Showcase Music Magazine - Ear Training Wheels - Music Theory
March 1997

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A Guide To Ear Training, Music Theory & Composition
By Phil Kriss

The purpose of these articles will be:

1) To teach the beginner and intermediate improvising musician the basic aural (what you hear) and corresponding verbal (how you describe what you hear) concepts of music theory and ear training, while avoiding getting bogged down in traditional classical music concepts of “voice-leading,” etc, that are not essential or do not apply at all to today’s popular style of music. (If you want this info, it’s available from any member of services, including myself, and you’ll understand it better by learning the basics first, anyway.)

2) By learning the above, to improve and expand your improvising skills (eg, soloing, creating interesting bass lines under a “chord chart,” crating interesting harmonies to the singer’s melody) by giving you a complete and comprehensive understanding of:

I. Chord types, chord structures, and, a little later on, chord function (which is really helpful if you write songs, or want to, and especially when you “get stuck”),

II. Scale types and scale structure,

III. chord/scale relationships (ie, what chords and scales sound good together; again, invaluable tools for the songwriter).

3) As most improvising musicians don’t read music, to convey this information without the player having to spend a lot of time learning to read music, other than on only a very basic level; no “sight-reading” will be necessary, even as we get more advanced; it will only be necessary to transfer the very simple notation I will use from the “musical staff” to your instrument, at your own pace. (We do have to communicate somehow, you know.)

So, here’s what you’ll need to know:

Blank Staff

...consists of five lines and four spaces. To write notes that are higher or lower than the staff, ledger lines are used:
Blank Staff


If you play an instrument at all, I’m sure you know by now that notes are identified by the first seven letters of the alphabet, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and that after G, you start over again at A, one octave above.

The CLEF identifies what notes the STAFF consists of. For convenience, we will use the “Treble Clef” only. We’re learning to use our ears, not read music. (Bass players, trust me, I’m one of you. It’s easier this way.)

The TREBLE CLEF placed on the staff tells you the notes are placed as shown below.
Blank Staff

(Bass players: “middle C,” the first note shown able, is the 5th fret on you G strings; transpose down an octave to the 3rd fret on the A string of 8th fret on the E string.)


Since there are 12 notes between any letter and the same letter an octave above, but only letters, there are notes between some of the letters. (I’m sure you know there are no notes between E and F and between B and C.) These notes are indicated by the symbols below.

The SHARP -- # (usually seen as #) raises the note a “half step,” in other words, to the next available note.

The FLAT -- b (usually seen as b) lowers a note a half step to the next available note.

The NATURAL -- (that’s what it really looks like) cancels a previous Sharp or Flat. It is also used to confirm, in case of any doubts, that the note it’s in front of is, indeed, natural and not a previously altered (Sharp or Flat) note.

Work with this for a minute and you’ll see that, for instance, C# is the same at Db, D# is the same as Eb, etc. These notes are called ENHARMONIC EQUIVALENTS. So why is a note sometimes called one thing (eg, C#) and sometimes another (eg, Db)? MUSICAL CONTEXT! We’ll be discussing this very soon, so try to get comfortable with the idea that a note has more than one name.

Most of you probably already know more about reading music than I’ve given here. Those of you who understand double-sharps (##) and double-flats (bb), please forgive the oversight, for now. They are rare, and I promised to keep it simple, just so we can communicate, and get everybody “up to speed,” ‘cause we need to get to THE GOOD STUFF!

The least complex combination of sounds, of course, are two notes. The distance between these two notes, and the distinct sound associated with it, is called an INTERVAL.



Unison 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8va 9th - see graphic for placement

(Octave) (Octave & 2nd) - see graphic for placement

You can start from any note, but the traditional “theory key” is C, for a lot of good reasons; in this case, the reason is that it makes the chart visually easy, and it uses a ledger line so you’ll get comfortable with them.

What the above chart tells you is this: Any type of C (#, b or ) to ANY type of D is SOME type of 2nd. As I said, you can start anywhere; any D to any E is some type of 2nd (“SECOND”), as is any E to any F, and so on.

Any type of C to any type of E is SOME type of 3rd (“THIRD”); any C to any F, some type of 4th (“FOURTH”), etc. Keep this in mind; it will become important later.

The 9th (“NINTH”), and other intervals larger than an octave, are called “COMPOUND” INTERVALS. They have a very similar sound to the smaller interval they are compounded with, ie, a certain type of 2nd will sound very similar to the SAME TYPE of 9th, etc.



The names given to the intervals might seem somewhat arbitrary. They are traditional, and have to do with God, monks, and a guy named Guido. But they stuck around because they work really well (as we go along, you may be able to see why for yourself), so MEMORIZE them. When you’re a top-notch player, your peers will understand you, and you’ll understand them; and communication, both verbal and musical, is what makes a group of individuals into a team, or in this case, a group of players into a BAND.

Again, it is important that you MEMORIZE these names; and now we’ll get to your assignment for the month.


Memorize the names of the basic intervals (ie, unison through octave; we’ll talk about compound intervals next month). As you memorize the names, play the intervals in “block” fashion, ie, simultaneously, and “broken,” ie, one after the other (it doesn’t matter which of the two notes you start with in “broken” style, IT’S THE SAME INTERVAL, ‘cause remember, an interval is the distance between the notes.) If you play a single-note instrument, for “block” fashion record one note then play the other note over it (okay, if you’re a Jethro Tull freak, hum one note and play the other -- hot dog!)

Work on memorizing the sound of two intervals each day, this way: 1st day, unison and 8va; 2nd day, m2 and M2; 3rd day, m3 and M3; 4th day, P4 and Aug 4; 5th day, P5 and dim 5 (same as Aug 4); 6th day, m6 and M6; 7th day, m7 and M7.

Since a unison and 8va are so similar, and we’re using the Aug 4 and dim 5 on two days, you’ll see there are really only 12 intervals to memorize the names and sounds of; and these 12 basic sounds are the basis of all chords and scales, the basic of all music. Everything will be built from them, and if you can identify these 12 sounds, you have all the tools you need to expand your musical vocabulary; you’ll soon have “big ears.”

Here’s some hints to help you memorize the sounds: When you’re working with any interval, try to think of a tune you know that has this interval prominently in it. For example, the Beatles’ “Two Of Us” (first song on the Let It Be album), starts with a Major 6th.

Can’t come up with one? Try this: break down the melody of one of your favorite tunes, analyze the interval between the first and second notes of the melody, the 2nd and 3rd notes, etc, especially trying to find “leaps” in the melody, and after several melodies you should come across most of the 12 intervals. If you still don’t find a couple, you’ll end up memorizing them anyway because they seem “weird” and you’ll come across them sooner or later, because we use them all, believe me; and we’ll refer to them in our later lessons in chord structure.

Work hard, and have faith; these lessons actually get easier as we go along, not harder, and they may tear you down, but they’ll put you back together with a stronger foundation, if you stick to them.

See you hear next month.

Editor’s Note: Phil Kriss studied at Chicago Musical College, Roosevelt University studying theory composition with Tom Darter, founding editor of Contemporary Keyboard Magazine, and Ralph Dodds. In spite of, or because of, much drinking with his professors, he managed to remain on the Dean’s List until he left to continue his performance career. A hereditary illness caused him to curtail his performing career and concentrate one-on-one teaching of ear-training and composition, adapting Music Theory to all current pop and jazz improvisational and compositional styles.

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