Ears First Musical Conversations

The great thing about being an adult learner of music is that you get to pick your own learning approach. At this stage in my adventure I have some instrument skills on bass guitar and double bass, as well as being able to poke a keyboard. Further I have some basic pitch, rhythm and harmonic understanding. Along side this I’ve learnt how to apply neuroscience for effective adult learning. Now, as a result of time exploring various learning resources I’ve arrived at what I think is a useful approach with a set of learning topics.

In this post I summarise some of the resources that keep me engaged and moving in the right musical direction. But first I outline my vision and the key learning topics that I think will lead to it.


“Being able to have musical conversations through ear-first musicality”

By that I mean being able to play by ear in the moment, reacting to what others are playing. In other words “improvisation” in a very broad sense, not just impressive jazz solos by master musicians. Rather I’m thinking of the ability to listen, think of something to add and play it. It might be a bass line in an unstructured “Jam Session”, a solo in the context of a Jazz group playing a standard, a melody for a new song chorus, even creating a full-on composition, or just noodling by myself. It doesn’t exclude playing pre composed music though.

The key here is being “ear first”. Not notation first or instrument pattern first. While theory, notation and instrument learnt specific licks or scales are all important, they support the ear first approach. Not the other way round.

I have a picture of musical learning that is closely analogous to learning a language. It means learning to listen, audiate and reproduce using musical “atoms” and language rules. Our voice is our natural instrument with which we are intimately familiar for generating sound and pitches. Our body is primed to respond to and generate rhythm. So singing and body movement are going to be key, even though I’m not really happy with my ability to do either in a pleasant way. Luckily we now know how to get the adult brain to learn effectively.

Learning Topics for Ear First

  • growth mindset and mindfulness
  • body mechanics and breath control
  • practice techniques for effective learning
    • micro goals
    • intentional practice
    • desirable difficulty
    • spaced recall
    • visualisation
  • critical listening and “transcribing”
  • audiation and production
    • pitch relative to tonal centre
    • feeling rhythm
  • instrument skills
  • notation reading and writing
  • harmony and counterpoint
  • musical languages
  • improvisation
  • performing
  • teachers, courses, books and tools


These are the resources I have found to be and still find to be the most useful in my musical journey

A Good Teacher

Essential, at least to start with to set you on the right path and later to address specific issues.

Christopher Sutton and team’s MusicalU


The first modern resource that really impressed me in so many ways. With a background in ear training apps they now cover most topics in ear first musicality. A keen team suported by excellent tutors delivering fantastic courses and instrument packs, along with an active and supportive community. There is also an excellent podcast on music learning. For me as a bass player having the unique Steve Lawson as the resident bass pack tutor is incredibly good fortune. I took up the VIP full access option and admire them so much I have even been on the technical team. Do check them out!

David Reed and Miriea Clua’s Improvise for Real


Ear and voice training with a method book, resources and courses providing a simple and effective approach to internalise melody and harmony. Keeping the key central avoids the need to learn chord scales modes. The ear training course is my current focus of attention and is the most effective and enjoyable approach I have found so far.

Josh Turknett’s BrainJo


Josh is a musician and neuroscientist and has produced a book, website and method that teach learning to play well by growing a musical brain. I’m currently reading the Laws of BrainJo book and it is a very enjoyable.

Mark Morely-Fletcher’s Play in The Zone


A couple of excellent courses focussing on the “inner game” of practice and performance. Plus many free resources including youtube videos.

Brent Vaartstra’s Learn Jazz Standards


With a core course promoting learning a jazz standard each month for maximum progress speed. Plus other great free resources including weekly youtube videos that could beyond jazz. The free PDF on his LIST process for learning by ear is a must have.

Dave Smith’s Rhythm Academy


A great course and resources on a method to really internalise rhythm.

Geoff Chalmers Discover Double Bass


A wealth of courses and workshops covering everything double bass with exceptional quality. Many free youtube videos too.

Forrest and Eric’s Jazz Advice


Excellent resources and courses on Jazz playing and improvising. Often quite a bit beyond my ability but still educational.

Massimo Biolcati’s iRealPro


The tool for playing along to the chords of Jazz Standards and other tunes. As it’s an android app for Windows I use the Blue Stacks Android emulator.

Andy Robinsons’s Transcribe!


The original and excellent tool for learning songs by ear and transcribing. Slow down, filter and loop.

Sight Reading Factory


An excellent interactive web app for learning to sight read notation.

Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music


Highly accessible read on the neuroscience of music.

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