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Unlock Your Jazz Guitar Playing With Ear Training

jazz guitar ear training

As a jazz guitarist, your most vital tool is your ear. Specifically, your ability to identify intervals and chords will ultimately determine your improvisational capacity, all other things being equal.

One of the ultimate goals of every jazz musician is to be able to play what he or she hears internally, with little to no perceptible disconnect between the pure ‘flow’ of internal creativity and the external output of flawless technique founded upon countless hours of functional practice and repetition.

Let’s take a quick look at how to unlock your jazz playing with ear training, starting with basic interval identification.

Identifying Intervals: Major, Minor, Augmented and Diminished

An interval is simply the measurement of the distance between two notes. In classical pedagogy, a harmonic interval occurs when two notes are performed at the same time, while a melodic interval occurs when two notes are played successively. Lastly, it’s important to note that there are two parts to any interval name: the numerical name and the modifier that precedes the name. The numerical name measures the vertical distance between notes on the staff, while the modifier describes the interval quality, which we will discuss below.

There are four basic possibilities for intervals: major, minor, augmented and diminished. Major intervals follow the key signature for a given major scale. For example, in the key of C major there are no sharps or flats, so C to D is a major 2nd, C to E is a major third, and so on.

When any major interval is lowered by ½ step (1 fret), it becomes minor. Thus, in the key of C major, if we lower the third degree of the scale, ‘E’, to ‘Eb’, the interval is said to be a minor third. Likewise, if we lower the sixth degree of the C major scale, ‘A’, to ‘Ab’, the interval becomes a minor 6th.

Augmented and diminished intervals function in a similar way; when any major interval is raised by ½ step, it becomes augmented. When any minor interval is lowered by ½ step, it becomes diminished.

Now that we’ve discussed the basic possibilities for intervals, let’s apply these same possibilities to triads and chords.

The Difference Between Triads and Chords

There tends to be some confusion surrounding the difference between triads and chords, so let’s clarify: triads are the building blocks of chords in traditional western tonal music. The name ‘chord’, in a general sense, simply refers to any collection of three or more notes sounded simultaneously, regardless of the harmonic basis. That being said, a triad refers to a three-note chord composed of a 5th divided into two superimposed 3rds.

While it is possible to find chords that are composed of various harmonic structures such as 4ths, 5ths, microtones and others, the harmonic language of jazz and western music that we are currently concerned with is tertian in nature, i.e., based on triads.

Now it’s time to apply the aforementioned intervallic possibilities to triads, which will be invaluable to the jazz guitarist as a means of ear training.

jazz guitar ear training lesson

Major and Minor Triads

Both major and minor triads share a common note; the perfect 5th. This is easily seen when we spell out the notes of both forms. For example, C major is C-E-G, while C minor is C-Eb-G. Accordingly, we can see that the 5th, ‘G’, never changes between major and minor; rather, it is only the third that determines the difference.

Augmented and Diminished Triads

Unlike major and minor triads, both the 3rd and the 5th are altered in augmented and diminished triads. Just as the name suggests, in an augmented triad, we augment, or increase the 5th by ½ step. Thus, C augmented is spelled C-E-G#. By the same token, in a diminished triad, we diminish, or decrease the 5th by ½ step. Accordingly, C diminished is spelled C-Eb-Gb.

Quick Tip: There is a special progression of intervals that must be followed in naming triads. A triad must be minor before it can become diminished (both forms indicate lowered notes), while a triad must be major before it can become augmented (indicating raised notes).

How do we apply this knowledge to actually improve our improvisational ability? We need to start with the most basic recognition of color in harmony: hearing the difference between major and minor. Read on to learn how to fine tune your harmonic ear.

Hearing the Difference Between Major and Minor

The best way to attune your ear to major and minor harmony is to practice playing root position triads, alternately raising and lowering the 3rd. Close your eyes while practicing, really focusing on the quality of the sound.

Once you can accurately identify major and minor triads in root position, practice inversions, starting with the 3rd or the 5th in the bass. Next, you’ll want to move to 7th chords, which are the building blocks of jazz harmony.

Functionally, a minor triad or 7th chord will tend to move to a dominant 7th chord to form a II-V-I cadence, while major triads and 7th chords will tend to move to chords built on the 2nd, 4th, 5th or 6th degrees of the scale. Make sure to spend plenty of time distinguishing movements from major and minor 7ths to dominant 7ths, as these changes will form a large percentage of the progressions in the jazz repertoire.

Using Cliches In Ear Training

In a genre as diverse as jazz, why is it important to practice harmonic cliches? Put simply, because cliches help you remember things.

We want to have a large repository of variations on the II-V-I in linear melodic, arpeggiated and chordal forms so that we don't have to consciously think about what we're playing during our improvisations. Conscious thought is the enemy of improvisational freedom for the jazz guitarist.

Let’s talk briefly about how to test your progress with ear training.

How to Test Your Progress

There are several ways to make sure that your ear is becoming more attuned to varied harmonic forms:

  • Have a friend play major, minor, augmented, and diminished intervals, triads, and 7th chords, listening with your eyes closed and checking your responses as you go.
  • Record the aforementioned forms yourself, then play them back, performing a self-check.
  • Use popular tunes such as “Green Dolphin Street” which contain harmonic cliches, and practice playing along to the recordings.

Remember, as you train your ear by experimenting with various intervallic and harmonic forms, your technique will also improve by virtue of physical repetition.

Soon enough you'll find your hands and ears running the show, propelling your playing to new improvisational heights! Good luck, and may your ear never lead you astray!

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