Master Harmonic Dictation: A Key Ear Training Exercise for Musicians

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Ever struggled to identify a note or chord in a song? I’ve been there. That’s where ear training exercises can be a game-changer. These exercises help you recognize musical elements like pitch, intervals, and rhythms by ear, enhancing your musical abilities.

Ear training isn’t just for musicians. It’s a skill that can benefit anyone who loves music. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a music enthusiast wanting to deepen your appreciation, these exercises can help tune your ear for a richer musical experience.

In this article, we’ll dive into some effective ear training exercises. You’ll learn how to practice them and how they can improve your musical ear. So, let’s get started and fine-tune our ears to the beautiful world of music.


Exercise 1: Recognizing Pitch

Now that we’ve established the basics about ear training, let’s dive into our first exercise – Recognizing Pitch. This is a foundational element to all ear training exercises. It’s so essential because it helps you distinguish between different notes merely by listening.

Take a piano for instance. It produces distinct pitches ranging from very low to very high. Each key on the piano represents a different pitch. Now it’s not essential for you to be a piano player, furthermore, you don’t even need to own a piano to understand this concept. There’s an array of free, online piano simulators available at your disposal. I’d recommend using these tools as an aid to this exercise.

To start recognizing pitch, you’ll first need to become familiar with the sound each key produces. Play different keys and take a moment to internalize the pitch they create. It may take some time and patience, but you’ll start noticing differences.

Once you’re comfortable with this, challenge yourself. Close your eyes and play a key. Can you tell the difference between a high key and a low one? The goal here is not necessarily to name the exact key you’ve played, but to be able to differentiate between distinct pitches.

If you’d like to take it a step further, learn about the musical alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) and try naming the pitches. This might seem difficult at first, but remember, ear training is about practice and patience.

Remember, no rush here. The purpose of this exercise is to attune your ear to different pitches. This is a stepping stone towards recognizing intervals, chords, and eventually, complex melodies by ear.

Progress may appear slow at times but, like any skill, the more you practice, the more you’ll improve. No shortcut here, consistency is key. Stick with it and you’ll soon discover how this simple exercise can help improve your musical ear.

Exercise 2: Identifying Intervals

Once you’ve nailed pitch recognition, you’re ready for the next step in your ear training journey: Identifying Intervals. This exercise takes you beyond the realm of single notes and into the world of relation between two notes. That relationship, my friends, is called an “interval”.

So, what is an interval? In simple terms, it’s the difference in pitch between two sounds. In music, these sounds are, of course, represented by notes.

To get started with this exercise, you’ll need a little more than an online piano simulator. You’ll also need a tool that can play notes in combination and in sequence, such as a virtual keyboard with a play-along function or a variety of free online apps designed for ear training.

Once you’ve got the right setup, start by playing two notes together or in sequence and try to identify the interval. It may sound daunting, but like most things, it’s easier than it seems. To start, focus on identifying “perfect” intervals. Perfect intervals are defined as unisons, octaves, fourths, and fifths. Why they’re called ‘perfect’ is a topic for another day, but suffice to say it’s for their consistency across different scales and keys.

While you’re practicing this exercise, don’t forget that patience is your best friend. Remember the days when you were grappling with recognizing pitches? Now, you’re a pro at that! It’s the same with intervals. With practice and patience, you’ll be able to recognize intervals, and from there, chords and complex melodies will start to sound less like a cacophony and more like music.

Another pro tip: don’t just play intervals on the piano. Try and listen out for them in songs you know and love. This will help you become familiar with the relationship between different pitched sounds in a way that’s tangible and relevant.

Exercise 3: Rhythmic Dictation

After getting a strong idea about melodic movement through intervals, let’s move on to the rhythmic aspect of ear training. Rhythmic dictation is equally important when it comes to developing a keen musical ear.

Understanding the rhythm of a song enables you to anticipate the timing of notes and phrases. It’s a key skill that every aspiring musician or singer must possess.

To begin with, I suggest using a metronome. It’s a device that produces an audible beat – a pulse, at regular intervals, which you can adjust according to your needs. The purpose here is to learn how to maintain a steady tempo. Upon getting accustomed to following a metronome, we could delve into the complexities of musical rhythms.

Start with simple rhythmic patterns. Listen to the rhythm, tap it out, and then write it down using rhythmic notation. It’s a bit challenging at first, but as with everything else in music, regular practice is the key. Online tools and apps can help you practice rhythmic dictation.

