Friday, February 6, 2015

Tonal Function Based Ear Training

Over the past six months I've been learning about Music Learning Theory, which explains how the brain understands and learns music. One of the reasons I was attracted to it is that it's based on decades of research and testing. Basically, the crux of the theory is that the brain understands, learns, and predicts music in a process called audiation. The theory maps out how the brain develops what many musicians call the "inner ear" and progresses in intuitively understanding music.

The theory's explanation of how we learn to understand melody and harmony has produced a system of ear training that I personally found extremely effective. In becoming familiar with the theory I worked through the recommend exercises and learning activities, so that I could use them in teaching music. Before starting, I felt I had pretty decent ears. I've done a lot of transcription both in terms of melody and changes (harmony), and worked through various ear training classes in school (learning intervals, sight singing, recognizing chords with extensions, etc.). After a few months of memorizing and digesting the applications of music learning theory, I began to see a significant consistent improvement in my musicianship. I've been using it with students, and I've been seeing the same results with them. One of the big differences I've noticed, and I'll go into the specific benefits of this later, is that I hear music in my inner more clearly now. Whether it is hearing a familiar song or melody or creating an improvisation in my head, I can hear it more vividly and comprehend it more quickly than I could before. I think the best description of the overall improvement is that music has become more intuitive. No matter how great a musician you are, music can always become more intuitive and therefore easier for you, and that is the exact aim of music learning theory.

The Inner Ear

The basic process that our inner ear uses to comprehend music is that it organizes according to patterns or logical structures. This makes it easy for the brain to store it long term and easily recall it for comparison with new material we are either learn by ear or read. The digestion of music in this way also improves our ability to predict how music will progress and predict what music will sound like when we are reading music, composing, or improvising. This process also makes it easier for us to assign labels like scale degrees, pitch names or, even better, fingerings on our instrument to the music we hear either in real musical situations or in our heads.

Tonality and Function

For the music that most of us play (Western Music: most American and western European music), the system that organizes pitch is called tonality, and that is, at least for us Westerners, the go to source for the patterns and structures with which the brain can organize and store, in other words, learn music. Of course, it also treats rhythm in the same way, but that subject will need it's own post at some point.

The better we aurally digest the basics of tonality the stronger musical foundation we have. The two most basic structures in tonality are the polar functions tonic and dominant (I and V7). This is the starting point for digesting pitch. We can digest these in both major and minor and in multiple keys. To that we add subdominant (IV) and other functions, and from there we can also explore other tonalities besides major and minor like dorian and mixolydian. It is important to address multiple functions, tonalities, and so on because our brain uses the contrasts to aid and solidify our musical learning. 

Music learning theory and a series based on it, Jump Right In, suggests a number of ways to go about digesting tonality and function as follows.

Memorized Songs (Rote Songs)

Familiar melodies form a kind of musical vocabulary that our brains can draw on in intuitively understanding music. However, this metaphorical database will be much more effective if we also learn the harmonic functions that go with these melodies. Logically, we should start with simple songs that feature tonic and dominant, and we should learn them completely (melody, bass line, and harmony).

