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5 Jazz Ear Training Tips For Hearing The Extensions Of A Chord

Chord extensions, tensions, alterations, color tones, whatever you want to call them, I
am always interested!
I cant write enough about this subject because its so important for learning jazz piano.
As pianists we have the ability to create so much color, style and sophistication just be manipulating even just one note
of a standard chord voicing.
Like great painters, who know just how much royal blue to add to their paintings, great pianist knows how to stylize their
harmony by adding beautiful tensions (colors) to their chords.
Understanding how tensions work and function and ultimately hearing them is what can take
your playing and sound to the next level.
How do the greats take a plain old vanilla D7 chord and make it sound so deep and rich? How did Bill Evans make his
two hands sound like a 40 piece orchestra when he touched the keys?
These masters have such control over their harmony and they know just how to paint with these beautiful color tones
and the results are magic I tell ya!
So, how can we get control of these beautiful chords? Well, one of the first keys starts with unlocking
your musical ear.
My Ear Training Story

Just a brief backstory about me. I started classical piano lessons at the age of 8 years
old.

I had a great teacher, but he never introduced me to understanding harmony or even more importantly, how to hear to
what I was playing.
Like most young piano students, I was taught just to read notes off a page.
I developed tone, coordination, rhythm and other musical attributes but by the age of 12 I got bored and left the piano to
play drums.
After I started to write songs in my late teens I quickly realized that I needed and wanted to know more about music and
composition.
I was honest enough with myself to admit that I needed to get back to the piano and really develop my musicianship.
Despite my early piano lessons I realized that I didnt know nearly enough about music theory, harmony or even ear
training.
I knew if I wanted to be keep improving my songwriting I had to learn more about harmony.
Berklee

So, at 22 years old I enrolled into Berklee as a songwriting major (where I met Steve
Nixon, owner of freejazzlessons.com).
To say that I was initially overwhelmed at Berklee would be an understatement!
I never grew up listening to jazz, other than maybe playing Kind Of Blue in the background because I liked the sound of
it and I thought it was cool to listen to Miles.
I always thought Jazz was this far out complicated music that I would never understand.
I grew up listening mainly to pop radio and my parents never cared for jazz themselves. I was never exposed to it.
When I got to Berklee I remember being asked how to play a Db7#11 chord and feeling very ashamed because I
couldnt. More importantly, I didnt know what a #11 even sounded like!
There I was at an age where I should have already graduated from college surrounded by kids who were already worldclass jazz players and I am there struggling on hearing chords. UGH!
Yes, I could read, I could write songs, I had strong rhythm, and I could get around the keyboard well on a technical
level. But at that time I COULD NOT HEAR anything!

I knew right then and there nothing was more important than developing my ears. I wanted to hear so deeply that I would
never have to listen to something more than twice to have a fighting chance to play it back.
Forget the sheet music, this was personal! I was determined! I had a lot of work to do! Thus
began my journey.
Inspiration From Jamey Aebersold

I heard Jamey Abersold once talk about being able to really hear music and how
having great ears is not reserved for a small elite class of musical geniuses.
Rather, it can be attained by most people with the proper amount of practice.
Like if an old friend called you after many years of not speaking, you would instantly recall the tone of his or her voice.
You never forget their sound so to speak.
The same concept can be applied to music. If you can recognize a friends voice you can recognize the
sounds of chords too!
We all posses the same ability when it comes to sounds and musical tones It just starts with
actively attaching our minds ear to everything we hear.
Hearing Jamey Aebersold say this gave me confidence that if I practiced the right exercises I
could learn to train my ear too!
Since that time Ive made huge progress in my ear training and aural skills. With inspiration and some great ear training
exercises it has made all the difference!
What Ear Training Exercises Did You Do?
Here are some of the techniques that I have been using for years and still use to this day to deepen my hearing of
chords with tensions. Theyve made a huge difference in my music.
While the same amount of time could easily be spent on melodic ear training, I will focus on
harmonic ear training in this article.
I will also focus mainly on Dominant 7 chords since there are so many cool ways you can alter them to change their
sound. #9, b9 ,#11, 13 etc.
Please keep in mind that these same exercises can be applied to any type of chord though.

There are limitless ways of attaining this, but I found that for me, these methods really
helped me hear a lot more!
Lets get started training our ears!
1.) Isolate The Tension/Tensions
Heres the first exercise you can do.

Start by playing a very basic dominant chord in your left hand.

From there you can start adding basic tensions in the right hand one at a time. Play this over and over. Play
repetitively at a slow quarter note tempo and try to get used to their sound.
This can be a sterile exercise, and not very musical, but its like the bicep curl at the gym. The growth will happen with
every repetitive rep.

Remember, you are just playing these to hear what they sound like for
your ear, not to sound like a pianist.
I would recommend you start with the Dom 9 chord first. Next, you can practice hearing the Dom b9 chord. Then move
on to the Dom #9 chord, then #11, and so on.
Really be able to hear what these tones sound like deep within your musical ear. They should start to sound like a
familiar voice.
If it takes you more than 30 sec to hear each one, then do not move ahead and continue
burning the sound into your minds ear.
Caution: Do not move ahead to something more challenging out of frustration. Just be where
you are and stick with it!
Add more when you are ready to take it on.
Work your way up to all available tensions on the Dominant chord, where all alterations are present. This is not easy but
the rewards are amazing!