Listen to a range of music styles. Each genre, from jazz to pop, from blues to hip hop, has unique rhythmic structures. Begin recognizing the beat patterns, internalize them and then write them out.

Let’s understand some metrics here:

Genre Beats Per Minute (BPM)
Blues 60-70
Hip-hop 80-115
Jazz 120-125
Pop 100-130

This table illustrates the average bpm (beats per minute) for different music genres. These figures are not absolute but serve as a general reference point.

Make it a habit to tap out rhythms using your hands or feet while you listen to a song. Remember, rhythmic dictation isn’t limited to just theoretical learning — it’s about feeling, internalizing and reciprocating the rhythm. This exercise will work wonders in developing your musical ear.

Exercise 4: Melodic Dictation

In our journey toward becoming better listeners, we’re now ready to tackle an incredibly vital step: Melodic Dictation. This step allows us to internalize melodies and express them using written musical notation.

Essentially, melodic dictation is all about listening to a melody and then trying to write it down or play it back. This process sharpens our ability to understand and define the “tune” of a song. It’s with this exercise that we truly begin to bridge the gap between what we hear and how we reproduce it.

To perform this exercise effectively, we should start with short, simple melodies. These can be anything from nursery rhymes to famous hooks in popular songs. Listening to these tunes repeatedly and trying to note down their musical notation is a tried and tested method to improve melodic recognition.

During a melodic dictation exercise, important factors to focus on include:

  • Pitch: Are the notes high or low?
  • Rhythm: How long are the notes?
  • Intervals: What is the distance between the notes?

Being successful in melodic dictation can take time and practice, but the benefits are immense for anyone serious about developing a robust musical ear.

Given below is a simple exercise to get started:

  1. Take a known simple melody.
  2. Listen to it several times.
  3. Attempt to write down the musical notation.
  4. Review and correct it as needed.

This exercise might seem challenging at first but with consistent practice, it’ll become easier with time. That’s the beauty of ear training. Clear and confident, one step at a time, we’re developing into accomplished musicians.

Exercise 5: Harmonic Dictation

Following the path of enhancing our musical understanding, we’ll now delve into the exciting realms of Harmonic Dictation. By far, it’s one of the most crucial components in ear training and presents its own unique challenges.

Harmonic dictation aids in developing the capacity to perceive and decode the harmonies underlying any musical composition. This task is essentially synonymous with dissecting the chords, that is, breaking down the ‘vertical’ elements of music. And make no mistake, it isn’t as daunting as it sounds!

What’s fundamental here is an understanding of chord progressions and their functions. It’s a refreshing task, similar in nature to our previous exercise, melodic dictation, but adds another dimension: harmony.

So how do we start?

I suggest beginning by recognizing common chord progressions. Listen to a song or piece, preferably one that’s simple at first, and try to pick out changes in harmony. Find the places where the chords shift, and note down what you hear.

Harmonic dictation consists of picking apart chords to determine which notes are being played together. It’s the act of hearing a series of chords and being able to write them down or play them back. Remember, this might seem challenging at first, but with ample practice, harmonic dictation will soon feel more intuitive.

Here are a few steps to get started:

  • First, concentrate on the bass, as it commonly plays the root of the chord.
  • Next, try to discern the quality of the chord. Is it major, minor, augmented, diminished?
  • Then, strive to identify any added tones. Are there any sevenths, ninths, or other extensions?

You won’t grasp everything at first, and that’s alright. Be patient with yourself, and keep refining your skills. Harmonic dictation, just like other ear training exercises, is a long-term journey.

Steps Pointers
1. Bass Concentrate on it as it often plays the root of the chord.
2. Quality Discern whether the chord is major, minor, augmented, or diminished.
3. Additions Strive to identify any added tones such as sevenths, ninths,


So there you have it – the art and science of harmonic dictation, the fifth exercise in our series on ear training. It’s not just about recognizing chords, but understanding their functions and how they play into the overall composition. It’s a skill that requires patience and practice, but the payoff is immense. You’ll develop a deep understanding of music, enabling you to decode harmonies and identify chord progressions with ease. Remember, start with the basics and gradually work your way up. Listen carefully for changes in harmony and dissect chords to identify the notes being played. With time, you’ll find your musical ear becoming sharper, more attuned and ultimately, more enriched. Keep practicing, stay patient, and let your love for music guide you through this fascinating journey.