Here is a laundry list of how to develop this basic tune vocabulary:
  • Learn to sing melodies and their bass lines by ear. First focus on simple songs that feature tonic and dominant such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridges, Hot Cross Buns, and Three Blind Mice.
  • After learning to sing the melodies and bass lines, learn to play them on your instrument by ear.
  • Practice playing the melody while hearing the bass line in your head, playing the bass line while hearing the melody in your head, and playing the bass line or melody while hearing simple harmonies in your head (see below for harmonies).
  • If you have any ability at all to play the piano, guitar, or other instrument that allows you to sing simultaneously, practice playing the melody while singing the bass line, playing the bass line while singing the melody, and singing harmonies while playing the bass line or melody.
  • You can use the following basic harmonies (all scale degrees below reference the overall key. In the key of C, C=1, B=7, etc., no matter the underlying chord).
    • Scale degree 1 on tonic, 7 on dominant, and 1 on subdominant (Key of C Major: C, B, and C)
    • Scale degree 3 on tonic, 4 on dominant, and 4 on subdominant (Key of C Major: E, F, and F)
    • Scale degree 5 on tonic, 5 on dominant, and 6 on subdominant  (Key of C Major: G, G, and A)
  • Practice all the songs that you do in major in minor as well.
  • Practice the songs in other keys.
  • Expand your tune vocabulary to other simple diatonic songs that can be mostly harmonized with tonic, dominant and subdominant either in major or minor. All diatonic songs can be harmonized with these three functions, even if they weren't originally harmonized with I, IV, and V7.
    • Jump Right In has a series of solo books that each contain 50 songs that fit this description, and audio CD to use as
  • Compose melodic structures to these basic chord progressions. Start with just chord tones, and then expand to more complex creations.
  • Improvise over the tunes as well. Again, start with just chord tones, and then expand to more complex creations.
  • Expand your vocabulary to tunes base on dorian and mixolydian which have different harmonic functions.

Tonal Patterns

Jump Right In also suggests learning what it calls tonal patterns. These are melodic structures based solely on chord tones of the basic harmonic functions (Scale degrees for tonic: 1, 3, 5; for dominant: 5, 7, 2, 4, and for subdominant: 4, 6 ,1). The first book and second book in the series provide some nine different sets of tonal patterns, which you learn by ear from the CD. They progress from tonic and dominant in major to adding subdominant, working in minor, and exploring two and three functions in dorian and mixolydian as well.

Here is the process for working with these tracks:
  • First work with the neutral syllable track.
  • Sing back the tonal pattern in the space following each pattern.
  • Once you have become familiar with the patterns, move onto the track with solfege. This progression is important, as learning them on a neutral syllable first will increase the depth to which you digest the material. 
  • Memorize the tonal patterns, being able to sing the whole set without the audio track.
  • Improvise in the space provided on the track using chord tones only. Either improvise the same function or an opposing function. When first doing this pause the track and be careful to first hear your improvisation in your head. Then sing it out loud with solfege and double check to make sure your solfege correctly matches what you are singing.
To give you an idea of what these are and a starting point, I've created my own set of tonal patterns, This would be akin to the most basic set in the series, tonic and dominant in major. The first track is on a neutral syllable, and the second is the same set of patterns on solfege. I highly recommend getting the books and working through all 9 sets.

