Warning: Declaration of thesis_comment::start_lvl(&$output, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker::start_lvl(&$output, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /nfs/c07/h04/mnt/108414/domains/saxophonetribe.com/html/wp-content/themes/thesis_185/lib/classes/comments.php on line 0

Warning: Declaration of thesis_comment::end_lvl(&$output, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker::end_lvl(&$output, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /nfs/c07/h04/mnt/108414/domains/saxophonetribe.com/html/wp-content/themes/thesis_185/lib/classes/comments.php on line 0

Warning: Declaration of thesis_comment::start_el(&$output, $comment, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker::start_el(&$output, $object, $depth = 0, $args = Array, $current_object_id = 0) in /nfs/c07/h04/mnt/108414/domains/saxophonetribe.com/html/wp-content/themes/thesis_185/lib/classes/comments.php on line 0

Warning: Declaration of thesis_comment::end_el(&$output, $comment, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker::end_el(&$output, $object, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /nfs/c07/h04/mnt/108414/domains/saxophonetribe.com/html/wp-content/themes/thesis_185/lib/classes/comments.php on line 0
Ear Training

Ear Training

listening_headphones_PaintingEar training can be a challenge, especially if you have mostly learned by reading.

Ear training generally means learning music from recordings for me. You can learn things from live recordings, but you generally won’t have the option to ask them to repeat something! If you have the recording and the right tools, you can slow things down too.

It involves getting the rhythm, notes, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, and everything else involved in music.

When you want to learn something by ear and then look at the music, you’ll ‘get it’ quickly. You might feel like you really have it and can play it by memory, but if you hadn’t looked at the music it would have taken you longer to figure it out.

The thing is, that longer time and the struggle enables you to learn things better.

You’re far more likely to remember something if you struggle while learning.

If you’re learning music on saxophone and want to play something, try playing a note that you think you hear. You might be off by two octaves. But once you play it, you should hear a difference. Then if you play a second note, it ought to be closer using what you have learned. If you try to instantly guess what the note is and have no experience learning music by ear, you might feel overwhelmed and not even try to play a note, simply giving up.

First Exercise:

Figure out the note (singular) and rhythm of this jam at NAMM. It’s played once, you then hear some solos- use that time to get a feel for the song and maybe noodle around with some notes. Then try playing along when the line comes back. I’ll let you know what the note is at the end if you haven’t figured it out yet.


Being familiar with the intervals will help in ear training. Knowing all the major scales is a good early step. And becoming familiar with the individual intervals. Minor second, major second, minor third, major third, etc. The intervals that are closer together tend to be easier to hear, so a major second compared to a major 9th.

There’s a website with a tool for practicing intervals that I highly recommend:



And go to the exercises section

Looking at the sheet music will give you the answer instantly all at once. If you were working with a saxophone teacher, he or she could probably give you the first note and then let you work from there. It would give you a starting point. And if you got off track, you might learn from the teacher where exactly you got off track.

Here are four easy melodies to practice (zip file, right click and save as)

Work on those and get them, let me know how it goes and I’ll get you some more.

Here’s a visual breakdown of a melody, start with this one.  Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (by Mozart)

Visually it would look something like this, seven notes in the first phrase that you can see in that first group, etc.

The first note is C on your saxophone (C on alto for the alto version, C on tenor for the tenor version)

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – Rhythm and Articulation

twinkle_twinkle_tenor (mp3, right click and save as)

twinkle_twinkle_alto (mp3, right click and save as)

Then try these lessons in the order listed.  Get the notes, but also pay attention to the rhythm, phrasing, & articulation.  Let me know if you have questions!

Part 1: It Don’t Mean a Thing ‘solution’

Part 2: Godfather Theme Lesson ‘solution’

 Part 3: In the Hall of the Mountain King ‘solution’

Continuing with ear training

Got asked a few years back if I knew the tune Jamaica Farewell.  Didn’t at that point.  But learned it after I got back home from a trip.  This tune doesn’t start on beat 1.  In either recording I start on A.  More information as you follow the steps.

Jamaica Farewell Broken Down

I like this tune a lot, my friend’s uncle asked me if I could play it, I couldn’t at that point, so I learned it.  Played in different keys on alto and tenor.  Slowed down.  Try it out!

