To quickly review, the last four columns have covered the following approaches to ear training: singing the notes of major and minor scales while playing them; playing pairs of notes and identifying the intervallic relationships between the notes; learning to identify different chord qualities (types) solely by hearing them; singing in harmony with single-note riffs and patterns that you play; and trying to recreate “random” sounds on the guitar with your voice.

In This Part, I’ve got a really tricky exercise for anyone who’s up to the challenge. In previous columns, the exercises involved playing notes on the guitar and then singing the same notes immediately afterward. In this exercise, you’re going to do the opposite: you’ll sing the note first, then play it to verify your pitch accuracy.

Before we get to this exercise, let’s review the intervallic relationships between the notes of a major scale and the notes of a chromatic scale. FIGURE 1a illustrates a D major scale in two octaves. First, play and sing each scale degree simultaneously. Then, try to sing each pitch in the scale before playing it, as shown in FIGURE 1b. Do this repeatedly up and down the entire two-octave range of the scale while trying to stay aware of each pitch’s intervallic relationship to the root note.

Figure 1
Listen Figure 1A
Listen Figure 1B

Now let’s apply the same concept to the chromatic scale, depicted in FIGURE 1c. First play and sing each note simultaneously, and then, as shown in FIGURE 1d, sing each successive pitch before you play it. Do this repeatedly up and down the two-octave range of the scale too. You will notice that singing the chromatic pitches in succession is much tougher; as the notes are only half steps apart, it will take a keen sense of pitch to sing them right on the money.

Figure 1C
Figure 1C
Figure 1D

Now let’s expand the exercise by picking the D note on the fifth string at the fifth fret and singing different intervals above it. As shown in FIGURE 2, pick the D note, then sing the note a fifth above it, which is A. Then play the A note at the seventh fret on the fourth string to verify if you have sung this pitch accurately. Now play the D note again and sing a major seventh above it, C#. After you’ve sung the C# note, check your pitch accuracy by playing the C# note at the sixth fret on the third string.

Figure 2
Listen Figure 2

Another way to approach this same exercise is to say the intervallic name of the pitch while singing it. For example, play a low D and sing the A note above it on the word “fifth” or “five.” When singing C# above the low D, form the words “major seventh” or “seven.” If you do this for all of the pitches you sing, you’ll additionally fortify your knowledge of these intervallic relationships.

These exercises are difficult to master and will require much diligent practice. But start simply; don’t bite off more than you can chew, because you’ll only become frustrated. When you get to the point where you can do this exercise with a high degree of accuracy, your ears will have become quite sharp.

The point of these exercises is to deepen the connection between the notes you play on your instrument and the strength of your mental connection to the pitches you’re playing. Correctly singing intervals before you play them is the first step in putting the mind’s awareness of pitch recognition ahead of simply mimicking what you hear as it’s produced on the instrument. The next big step would be to eliminate the guitar completely and create an exercise of just singing everything, in which it is illegal” to pick up the guitar to check yourself. One fun thing to do is to memorize a favorite guitar solo, learn to sing it in its entirety and, instead of just singing the pitches, recite the interval names as you sing. FIGURE 3 illustrates an example of this approach.

Figure 3
Listen Figure 3

Back when I played with Frank Zappa, I was faced with learning very difficult music in a short period of time. To help, I tried this technique: I’d record the music I needed to learn, and I’d set a timer on my tape player. Then, when I went to bed, I’d have the timer set to start the tape machine when I was sure to be sleeping. I believed that, in this way, I would actually be learning the music in my sleep: the tape would play, and all of this information would be entered into my subconscious. Now, I can’t say whether this really worked, but I was not nearly the musician that some of the guys in the band were, and I always seemed to have the music memorized faster than anyone else.