Improvisation with Tonal Patterns and Beyond

I have worked on some ear training improvisational exercises based on all of this. These are simple improvisational exercises that are generally fun, and are not overly challenging assuming you start at a comfortable level. These exercises assume that you have some vocabulary or ability to sing the chord tones of tonic and dominant in major to start off. As the exercises progress they include the ability to sing chord tones of subdominant and all three functions in minor as well.
  • Exercise 1 Free Play: Tonic and Dominant in Major. In this exercise you can improvise, singing tonic for as long as you'd like. When you ear prompts you move to dominant, and then come back and sing something in tonic to end. Feel free to draw on tonal patterns you may have already learned for vocabulary. You can continue this pattern for as long as you'd like switching between tonic and dominant at will. Do this on a neutral syllable, preferably something with a percussive consonant at the beginning like bum or dun.
    • Now, add solfege or scale degrees to the exercise. Whenever you are in question as to whether your solgege or scale degrees match your pitches, stop and double check where if you are correct.
    • Play this exercise on your instrument.
    • Try to do this exercise completely in your head. Do the exercise exactly as outline above, only instead of singing, now only hear the pitches in your head. When you discover something compelling, sing it out loud and play it on your instrument.
  • Exercise 2 Stuctured Improvisation: Tonic and Dominant in Major. This time give yourself a form, a set amount of time on each function, and a definite progression. Feel free to use the chord progressions from some of the tonic/dominant songs like Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridges, Hot Cross Buns, and Three Blind Mice.
    • Complete each of the stages outlined in exercise 1 including neutral syllable singing, solfege or scale degree singing, instrumental improvisation, and inner ear improvisation.
  • Exercise 3 Free Play: Tonic and Dominant in Minor. Follow all of the instruction for exercise 1 only this time in minor.
  • Exercise 4 Structure Improvisation: Tonic and Dominant in Minor. Follow all the instructions for exercise 2, only now in minor.
  • Exercise 5 and 6 Free Play and Structured Improvisation: Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant in Major. Follow all the instructions for exercises 1 and 2, only this time add subdominant. When doing structured improvisation use the following guidelines in creating the form, or use a set form from a familiar song like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Yankee Doodle.
    • Subdominant normally follows tonic. 
    • It often progresses to dominant.
    • It can also return to tonic.
    • In some circumstances like the ninth and tenth bars of a classic blues, subdominant follows dominant and progresses to tonic.
  • Exercises 7 and 8: Free Play and Structured Improvisation: Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant in Minor. Follow the instructions for exercises 5 and 6, only this time in minor.
  • Excercise 9: Passing Tones, Neighbor Tones etc. In this exercise follow the same progression outline in Free Play and then Structured Improvisation in Major and in Minor. Now expand beyond chord tones and include any kind of melodic structure that you hear whether it be passing tones, neighbor tones, suspensions, or whatever it is your hearing. Adding these will make obscure the harmonic function to some degree, but while doing this listen for which harmonic function is being emphasized.
  • Exercise 10: Accompanied Improvisation. This exercise can be done first with chord tones, and then with no melodic limitations as in exercise 9. It would be a good idea to follow the same progression as before, first Free Play and Structure Improvisation, first major and then minor, and first 2 functions and then 3 functions. The idea is to accompany yourself with either the bass line or the chords. This can be done with the piano, keyboard, guitar, or other instrument that allows you to sing simultaneously. The piano or keyboard also allows you to play the improvised melodic material.


Music learning theory predicts specific benefits from working through memorized songs and tonal pattern as described above. These are some of the benefits that I have confirmed through my own experience.
  • Improved pitch memory and stronger sense of intonation.
  • The technical act of playing music becomes more natural and easier allowing for elements like style and expression to become more central.
  • Increased ability to immediately recognize function in music (hearing the chord progression).
  • Quicker recognition of exact pitches.
  • More accurate execution of the ideas I hear in my head when improvising or composing.
  • Increased technique or at least that is how it seems. Really its a stronger connection between my horn and what I hear in my head.
  • Increased ability to remember music and to memorize music.
Working through this material has offered the fastest significant improvement to my overall musicianship I have ever noticed. The only two rivals are a period where I transcribed a lot, and another period where I did intense study and emulation of Charlie Parker's playing. However, what is different about this experience is that it has changed the way I hear music generally in a fundamental way, and the improvements continue in noticeable ways as I continue working on the material, which is part of why I created the improvisation exercises. I've also begun working on memorized songs that include modal mixture (theme song to legend of Zelda anyone?). It's really a fantastic process that is driving continuous development and improvement for me and has filled in a big hole I didn't even know was there. 


  1. Had a conversation with my wife the other day about my learning other saxphonists' material and the complexity of it. I resort to apps that help me slow the audio and do rote repetition learning too !

  2. Ben,

    I've been toying with trying this for a couple of months since first reading your post. Is there a student-level (i.e. not teacher) version of the Jump Right In program that you recommend? Amazon has (to the untutored eye) a bewildering variety of things, but a lot of them seem geared to teachers who already know their stuff....and at quite an investment!

    1. Yeah, just look at the 'instrumental series' books. They're the equivalent of elementary method books but following music theory principles. They include tonal patterns, and rhythmic patterns, and a few songs. The solo books are nice too, and are just a bunch of songs organized by function.