Listening vs. Hearing: an ear training exercise

y2.d7 | that edit girlAlthough it’s not true of all church music departments, many Gospel music ministry departments learn material almost entirely by ear. Many times the choir director or music director will pass out copies of the song(s) to be learned in advance of rehearsal. What they expect, of course, is that you’ll listen to the song and be familiar with it by rehearsal time, so that the learning process will go faster.

But the truth is, most people don’t really know how to listen to a song that way. Many people take the cd home and listen to the selections, but they listen to them the way they listen to everything else. So we’re toe-tapping, nodding our heads to the beat and just enjoying the music, not really getting anything from the song that will help prepare us for rehearsal.

The music director expects you not only to listen to and become familiar with the words, but your part in the harmony as well. Many people have a very tough time hearing their part in the middle of everything else that is going on in the song. There’s the music, there’s the leader, there’s all the other voices/ parts. So, if you’re an Alto, how can you listen to a song and be expected to hear your part out of all that stuff going on?

It may sound almost impossible at first, but most people have the ability to do that very thing. All it takes is some practice. Most people don’t know how to do this simply because it’s not something they practice doing regularly. It’s not something you pay attention to when you listen to music. We all tend to listen to music in it’s totality, or to focus primarily on what or who is out front. But if you make a simple adjustment to the way you’re listening- more specifically “how” you’re listening- you’ll find that you can train yourself to pull almost any part of a song right to the front of the mix, so you year that part or that instrument more than anything else going on.

Listening Vs. Hearing

You may have seen me talk about the difference between listening and hearing a few times before, but let’s review that really quickly before I explain this little exercise. Basically, the difference between hearing and listening is the value you’re assigning to it. As you’re reading this article right now there are several sounds happening in the room. You can hear them, but you’re not listening to them. They are background noises.

However if you were to-without turning your head away from the screen- stop reading and focus on one of those sounds, then everything changes. Now you’re LISTENING to that sound. It didn’t get any louder, but you can hear it much more distinctly now simply because you’ve assigned much more value to it. You just instantly switched from hearing the sound to listening to it.

Another example I like to give when I’m teaching this relates much more to listening to a song and picking out one particular thing to focus on.

Imagine a group of children outside playing.  One of them is your own. Maybe you’re watching TV inside, but you can hear all of their voices collectively in the background playing, laughing and talking. Again, you can hear them but you aren’t listening to them. So they become part of the background noise. Your attention-your focus- is on the tv show you’re watching.

But then after about a half-hour or so you realize you haven’t heard your child’s voice out there for a while. So now you shift your focus away from the TV towards the sounds coming from outside, and you begin to listen for your child’s voice. A couple of minutes later you hear him laugh. “He’s still out there, he’s ok” you think, then you simply switch your attention back to the TV show you were listening to and the children outside go back to being background noise.

Amazing when you pay attention to it, isn’t it? But these examples prove that most all of us have this ability and it can be developed quite strongly by doing a very simple exercise when you’re playing music. Here’s what I’d like you to do!

The Exercise:

Find your favorite song-one you’ve heard a hundred times and really enjoy. I want you to play that song, but this time I want you to intentionally listen very closely to everything that’s happening. Use a pair of headphones if you like. I want you to very deliberately pick out a specific instrument or vocal part to focus on and “listen” to it. Focus on it. See if you can follow that one thing throughout the song.

Your goal is to become better and better at making that mental switch from “hearing” to “listening” any time you want, and for anything you want. If you practice this on a regular basis you’ll soon discover you can learn a song at rehearsal and then go home and listen to it on cd. Only now you can very clearly and distinctly hear your part standing out in all of the other voices and instruments being played.

Understanding vocal harmony better, learning songs faster, retaining and recalling parts longer and easier can all be accomplished by simply learning to “listen” to everything you hear. I’ve been privileged to join a group of other Christian bloggers who support each other by reading and commenting on each other’s blogs. I love their comments because they always share with me how my article applies to some other aspect of our Christian walk.

In another article I wrote recently on the subject of hearing vs. listening a subscriber wrote to me after reading it, very emotional. He told me that even though the article was obviously about music, it possibly just saved his marriage. He said God had revealed to him through the article how he had been hearing his wife but not listening to her. I shared that to say that even if this is something you don’t think you need in your music ministry, it’s a very powerful skill to learn. It’s one that you’ll use over and over again in many aspects of your life you might think have absolutely nothing to do with music.

