Ear Training for Kids


Playing the piano involves listening to oneself, and to others.

Thus one of the first fun tasks for a child is learning to listen. Ear training, as it is called in a music conservatory, is the first course a student must pass to be able to make use of all later courses. If you can’t listen, you can’t play.

For a child, this process must be simplified at first. Before ear training, we tend to listen unconsciously to music, treating it as “ear candy” that passes in and out, giving us pleasure, but not something we dissect and evaluate.

As a first step in learning chords, I play various chords for children and ask them to assess the emotional quality.


I play a silly, happy song and ask, “Happy or sad?” Some children answer right away and are certain, while others are at first baffled by the question. Most answer “happy,” but if the child is not sure, play another six happy tunes until they get the idea.

Then play something slow and sad, in a minor key. Ask again, “Happy or sad?” Most kids will understand the difference, but you may have to work at it a bit. Always be merry, never dwell on a mistake but rather start the next fresh round of gaming immediately.

One interesting pecularity of the child’s ear is the range-specific evaluation they give to identical chords. Thus, if I play a sad chord in a high part of the piano, a child answers “Sad.” But if I play the same chord in a low register, 99% of children will reply “Angry.” You can’t beat a kid’s ear for honesty!

I play rippling arpeggios in based on various major and minor chords, and ask them to imagine rain. Is it happy or sad rain? Or birds, or fountains?

When they are secure with the difference between major (happy) and sad (minor) it is time to bring out the other two chord/emotional qualities, weird or mysterious (augmented chords) and scary or dangerous (diminished chords.)

Play a scary diminished seventh chord passage, low on the piano, and every child can immediately answer, “Scary! A monster!” Play it higher, and they will evaluate: “Scary but not so much.”

Different children have wildly varying abilities to make these finer distinctions. I have kids who, if one plays them a passage having a certain quality, will devise an entire dramatic scenario that fits the music exactly. Others are merely baffled and need much more help and patience.

Play an augmented chord passage and say it is like when the screen dissolves in a movie, for a dream sequence. Everything seems suddenly unstable.

Next get them to distinguish between scary (diminished) and mysterious (augmented.)

The principal job is to have them distinguish happy from sad and major from minor. With that skill in hand, they are ready to listen to themselves and to others, such as you. Their teacher, play music at the piano.


Paul Hindemith was a German composer and teacher who developed effective tools to train listening skills of professional music students. It is based entirely on practical application of rhythmic patterns which students are asked to recite.

The premise of Hindemith is the same as a general musician’s principle: “If you can speak it, you can play it.” Thus, a difficult rhythmic passage may be more easily understood if the student first recites the rhythm using nonsense syllables. Beethoven’s Fifth is thus, “Dah dah dah – duhhhh, dah dah dah duhhh.”

When a child has difficulty comprehending a rhythm, ask them to speak it first.

You will notice an immediate increase in comprehension of the rhythm, and you will also see that the ear plays a huge part in allowing a child’s fingers to find the correct rhythm.

Finally, if you can play, sit down and play the child a song, or passage every lesson. Devote 3-5 minutes to a non-serious, (or mock-serious) mini-concert, in which they are allowed to comment on the pieces or passages.

Not only does this expose the child to good music they would otherwise never hear, but also it builds listening skills and enhances many abstract skills that will be useful at the piano and elsewhere.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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