The Importance of Ear Training in Audio Production

Most aspiring audio producers have heard more seasoned professionals talking about having “an ear” for music, but not all of them fully understand what that means. Ear training is critical for audio producers and artists in any genre because it’s a skill that helps with making music. Some industry professionals do manage to get by without honing their auditory skills, but it’s by far the harder and more limiting route to take.

Luckily, ear training doesn’t have to be a headache. In fact, it can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of improving your production abilities. It’s something you can do almost anywhere at any time as long as you have the mindset and general idea. That’s all an aspiring producer needs to use the external stimuli around them, like music on the radio, the person busking on the corner, or even ringtones and advertisement jingles, and transform them into learning tools. For audio producers who already have a laundry list of things to work on and new skills to acquire, this is bound to be good news.

What is Ear Training?

Ear training is the process of learning to take the musical information that you hear and transform it into notes and chords. This often takes the form of learning each interval in basic major and minor scales, listening to them repeatedly, and practicing to identify what each one is. More advanced ear training can involve more complex scales like modes and melodies that don’t always stay within the bounds of the given scale, using accidentals called sharps and flats.

Like any skill, it’s something that you get better at over time. This is why experienced audio producers can pick out a chord progression instantly when they hear a new song, while those who are just starting out usually have to replay the track several times and take notes as they go. It might seem discouraging at first when your listening skills aren’t developing as quickly as you’d like them to, but it’s important to remember that no industry professional got to where they are overnight.

One of the many upshots of having this ability to easily transcribe the music you hear into standard musical notation is that someone can read and then perform music. Whether you’re performing covers or trying to analyze your favorite records so you can better understand the producer’s intent and style, ear training makes musical work more efficient and opens up numerous creative opportunities.

For those who have little to no experience in ear training, trying to bridge the gap between the music written on a page of sheet music or in chords and tablature with the way it sounds in their head is often extremely difficult. Some do manage to find success that way, but they are certainly in the minority, and they have countless more obstacles to overcome. It’s the audio producers with fine-tuned ears that can pick out the best tracks, make the most interesting and compelling musical decisions, and put out work faster and on a regular basis without working late into the night.

Why is Ear Training Important?

The importance of ear training can’t be overstated. Many young producers neglect the skill simply because they don’t understand what it is, how to hone it, and why it’s so valued in the industry. It’s important to note that most successful people in the music industry have ears that are highly attuned to music, and it didn’t happen by accident. While most people working in the industry naturally gain the talent over time just by being exposed to music and analyzing it on a regular basis, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single industry professional who didn’t spend at least part of their time training their ears.

If you aren’t able to pick out chords and melodies just by listening to music, you’d better start practicing the keyboard because that’s where you’ll be spending a lot of your time. Audio producers who “don’t have a good ear,” which simply means that they haven’t practiced the skill, usually have to go back and forth between the stereo and the piano or sit hunched over with one ear buried deep in their headphones. It then becomes an arduous process of trial and error to get the right combination of notes and chords, stabbing in the dark just to figure out how a certain song is performed.

This same process is much less painful to watch when you have an audio producer with trained ears. This producer has practiced identifying what every interval and chord type sounds like, and through that practice, can pick them out quickly and reflexively as soon as they hear the song. This audio producer can then start to analyze the piece in their head without having to write anything down, making a task that would have otherwise taken hours only last a few minutes. These types of audio producers can maximize their efficiency and workflow, so they spend more time putting out records and not getting stuck in the technical aspects of the work.

What are Some Techniques to Improve Listening Skills?

It’s nice to hear that ear training doesn’t have to always feel like work. A huge amount of your practice can be done using your favorite playlists and breaking down the artists that you love. The key is to take the music from simply a source of entertainment and make it something you can creatively analyze. The better you get at the basics of hearing intervals and chord progressions, the more complex music you’ll be able to hone your ear on.

When starting to train your ear, choose a song that’s as simple as possible. It’s tempting to start with the most ambitious records so you can absorb those artists’ influences as quickly as possible, but if your ear is simply not developed enough, it’ll be like hearing a foreign language. There are plenty of simple tracks in hip hop and pop that do a lot with basic musical ideas, and those are the best places to start.

Sometimes it’s good to go back to basics, although it might not be the most fun. It’s still a simple process of hearing the different intervals played, learning what they are and how they fit into the scale, getting used to how it feels and what emotion it might be used to convey in the full context of a song. Then, practicing the identification of those intervals without any prompting. You don’t even need to have any form of musical instrument to do this, although it might be a good idea to download a free piano app just for the visual experience.

How Ear Training Helps a Producer Hear

Chords and intervals are a substantial part of what audio producers are listening for when they’re putting their ear training to work. However, that’s just scratching the surface. The chords and scales themselves can be modified to create more complex musical situations and more interesting compositional choices, and advanced ear training is necessary to follow those deviations.

Beyond that, training the ear is also important in order to identify different instruments in a mix. Choosing the right voice for the right line is essential in order to maximize the instrumentation that you’re working with and elicit a specific feeling. You can train your ear to pick out specific instruments right away, and you then have the ability to refer back and use it in your own mixes when your ear tells you that the occasion calls for it.

Ear training is key to picking out the highs and lows of a mix that casual listeners often don’t hear. Although everyone would technically hear the crowded, sloppy nature of a bass part, an untrained ear might not identify what’s throwing off the song. With proper ear training, audio producers can quickly identify problems like that, correct or remove them, and wind up with a record that worms its way into listener’s heads instead of getting lost and forgotten about.

What Apps, Software, and Tools Can Help Supplement Ear Training?

For those who don’t have their own instruments, there’s a long list of programs to help you get better at hearing tunes and progressions. Tenuto, Teoria, EarMaster, and Soundgym are just a few great examples. Because of the importance of this skill, more apps are being created all the time, so there are always new programs to help keep you engaged with your auditory practice.

Apps are great for ear training because they gamify the process, you’ll start challenging yourself without even realizing it, striving to beat your previous high score. That competitive nature is what drives many up-and-coming audio producers to push themselves that much harder and farther, and their ears definitely benefit from it.

Just by downloading one of these applications, you can train your ears anywhere you go and constantly improving your production and musical abilities, which can only broaden your musical horizons.

Final Thoughts

It is important to take the time to train your ears for music and sound. However, this is only one of the many techniques you will learn in an audio production program. Take the time to train your ear now and you can go back to the fun part, making unique and interesting music.

Audio Production Program

Ready to get into audio production and start training your ears? The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.