I still have to slow things down and isolate certain chords when listening to the greats from time to
time.
When Oscar Peterson is burning at 240bpm it can be a struggle to hear what he is doing. Its frustrating, I know!
Remember, this is a life long practice!
Part 2 Of This Ear Training Exercise

The 2nd addition to this exercise it to play these voicings in all 12 keys with tensions into a sequencer.

Record them at a slow tempo, in all 12 keys! (Great transposition training here too).

Loop this recording for 2min and bounce as an mp3.

Label the MP3 Dom7#5 chord (for example) and listen to these on repeat away from the keyboard when you
are driving, walking around, or even when asleep.
This is a great technique to burn the sounds into your soul.
2.) Understand How Chords Function!
Understanding that chords work relative to each other, and how they function in relation to each other is one of the
greatest ways to help when trying to hear whats going on harmonically.
So you can play a B minor 11. This is great! But where is it coming from or how does it function? How does it relate
to the overall chord progression when you hear it or play it?
Try to macro- hear when listening. (2-5 of the 4 chord to a 2-5 of a 6 chord with its related 2 chord for
example.)
Try to observe and listen for common motions in harmony. Chord progressions like2-5-1, 1-4-5, jazz blues chord
progressions, common jazz turnarounds, etc.
Also, remember the more you alter your dominant chords the more the chord wants to
function as a 5 chord.
This altered 5 chord will want to resolve to the 1 chord. (The Dom7#11 is the exception to this rule.)

I found that having this theoretical understanding can help a lot when I am stuck on what a pianist is playing and I cant
seem to hear it out.
Use theory to your advantage, its an added edge in training your ear!
(If you want to learn more about altered harmony check out Steves lesson on the altered scale.)
(You can also learn more about altered dominant chords by checking out thisdominant jazz piano chord lesson)
3.) Think Melodically And Sing

No, you dont have to sound like Frank Sinatra to utilize this technique! If you
are like me and do not sing too well, its ok!
I am just really talking about matching pitch of the tension to further burn the sound of it in your musical being.
I didnt implement this technique till much later, but honestly I wish I did sooner.
In taking exercise #1 above a bit further, try to match the tension with your voice out loud when playing it. This can really
help to further cement your hearing of the tone.
Play just the third and seventh of your dominant chord in your left hand (this is a tritone by the way).
Sing the tension over your tritone. Try to sing or match the pitch while hearing how the tension wants to function. Like a
#9 followed by a b9 followed the root over a C7 chord for example.
Sing the Eb to Db to C root. Tensions have tendencies, whether they want to resolve up or down. Where do they want to
move to? Hear and sing these tendencies.
This helps to think of harmony in a melodic way. Also, many times on a lead sheet when you see a
tension on a chord its often the melody!
This can really help you understand how to hear these color tones when you sing them out loud. Learn the melody!
4.) Hearing Through Patterns
Try to hear the patterns in music. Chord progressions are usually built on sequences, many of which we have heard time
and time again.
1 6 2 5 1, 2 5 1 6 , 1 4 5, etc are such common progressions, but when we start out it can still sound like dozens of
chords in a row.
Go back to that macro thinking we discussed earlier in the article.

Try hearing 2 5s as a harmonic sequence not just individual chords.


After identifying which sequence is being used then you can go back and dissect each chord and listen to what the
player is doing over the 2chord, then 5 chord etc.
Is he/she playing a 2minor7b5? A 2minor11, a Dom7th b9 #11?
Listen for the bigger chunks, and not just chord by chord. This makes hearing less daunting. Never forget your
theory when in a jam!
5.) Active Listening

Once you get bit but the listening bug there is no turning back. I suggest that
you always actively listen no matter where you are.
Try to hear the harmonic movement of a TV commercial when you are lounging around on the couch. You do not have to
be in front of the piano.
Try to transcribe the chords of the pop song that you hear being played over the speakers as you are buying your
groceries.
Come up with fun ways that challenge you to hear anything and everything at all times. Take your favorite songs and do
not use the sheet music but rather find out what they are playing simply by ear.
This technique also helps to ensure that you wont forget what you played. Reading music does not intrinsically help you
remember anything.
When you break a piece down to its elements by ear you end up owning it and it becomes
engraved in your musical being.
Final Ear Training Thoughts For The Day

There is so much that can be written on this subject of ear training . Like I said before its truly a lifetime study. It does
take time, but I know the results are guaranteed when you put forth this type of effort.
I am still using these techniques daily and as soon as I get cocky I put on something that makes me feel like a beginner
again.
Its ok, start where you are and deepen your ears each day and you will be amazed what you can start to hear! Best of
luck, and happy listening!

