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!

How to never forget your key again

Even for those of us who have been singing in the choir or on the praise team for years, remembering all these different parts for all these different songs can be a challenge. But don’t you ever wonder how the person who teaches all the songs can remember all that stuff? How can they remember every part for every section for 6 different songs, when you’re having trouble just remembering yours? (lol) . To tell you the truth, we don’t. It would be very, very difficult indeed if we were actually memorizing every note of every song for every section.

Choir directors, parts teachers and music ministers/directors have simply trained their ears to listen to and understand harmony in a different way than most people. In an average 3-part harmony song (which is typically how harmony is structured in most Gospel songs) the instructor can hear all 3 parts together and then listen again and hear all 3 parts separately, singling out soprano, alto and tenor at will. Sound pretty amazing?
Well what if I told you most people reading this blog could learn to do the same thing? In fact I’ve proven this with members of my own choir who have, over the years, learned how to almost anticipate what their part will be before I teach it to them. The secret to never forgetting your part is to stop trying to “memorize” it in the first place. Sounds crazy, I know. But that’s exactly how people like me can teach the soprano part, the alto part and the tenor part for 6-10 songs all in the same rehearsal with no sheet music.

The key to retaining your parts is moving from memorizing to understanding harmony. Listening to and understanding how your part works and moves with the other parts to form the harmony. It’s very hard, for example, to remember your part and only your part if you try to do so by blocking out everyone else’s. It’s kinda like being in the middle of the ocean and all you can see is water in every direction. You have no point of reference; nothing to guide you or give you direction. For the song teacher, every part we teach is a point of reference that tells us what the next part will be.

In every song we sing, there are tons of these little points of reference happening all the time. Little directional pointers that tell us exactly where to be, what note to sing, how to know what note is coming next. The average person hears them but just doesn’t pay attention to them. The difference in the average person and those who teach songs to them, is that the teachers have taught themselves to listen to all of those little things and make use of them to remember all those parts.

So how does this help you, and how can you use this to get super-good at learning and memorizing your keys? Very simple. You do it by training your ear to listen to everything that you hear. This is a technique I use to teach “tone-deaf” (I put that in quotation marks because very few people in the world are actually tone-deaf) people how to sing on pitch. The same technique works for teaching someone how to get really good at hearing, understanding and retaining their part in harmony arrangements. To understand it better, let’s take a brief look at the difference between listening and hearing.

Imagine for a minute that you’re watching tv. It’s a Spring day, the windows are up and there’s a nice breeze. Outside you can hear children playing, maybe dogs barking. You can hear them, but you aren’t listening to them. You’re listening to the tv. Now imagine one of the children yells out your name. Immediately your brain switches the tv to the background and the noise outside becomes your focus. You can still hear the tv, but now you’re not listening to it. You’re listening to the children outside.

Do you see the difference? The difference between hearing something and listening to it is the value that you assign to it. You can hear things happening all the time that you aren’t listening to. When you begin to focus your attention on something with the intent of assigning some kind of value to it, now you’re listening to it. Each of us has the ability to learn to do this very deliberately, any time we want. To do so you simply have to learn to “listen” to everything that you hear.

This is the key to really understanding and retaining your part once you’ve learned it. When you try to memorize your part by isolating it and blocking out everyone else’s so you can “focus” on yours, you’re basically putting yourself back in the middle of the ocean. It will always be hard for you to memorize a random series of notes when you have nothing to go on or no direction to help you know where to go.

But when you begin to really listen to not only your part but how your part sounds with the other two parts, you’ll begin to develop a completely different understanding of your part. Soon you’ll notice all kinds of little ques that tell you exactly where you should be and where to go next. The better you get at listening to all that you hear, your ears will even start to encompass the band in that process. You’ll start to hear places where the organist or the bass player plays the same note that you sing on a certain word or point in the song. Now you’re not only listening and focusing on your part alone, but your part as one small piece of the whole musical arrangement.

Give it a try right now. Put on your favorite song. Play it first, listening only to the lead vocalist. Then play it again, this time deliberately making the effort to listen only to the background singers. Over time if you listen to music this way all the time, you’ll get to the point where you can start to actually drill down to and pick out individual parts in the harmony.

Having a hard time figuring out the parts to a song you have to teach soon? Let’s team up! You can book coaching time with me by the hour or in packages. Let’s get on Skype and work through the song together. I’ll help you figure out the parts and give you pointers on how to get better at teaching songs  to your group. Book one-on-one coaching with me here.