There’s more ear training resources available than ever before. And while this is a fantastic time for access to information, option anxiety and misusing time in the wrong place are real concerns. While I certainly haven’t tried even close to all of the available ear training tools, I’d like to share my favourites of those I've used. Each excels at something different and I will address what they offer the modern musician.
Amazing Slow Downer – Mobile App https://www.ronimusic.com/index.html
This app lets you slow down music in real time with high quality and maintaining its pitch. Slowing algorithms are different—some sound much better than others—and it’s typically “you get what you pay for” in my experience. While considered more as a tool for transcribing and slow practicing (versus “ear training”), I’m suggesting this is some of the most useful ear training you may do.
I specifically like the mobile/tablet version of this app because it has Spotify (and Apple music for those with compatible devices) integration. This means I can be anywhere with just a mobile device and slow down, loop, and change the key of anything on Spotify. The PC version doesn’t have this capability, and for that I recommend “Transcribe!”
Transcribe! – Computer software https://www.seventhstring.com/xscribe/download.html
Another transcribing/practicing tool. This software shows a waveform of the audio you import making organization (marking form, measures, beats) generally quite effortless. It makes looping easier as well since you can usually see exactly where to place the start and end points. The ease of use and quality of life aspects make transcribing a much more enjoyable pursuit. Mine has improved using this program, and my ears along with it. Check out Levi Clay’s transcribing videos for a good example of using these features. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMN0e0z-b84&list=PL9GXkEqgKUsCrPACdUci10LIRLQLg36oc
Ear Master – Computer software https://www.earmaster.com/
Ear Master is the most complete ear-training package I’m aware of. There is a mobile iOS only version as well that I haven’t used (not owning any iOS devices). There are intervals, chord progressions (classical and jazz based), dictation, sight-singing, and more. I will write about the use of these different exercises in the future, which musicians often misuse (incorrect exercise for the desired goal).
My favourite part of this program is the melodic sing back. I find the pitch visualization to be very accurate. I’ve increased my ability to hear the quickest and smallest fluctuations in pitch, and in more difficult to notice scenarios.
Ultimate Ear Trainer
I found this app looking for something based on Boston jazz musician Charlie Banacos “pencils on the piano” ear training exercise. I’ve done this exercise over the years, and had friends show me back in my Berklee days. I notice a Berklee ear training teacher approves of this app which is an endorsement I haven’t seen for many free music education apps.
As explained by the creator, “Rather than drill scale, chord and interval recognition, like the many ear training apps already available, Ultimate Ear Trainer will train your ear to recognize all notes, and combinations of notes, both diatonic and chromatic, in relation to a tonal center, or key.” And, “These ear training exercises, if practiced with regularity, will improve your musical awareness, ability to identify chord qualities, harmonic progressions, and melodic movement.”
Other Ear Training
Often left out of ear training conversations are ones for hearing frequencies. If your goal is to be exclusively a classical musician, and have no interest in recording, then you are probably right to spend your time elsewhere. However, I generally find this to be a severely underrated musical skill for the rest of us. I’ve seen many performers in situations where they are in charge of a PA and really don’t know what to do. A lot of time spinning knobs will teach you this, but learning your frequencies so you know ahead of time that things like the 4k area is the “butter knife in the forehead” (thanks Billy Decker) frequency, and so on, is a great skill to have. It can help in any situation where you have control or influence over your own EQ (even when there's someone working the board!) I’ve heard and seen good things about https://www.soundgym.co/ which has a fairly pricy pro subscription, but free content as well.
Using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, like Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, etc.) may be another one of the best, and most practical, ear training tools you will own. Not just for the production side, but by practicing recording and listening back to yourself. Many great modern musicians, especially in styles where being able to at least competently record a demo or acceptable sounding track of the instruments you play is as asset to working. I’ve seen many shocked musicians the first time the hear themselves recorded clearly (decent microphone, no room ambience, no other instruments playing) and all the things it reveals in their playing. Many of my favourite musicians, and myself included, have learned an immeasurable amount from recording. (Again, if you want to be an unamplified classical only musician, maybe you don’t need to work on this as much, but for many musicians this is a major asset in 2020).
I’m sure there are other great apps out there, and if you’re checking them out, try to figure out and decide what they’re doing for you. What are your goals? Even in Ear Master, I don’t regularly use all the parts of the program, and believe they have different value depending on the person and what are trying to accomplish. As Victor Wooten says, “listening is the most important part of music” and I hope you continue to improve your listening and enjoy the benefits that follow.