up and down the delivery chain,” he says, adding, “It basically started in the ‘50s when record labels and artists heard some records play louder on the radio or jukebox than others.”

The common misconception, Owsinki says, is that if a recording plays louder, it must be better. “So the labels and artists began forcing the transfer engineers to cut their discs hotter and hotter,” he explains. “This became an art and the ‘mastering engineer’ was born.” He adds, “During the ‘90s, this was carried to the extreme thanks to a compilation CD out of Nashville. If one cut was quieter than the next, then the belief was that a program director would immediately skip it for a louder one. So, every label literally forced mastering engineers to squash the audio more and more in an effort to make it loud.”

A Musical Reference
Have you ever wondered how Eddie Van Halen made some of the sounds on those classic Van Halen records or why albums from artists like Queen, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd sound so polished and perfect?  Many of the sound effects that are used to enhance popular music are designed to bring to fruition the artist’s vision of how a song and record should sound. In addition, other techniques, such as “multitrack recording,” microphone placement and “punch-ins,” are also used during the recording process to contribute to the music-making process. Focusing specifically on the sound effects used by musicians and recording engineers is a great way of deducing the artist’s vision for the piece as well as a means of identifying trends within a recording.

According to Maggio, the most commonly used effects in music can be divided into two categories. “There are two types of basic effects, generally — sound altering and time altering,” he says. “Sound altering effects include, for example, distortion, equalization and wah. Time altering or modulation effects include delay, chorus and phasing. What they do is take a signal and, in the case of chorus, for example, cause a split-second delay to create two almost separate sounds. A 12-string guitar is a natural chorus because you are doubling the pitch of the notes. Distortion clips the sound until it breaks up,” he explains.

Here are some popular songs that Maggio points to that prominently demonstrate sound altering and time altering effects:

  • Pink Floyd’s “Run like Hell” — delay.
  • The Police’s “Walking on the Moon” — chorus and delay.
  • U2’s “Where the Streets have no Name” — Maggio says this song is a good example of how a musician may take an approach that employs these effects to construct an entire song. “The Edge plays single notes and he syncs the tempo to play in between the repeat of delay notes,” he explains. “The result is you have four notes playing at once, or a cascading effect, decaying after the initial note.”
  • Van Halen’s “Unchained” — Maggio says this song uses one of the famous guitar player’s favorite staple effects. “Eddie Van Halen plays the opening three-chord phrase and then he kicks in the flanger to make it sound like a jet taking off.”
  • Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” — wah.
  • Prince’s “When Doves Cry” — equalization
  • Electric Light Orchestra’s (ELO) “Telephone Line” — compressed vocals.

Other effects, techniques and instruments commonly used during a recording include drum machines, drum loops and reverb. Like the aforementioned effects and techniques, these, too, can play an important role in how a record sounds. “In a lot of pop, house and techno,” Maggio says, “drum machines are sometimes used in place of acoustic drums. One example is ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ by the Eurythmics.”  Finally, reverb can be best explained as an effect that simulates the results of sound reflecting off of surrounding surfaces.

Audio Demonstrations: Another Musical Reference
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines music as “the art of combining tones to form expressive compositions.” The combination of tones to form chords and the ability to synchronize these tones to create music is the foundation of any style of music. Any electronics professionals that has a basic grasp on the concepts of tones and time will have the ability to breakdown and transcribe most of today’s popular music for not only their own personal enjoyment, but also for the benefit of their clients.

Maggio says tempo is defined in two ways. “Meter is how you keep time and its defined as duple [or double — 2/4, 4/4] and triple, which is 3,6,9 or 12 [12/8],” he says.  “Most any waltz is in a triple meter, and songs like ‘Nothing Else Matters’ by Metallica is in 6/8. Double time is when you take a meter and double it. It’s the doubling of any tempo. A lot of ska music is in double time. It essentially means to go twice as fast.”

Cut time, he explains is the opposite. “Take what you are doing and cut it in half so you are playing twice as slow. A good example of cut time is the mid section of ‘Master of Puppets’ from Metallica. Another example is ‘Still of the Night’ by Whitesnake.”

Swing time is another reference to tempo and a good reference is anything from Brian Setzer. Swing time is when you take a standard beat and play a little behind it. When you do this you affect the beat so it’s not so regimented. ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ by Grand Funk Railroad is a good example of swing. Another good one is ‘Somebody to Love’ by Queen.”

Shuffle beat is the last on Maggio’s tempo list. “This is hard to describe, but a good example is ‘Pride and Joy’ by Stevie Ray Vaughn,” he says. “The beginning of ‘Stray Cat Strut’ (by Setzer’s group Stray Cats) has a shuffle feel, and ‘Rosanna’ by Toto is a great shuffle song.”

The final step in the transcription of music is dissecting the tones that make up chords. One of the ways to develop the pitch recognition skills that musicians, recording engineers and producers use as part of their jobs is to build mental benchmarks to compare tones.

A list of songs that can be used as reference points for your new audiophile tuning may include these selections from Maggio:

  • The key of A — Beethoven’s “7th Symphony.” The first movement is in A and it modulates into E in a standard Sonata form.
  • The key of B — “Pinball Wizard” by The Who
  • The key of C — “Let it be” by the Beatles
  • The key of D — “The Song Remains the Same” by Led Zeppelin
  • The key of E — “Stuck in a Moment” by U2
  • The key of F — Beethoven’s “8th Symphony” (starts in F and modulates to C by the end of the exposition)
  • The key of G — “Time of your Life” by Green Day

So now that you have some reference material, some recording knowledge and some new terms to consider, go ahead and listen to your music collection again, for the first time.

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