So try it! You only thought you were listening to your music. Try this and you’ll start hearing all kinds of things you didn’t know were there.




If you can count to 5, you can harmonize! Here’s how.

Today I’m going to cover something I hear a lot of people having trouble with. That is, how to understand harmony.

Many people are still having trouble harmonizing with others or being able to find their part. It’s a skill that takes some time but definitely one that can be learned for most people. The key though is not learning how to hear and memorize your part. The key is understanding the basics of how common 3 part harmony is built. Today I’m going give you a “paint-by-numbers” way of starting to understand how harmony works.
First let’s think about the major scale in music. You know, the one that goes “Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do”. That’s the major scale, and it works that way in every single key. Now, hear that scale in your mind. Let’s get rid of the “do re me” stuff and just sing the scale on something simple, like “Ahh”. Go ahead and sing that scale out loud so you can hear yourself doing it.

Now here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take every note of that scale and assign it a number from 1 to 8. In other words, in stead of “Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do”, you’ll think/sing 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 8. Now, in music the note we sing on number 8 is the same as the note we sing on number 1. So we just call it 1 again, instead of 8. Got it? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1.

Harmony is created by playing notes together at the same time in a way that sounds pleasing to the ear. Usually to get that pleasing sound we skip one or more notes between the notes being played. To get different sounding harmonies, we just change how many notes we skip between each note. Now, let’s go back to the numbers again.

Think about the major scale using the words; Do Re Me. Now let’s take out the word Re, and leave just “Do and “Me”. If you played that on a piano or had a friend to sing “me” while you sing “do”, you’d have perfect 2-part harmony! But we can make this even easier to understand by using numbers instead of words to represent the notes.

So instead of thinking “Do __ Me”, think 1_3. In music we call these spaces between the notes “intervals”. We name these intervals by simply counting the notes, beginning with the first one. So in our example above we would call that harmony a “third”. We get that by simply counting to 3. Instead of “do re me”, it’s 1, 2, 3.

So when someone is singing the melody line of a song, you can quite often find the harmony by simply counting 3 notes up from where they’re singing. Think about the major scale again, using numbers. Now, think of notes 1, 3 and 5. If you played or you and 2 friends sang these three notes together you would have a perfect triad; a chord with 3 notes.

Well, a triad is really just a chord made up of two thirds stacked back to back. Let’s look at a song that will help you hear this “third” in action. Remember the old song ” Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore”? If you take just the first 2 words, you can hear that 1, 3, 5 happening in the first 2 syllables of Michael combined with the word “rowed”.

“Kum-ba-Ya” is another example. “Kum-Ba-Ya” = 1, 3, 5! If you went to a piano or keyboard, you could easily create a third by simply playing the “C and E” together. This sound is very common in harmony and very easy to recognize. Very often in 3 part harmony the chord being sung is just a combination of two “intervals”. Usually it’s two 3rds or a 3rd and a 4th. What’s a 4th? You can find it the same way we found the 3rd. Think of the major scale again. Start from 1 and count the notes to number 4. Now, sing the 1 and the 4 and leave the 2 and 3 out.

A great song to hear that interval really clearly is “Hear Comes The Bride”. The space between the word “Here” and “Comes” is a 4th. You can find the 5th the same way. Think of the line from the Christmas song that goes “Do You Hear What I hear?” The space between “do you” and “hear” is a 5th. These 3 intervals; the 3rd, the 4th and the 5th, are the most commonly used in harmony. They account for almost all of the harmony we encounter in most choir and praise and worship harmony that uses 3 parts.Understanding what these spaces are and being able to recognize them by ear is the first step to really understanding harmony.

Because once you understand them you can listen to another singer and almost instinctively hear exactly what interval you need to add to the note he’s singing to harmonize with him. Here’s an example: If I started singing “I shall not, I shall not be moved”, you could listen to the note I started that word “I” on, count to 3 from there and sing that note for your “I”. You would instantly create a perfect 3rd, just like that!

Do you need help teaching parts to your choir or praise team? Maybe you’re a great director or musician, but teaching parts just isn’t your thing and you don’t have anyone else to do it. I’d love to help! I’m currently doing just that for 3 choirs locally now, and have space for about 2 more at this writing.

How does it work? Simple. Send me links to the songs you need taught, tell me where to be and when, and I’ll come in and teach your songs for you. Great for special occasions, musicals, etc. Or even just regular rehearsals. I can only take a couple more though, so if you’re interested and you live in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area reach out to me via the Contact Us link at the top of the page.

Happy harmonizing!