I used to be mystified when I saw a musician pick up entire tunes by ear. This is an incredibly useful skill to the professional player and casual instrumentalist alike. The ability to quickly identify and memorize so much information used to be baffling to witness.
Where do people learn to do this? The answer is simple. Practice makes perfect. I'm going to share with you a few easy things you can incorporate into your practice routine that will help you develop your inner ear
1. Interval Training and Pitch Recognition
Interval training is a simple exercise that builds on your aural skills. It allows you to quickly recognise intervals and pitch relationships, embedding them firmly in your inner ear with dedicated practice.
Here's how it works...
First, get a friend (or a computer program) to play intervals on a piano or other instrument. Try and name the interval - perfect fourth, major third etc. If you don't get it correct get them to play it again until you recognise it. Start off with intervals no larger than an octave and practice with the two notes played as a chord and one after the other. To make the most of this exercise it is important to focus on the sound of each different interval as opposed to wildly guessing. Try to commit the sound of each interval to memory.
2. Alter Your Existing Practice Habits
There are a few minor changes to your existing practice regime that will develop your inner ear in no time. First, whenever you are playing make sure you are 'singing along' (out loud or in your head) to what you are playing. This develops the link between your inner ear and whatever your working on. Pianist Hal Galper demonstrates this concept elegantly here. Do this whether you are running scales and patterns, playing tunes or improvising.
3. Transcribe Melodies
The transcription of melodies, however simple, will always be useful for developing your inner ear. It could be something simple or part of a longer project, such as learning an entire jazz solo by memory. I try and do a bit of transcription every day as part of my practice routine. As with all things practice makes perfect. Start simple and build to more complex projects as you gain in confidence.
For simple melodies start with finding the root of the key you are in. Next, work through the melody note by note. Listen to the interval between the note you're working on and the previous pitch. Also, keep an ear out for notes that are repeated, this can be very helpful. As you work on more complex projects it may be necessary to slow them down. Software like Transcribe is great for this!