One of the most important skill any musician can have is the ability to recognise what they’re hearing. This will enable you to figure out songs, chord sequences, riffs & solos without having to resort to TAB. Yes, I know there are plenty of TAB sites on the web, but there are a lot of inaccurate TABS out there too. Oh, and what about that originals band from your neighbourhood you’ve just joined – is their stuff going to be on Ultimate Guitar.com? Sure, you could just ask the other guys in the band what’s going on in the song, but if you turn up for the audition having learned the songs without any help, then that’s a tick in your “plus” column which might just get you the gig.
In addition to being able to learn songs, recognising what you’re hearing is a great help when improvising, too. Being able to hear what the other musicians around you are doing allows you to tailor your reactions accordingly, instead of just playing the generic “safe” blues scale/pentatonic. In short it makes you a better musician if you can tell what is going on musically around you. It’s like being a better conversationalist if you are able to hear what people are saying to you. Sure, you can talk without listening, but you can do it a lot better if you’re hearing what’s being said.
One of the most important parts of being able to recognise what you hear is recognising intervals, or distances between notes (measured in semitones, or “frets” on the guitar). The way I learned to do this was to get a bunch of “interval templates” memorised – these are simply familiar intervals which everyone can call to mind. For example, you probably have some vague notion of what an octave sounds like – it’s two notes separated by eight steps of a major scale, or twelve steps of the chromatic scale, right? But can you “hear” it in your “mind’s ear”? If not (or even if you think you can), then just think of the 1st two notes in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. That really nails it, doesn’t it? You now have a template for a one octave (12 fret) interval.
Hear are the rest of the ones that I use (including the example just mentioned):
Octave (12 frets): Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Flat 7th (10 frets): 1st two notes of “Stone Free” by Jimi Hendrix
6th (9 frets): 1st two notes in the melody of “All Blues” by Miles Davis
Flat 6th/sharp5th (8 frets): Main riff in Terrorvision’s “Alice, What’s the Matter?”
5th (7 frets): Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Flat 5th (6 frets): Intro to “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix
4th (5 frets): 2 note riff in the verse of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
3rd (4 frets): 1st two notes of Strauss’s “Blue Danaube” waltz
Flat 3rd (3 frets): Riff from “Spoonful” by Cream
2nd (2 frets): 1st notes of “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney
This is not a comprehensive list of all possible intervals, just the ones that I’ve found tend to happen most often as distances between notes in a riff or solo, or as distances between chords in a progression. Also, don’t worry if some of the examples aren’t that familiar to you – seek out and memorise your own (or YouTube these and get to know them if you prefer). The important thing is that you begin to learn to visualise what you hear as physical distances on the fretboard of your guitar (or the keys of your keyboard etc).
Before too long you’ll be able to walk into a shop where there’s some music playing, or go & see a band, or turn on the TV or radio and just know what’s happening musically in any of these situations, and you’ll wonder how you ever did without this skill.