Sonny Rollins Solo from Tenor Madness.  Sonny Rollins played with John Coltrane on this track.  They both played good stuff, Sonny Rollins style is something that I connect a little better with.

rollins_solo_first_few_parts_saxophone_tribe_slow (mp3, right click and save)

So What Solo, First Chorus (Miles Davis)



Nina Simone’s Birthday was February 21, 1933.  Decided to learn a solo from one of her songs, ‘Sugar in My Bowl’

The solo is on tenor sax and isn’t very long, maybe 8 measures.  What’s challenging is the tone and effects that the sax player uses.  He bends the notes a lot almost so they sound like other notes, but he’s not out of tune.  There are some falls too.

First note is Eb, second note is F.  That should be enough to get you started.  Those notes are concert Db and concert Eb.  So for alto sax they would be Bb and C.

Here’s my recording playing it slowly.

Sugar in My Bowl Tenor Solo (mp3 file, right click and save as)

Check out the original, it’s at about 1:13.


Learn any song you want

This section is slightly secret, but not really.  If you worked through the lessons above, you would naturally make your way here.  Or if you randomly scrolled to the bottom of this page.

Sometimes the hardest part about learning music by ear is getting started.  Try the tunes listed above, you can also request help with any song you want to learn here.

‘My Girl’ by the Temptations

Melvin asked about this one.  My Girl seems to stay in D major (on tenor).  That’s C major (concert) or A major on alto.

First four notes are F#, E, F#, D.  “I’ve got sunshine” – sunshine being those last two notes.

Then D E D B A.  The first two notes are fast, ‘on a’ clou – dy day.

C# B C# A
A B A F# E

E, D, E, C
C, D, C, A, G

 Bessie’s Blues by John Coltrane

Jerry wanted to learn this one, here are the first two groups of three notes.

A F Eb
D Bb Ab

E C Bb
A F Eb

Take the A Train- Ellington/Strayhorn

Samuel wanted to learn this one, here are the first two notes.  Get those first then let me know if you get stuck. Melodies tend to be a little easier to figure out than solos.

A F#

E C#

Everything I Do I Do For You

Des wanted to learn this one for his wife.  Lyrics for this first part are “look into my eyes”

G G# G F G F Eb

D Eb D C D C Bb

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

KT July 29, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Can you, meaning can it be done, explain why my friends / neighbors tell me how good it sounds when I am just messing around with fingering, long notes, slides, and not playing a song or reading music? I do know the notes and the fingering; fingering is smoother since daily Lindeman?.

What should I change? My neighbors?


Neal July 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Hey Kate,
A person can sound good by just playing a note. You want to be able to do that actually. It has to do with your tone.

My grandma sometimes hears me warm up on sax, and she enjoys it, even though I’m not playing melodies.

Sounds like you’re just progressing on the instrument.


KT August 3, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I got music for ballad with SLOW tempo: Don’tCry for Me Argentina. It has a play along cd. Easy as it is, following cd is harder for me than site reading. In this case, could it be main melody is familiar but sections where vocalist would breathe are not? It feels like a logical extension of Lindeman . I want to really learn it well.

Should I try listening to the version I know?


Neal August 5, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Hey Kate,
Cool, maybe I’ll try learning that one too. You might listen to the version you know since it’s more familiar and you’re learning the tune by ear. See how it goes at least.

And yes, the Lindeman helps with pretty much everything.


KT October 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Hi Neal,

I like the short segments of songs. It helps me to stick to the music. I improve more when I play entire songs.

The last 4 were hard to open because I am often on my iPad. Had to go to laptop to open the zip file.

Can you go back to links in case I am not at home or my laptop is not charged?

I try to play daily and if I travel without my sax, I can get some time in listening to the play by ear listings.


Neal October 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Hey Kate, thanks for letting me know about that. Hadn’t really thought about the zip file issue initially. How are they going?


KT October 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm

You are right. I skipped Jamaica Farewell and got stuck on Fjords. I will do one of those before my plan/goals I sent earlier.


Neal October 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Cool, let me know how they go.


Bengt January 22, 2013 at 5:55 am

What E-mail address should we use when we send mp3-files?