T H I S WA S A G U E S T P O S T W R I T T E N BY B R E T T E P S T E I N . B R E T T I S
A LO S A N G E L E S B A S E D P I A N I S T, S O N G W R I T E R A N D M U S I C

PRODUCER. BRETT

S T U D I E D I N B O S T O N AT T H E B E R K L E E C O L L E G E O F M U S I C W H E R E H E M A J O R E D
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2 Ear Training Exercises Hear Chord Progressions More Easily

This lesson is the first in a series which presents a method for learning tunes while
also developing your ear.

The tune Autumn Leaves is used as an example.

I first learned this ear training method in a masterclass taught by the great alto saxophonist, Phil Woods. Phil sat down at
the piano and played the first 8 bars of Autumn Leaves. At the end, he smiled and said, Theres the history of Western
music in 8 bars.

He was somewhat joking, but his point was that in eight bars you have harmonic motion from subdominant, to dominant,
resolving to tonic both in major and relative minor via modulation using a pivot chord.

If you really understand and can hear what is going on in these 8 bars, you are well on your
way to mastering a good deal of the Great American Songbook.

While that masterclass with Phil Woods was many years ago, I recently attended a masterclass by alto saxophonist,
Vincent Herring.

As he was discussing what he would cover in the class, he said that one thing that probably everyone in the class was
lacking was developing their ears.

He went on to discuss the exercise Phil Woods had taught him (the same one that Phil had presented in his
masterclass).

Vincent emphasized how valuable this ear training exercise had became to
him.

He said that hed gotten to the point when he was hearing a song that he didnt know, that he could hear the core of what
the piano player was playing and hear the underlying movement of the chords.

So rather than being an abstract ear training exercise, the exercises shown below are based on a well- known standard
and help to hear a very typical harmonic motion.

Once they are mastered, not only will you be able to navigate Autumn Leaves in any key, you will have
a method for learning new tunes quickly and for recognizing the harmonic motion of tunes that you may
not know.

In his masterclass, Phil Woods emphasized being able to sing and play the movement of thirds and sevenths through the
chord changes. He had the class sing the following exercise:

Ear Training Exercise 1

(click to expand in new window)

When you first look at the exercise, it seems deceptively simple. But, if youve never tried it, you may find it challenging
to sing the pitches accurately.

Start by playing the first note on the piano, and then try to sing the remaining pitches without playing any more
notes.

At the end, play the Bb on the piano and check how accurately you match the pitch. If you have never done
something like this exercise before, you may be surprised that your final pitch can be quite a bit off.

Practice slowly and hear the motion of the 7ths to the 3rds. Keep working until that final Bb you sing is perfectly in tune
with the piano.

Once you master the exercise using the first note as your reference pitch, try playing a Bb to start (the tonic of the major
key) and then try to sing through the exercise.

After that, play a G as your reference pitch (the tonic of the minor key) and sing through the exercise.

Again, the first time you do it, you may have difficulty when you change your reference pitch.

Work slowly until you can hear the notes in the context of the major key and then again in the
context of the minor key.
Hearing Chords By Singing Guide Tone Lines

This motion of thirds and sevenths through the chord changes is typically referred to as a guide tone line or more
generally as voice-leading.

Hearing the motion of these chord tones helps you quickly internalize the harmonic motion of a given tune.

It is a great way to learn new tunes quickly and as Vincent Herring pointed out, it can be a way to hear the chord
changes of a tune that you dont know (if it gets called at a jam session, for example).

After being able to sing the voice leading lines using a single note as a reference pitch, sing the lines while playing the
chords on the piano.

Beginners can use a simple voicing placing the root in the left hand and the 3rd and
7th of the chord in the right hand. More advanced players can userootless voicings.

(If you dont know these piano voicings yet you can check out Steves lesson on shell
voicings or Steves lesson on rootless voicings.)

Play through the chords slowly and listen how the voice-leading line clearly outlines the underlying harmonic motion.
Ear Training Exercise 2

Once you can sing Exercise 1 comfortably using different starting notes as a reference pitch, the challenge is to sing the
exercise through all major and minor keys around the circle of fourths.

To accomplish this task, change the chord in bar 8 to a dominant chord that modulates to the new key. For example:

(click
to expand in new window)

Again, the exercise looks simple when written out, but singing the modulation to the new key can be challenging at first.

The goal is to give yourself a single reference pitch at the beginning of the exercise and then sing through all the keys
without playing any mores notes. At the very end, check the pitch of the last note with the piano.

Youll know when you have mastered the exercise when the last note you sing is in tune with
the note you play on the piano.

Once you have mastered singing both exercises, play through both from memory on your instrument. The temptation is
to bypass the initial singing exercise and jump immediately to playing it.

The real value of the exercise comes from internalizing the harmonic motion by slowly singing
the voice leading lines.

Once you can sing them accurately, then playing them is easy. Once you can sing and play through Exercise 2, you are
well on your way to being able to play Autumn Leaves in 12 keys.

Spend time mastering these exercises as they form the foundation for the next lessons in this
series.

In another lesson we will add chromaticism to the above lines in a systematic fashion.

But as in all things, you have to walk before you can run. Learn these exercises thoroughly and then it will be easy to
embellish the exercises in the next lesson.