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Play What You Hear - Mega Effective Exercise Ear Training

Video Lesson

The Lesson

This exercise is something I did a lot of but never really thought about it being an 'exercise' - it was just something I did while noodling around. When I started thinking how I might help others develop the relationship between the musical mind and the hand I thought about doing this and so started doing it myself for 5 minutes a day and after just a few months I'd noticed a huge improvement, and reports back from students is that this really is the KING of ear training exercises!

And it's real simple! Just try to play a melody that you are familiar with! That's all there is to it really, although as you get better at it you might want to think about it a little more and get a bit more specific.


To introduce the idea I always recommend trying to play the Happy Birthday song - because its REALLY important that you know the melody that you will play really well, so there is no confusion in your musical mind as to how it goes. You should be able to sing it too - so give that a try first of all, and then try to play it.

How did you get on?


The first thing to note is that you should try to stay in the one position and not just run up and down one string which is how most people start off trying to get through this exercise. It's slightly harder but much more beneficial to stay in the same part of the fretboard where you can, obviously if the melody goes higher (or lower) than the notes allow in your position you'll have to move, but try to stay in the same place.

Some melodies will be easier to play in some positions than others and a great way to explore this is the finger you start with. Most commonly it will be easiest to start with Finger 1 and stay in that position, starting with Finger 4 can be more challenging but should be practised equally as much.


For this exercise, you should try to not to use embellishments on the melody - keep it straight! You'll probably find that using embellishments allows you to cheat your way through the melody if you make a mistake, which would be fine on a gig or improvisation - but as an exercise, you should try to keep the melody plain and simple and expose any mistakes you make so you can try to fix them!


I recommend that you do 5 minutes a day, 5 days a week and just play songs you know. Make a list of songs that are melodically simple and that you know really well and start playing them. If you make a mistake it's ok to work it out and try to remember how you made that interval jump for future attempts but avoid learning the whole melody.

Starting on different strings and with different fingers every time will help stop you memorising the whole melody - but you want to remember how to make the interval jumps - the rest of this Ear Training course will help with that too!

If you have time then aim for 5 minutes a day on this exercise plus 5 minutes a day working on a specific interval (singing and playing it!) that you cover in the course and maybe test yourself once every 10 days (2 weeks) and see if you're ready to step up to the next grade.

Not sure why 5 minutes (with a timer) is real important? See my Effective Practice module!


Remember that you have to know the melody in your musical mind really well - if you don't you'll need to figure it out properly, slowly, first! Of course, these are all personal - the best ones are any songs that you know really well in your musical mind.

Mary Had A Little Lamb
Frère Jacques
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Jingle Bells


Only when confident with easy songs should you try harder ones like these, and be sure to know the melody properly before you try!

Superman Theme Song

You know when someone asks your favourite songs... I just can't think now - leave me some suggestions below and I'll come back to this later!


For harder stuff it becomes REALLY important that you know how it goes in your mind of you'll be searching for the melody with your fingers rather than expressing the idea! 

Jazz Standard melodies like:
Autumn Leaves
Blue Bossa
Alice In Wonderland

Eventually, you should aim to play any song melody in any position, but that's something I still work on myself and struggle with - but that's kinda the end game! :)

Easy melodic solos like:
Sweet Child O Mine - Guns n Roses (first solo)
Moonlight Shadow - Mike Oldfield (first solo)
So What - Miles Davis (melody and solo - much harder!)

Avoid doing songs where there are very fast passages that you would have had to learn in advance.

Lesson ID: ET-053