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‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and – Confirmation – Ear Training for the Jazz Musician

Jazzed Magazine • Basic TrainingNovember/December 2017 • November 30, 2017

By Miles Donahue

The intuitive side of music is the natural ability we are born with that enables us to remember what we hear and accumulate vocabulary without benefit of intellectual study. Van Cliburn, who in 1958 and was the winner of the Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow, was only three years old when he was able to play the music his mother had just taught a student of hers mere moments after she would leave the room. As an adult, the first thing he did when learning a new piece of music was to sing the melody of the piece before beginning to actually play it at the piano. The jazz pianist Art Tatum had perfect pitch and learned to play the piano at age three by listening to the radio and his mother’s piano rolls. Neither Van Cliburn nor Tatum had taken an ear-training course to develop this ability.

Singing is the only way to improve your ear if you are not lucky enough to be born with this natural ability. Relative pitch is the ability to identify or recreate a musical note by comparing it to a reference note and to identify the interval between the two notes. Jazz musicians need this skill to create an improvised solo.

Using a keyboard, I have developed a method for improving this necessary skill:

  • Play the melody note and hold it down while you sing the next note of the song and understand/hear what the interval is.
  • Play the note you sang and check yourself for accuracy.

Sing the whole song and check to see that you have not changed keys. It is necessary to start with simple diatonic melodies such as Christmas songs, thus the title of this article: “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” If you sing a melody and you lose the key, that means you sang a wrong interval somewhere in the song and went off track. It will be necessary to go thru the song note by note and discover which interval you sang incorrectly.

The difficult news is that learning intervals is a mathematical skill that involves thinking – i.e. a minor 6th is E up to C (8- ½ steps) and a major 6th is G up to E (9- ½ steps). By singing intervals correctly, over time you will have confidence in your hearing ability, and this translates into being a better musician no matter what the music is that you are performing.

In a career spanning 50 years, New England–based bandleader, sax player, and jazz educator Miles Donahue has performed and recorded 14 albums, many of which are available on iTunes. His site,, offers an effective course for new players to learn jazz improvisation and for seasoned players to learn fresh approaches to soloing.

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