Neal January 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm
Sandy February 2, 2013 at 3:03 am

Hi Neal, two things. Firstly thanks for the address of the musictheory.net website. Some really helpful stuff in it for me.
Also Bessies Blues in on my list for 2013. I normally use the first note method to play by ear. I get the recording of the number on CD and replicate the first note on my Tenor, then trial and error from there on. But knowing the first phrase as you suggest is more helpful since with Bessies Blues its also gives you some suggestion of the style of the song ( especially with the Eb, Bb and Ab).


Neal February 2, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Glad that’s helping, I thought it was a pretty cool site. Met someone randomly a few weeks ago who is friends with the guy who made it, he’s an engineer at Apple, which isn’t too far away.

I have been thinking about that more, and it seems like getting the first phrase of a song helps a lot with the momentum of learning something. It gives you an idea of the scales used too. And once you have learned more by ear, you’ll be able to get those first notes faster.


Bengt February 3, 2013 at 6:34 am

Hi Sandy and Neal,
Re Bessie’s blues. In what key do you play it? I play it in F (as suggested in the Real Book).
It is one of the songs I play every day. But I still have problems with the basics: beats6/7 from Bb (2 Bb 1/8) to a Ab (1/4) to F (1/8) and the to A (1/8 etc). I also want to improve the introduction to the repetition: C, G, A Bb, C…A.
I wrote this because I want to improve my ability to communicate with the group I am in.


Sandy February 4, 2013 at 5:18 am

Hi Bengt, I play Bessies in Fmaj ( for Tenor Sax) This makes the concert key as Ebmajor. You may want to listen to Coltrane playing it on utube to get the feeling of his phrasing.


Neal February 4, 2013 at 11:41 am

Thanks Sandy, good suggestion.

Bengt February 4, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Hej Sandy, Nice of you to suggest watching and listening to Coltrane playing Bessies Blues on Youtube. I hadn’t thought of that alternative. I will do it immediately!!. He plays it in Fmajor?

Neal February 4, 2013 at 11:41 am

What problems do you have with those parts? Do you come in late/early?


Bengt February 4, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Hej Neal, I feel I am a bit slow in beats 6/7 and have a problem to fit the introduction to the repetition: C, G, A Bb, C…A. After practicing a little more I will send it to you.

Vijai May 3, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Hey Neal,

After a while spend some time going through the website today and felt very interesting to read lots of different post. Whenever I feel lost the motivation spending sometime here re-charge 🙂
I asked many times in emails about playing by ear – as you suggested spent on practising all 12 major scales in different speed, you mentioned once if we know major scales its easy to play the minor scales. What is the next step to do that? Also how to play songs if we can sing the song? For example the ‘Oh Butterfly’ song (recording I sent) I think if I listen through microphone and play I nearly get the first 3 lines looking at the music sheet however I am still not confident to play without looking the notes. How to improve play by ear?


Neal May 3, 2013 at 9:45 pm

Hey Vijai,
Good to hear that.

Try to ask questions one at a time…..

The scales help, but you don’t need to learn all the major scales before you start learning music by ear.

Spend some time working on learning melodies by ear everyday and it will become easier. Start with tunes that are simple, in terms of notes and rhythm.

Try this lesson, which I just wrote out. https://saxophonetribe.com/learning-songs-by-ear/

How much time are you spending learning melodies by ear in your daily practice?

It can be easy to get distracted practicing mostly scales or technique, and those things are important, but you want to work on things like learning songs by ear too.

If you can sing a song, you should be able to play it on saxophone. The reverse isn’t always true though. It may be very slow, but you should be able to play anything you can sing on saxophone.

Part of it is being comfortable with the technique of playing saxophone, but it’s probably just not happening as quickly as you want it to. So slow down and work on it. If you can sing it, you should be able to play it! Could take a while though, keep that in mind. But the process will speed up.

For the minor scales question, try playing some ‘Dorian’ scales, major scales started on the second note of the major scale, so start on D and play a C scale. D E F G A B C D. Listen to what that sounds like.



Neal February 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Hey Bengt,
It sounds like you’re aware of what the problems are. What stops you from fixing these things?

Send me a recording if you like and I can help you figure it out.




Bengt February 5, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Hej Neal! Just practice, I suppose. And listening to Coltrane performing it.


Neal February 5, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Both good ideas. Listen a lot


Leave a Comment