How did you develop your ear?

Posted on Jan 26, 2014

I went out to dinner with a friend of mine last night.  This friend is a very successful guitarist/instrumentalist who currently plays in a legendary rock band that tours the world.  I’m not saying this to name drop…I’m humbled by his ability and I was a fan of his work way before we got to know each other.


What I find most interesting is the story on how he learned his craft.  He would sit for hours as a 12-year old kid and work on emulating his guitar heroes’ riffs…one at a time.  He wasn’t worried about getting the part technically correct…but to match the feel.  When I was a kid learning to play the drums, I was in such a hurry to demonstrate my technical prowess, but he was worried about the feel.  He’s also technically amazing, so somewhere he figured out that piece as well.  As a side note, the first time we had lunch, I could see him being visually distracted by the music playing overhead.  It was a very guitar driven blues-ish tune.  He stopped talking in mid-sentence and I could see his brain thinking through the riff as he used his hands to simulate the part.  After the riff went away…he went right back to the conversation.  Again, he’s all about the ‘feel’.


So why is all of this relevant?  One thing I have in common with this friend is that we both have two young children.  We got into a conversation last night about how our kids are growing up and how music ‘is’ or ‘is not’ a part of their lives.  We both talked about being kids and sitting in front our parents’ stereos and listening to the radio or records for hours upon hours...subsequently learning to ‘listen’ and ‘feel’ the music (i.e. developing our ear).  Another similarity we had was that both of our parents had very nice stereos and that they both put a priority on good sound.  The funny thing about this is that I grew up in a very basic ‘no-frills’ home.  We didn’t have much, but we had music and a nice stereo (courtesy of my Stepfather).  He would sit with me for hours and act as DJ, playing me full-length records and visually describing the audio elements.  Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons Project, Steely Dan, etc. (I know I’m aging myself here).  In addition to spending quality time together, he was really teaching me to listen to music.  From the aforementioned list, he had a knack for buying well-engineered records that had both songs and sounds.  He taught me to understand the geometry of that 180-degree space where stereo was created…the panning of instruments, how to listen in the ‘sweet spot’.  He wasn’t a trained engineer, but he knew what was going on.  He ultimately helped me to develop my ear and thereby instilled in me a life-long passion for listening to very high-quality audio…something that is still very much with me today. 


I do the same for my kids.  I recently put together a new 2-channel system at home.  No worries, I’m still rockin’ 5.1 at home, in the car and at the studio.  After hooking up all of the components, I put on one of my absolute favorite records of all time….Tears For Fears ‘Seeds of Love’.  My oldest son sat there very still and didn’t say a word while ‘Woman in Chains’ played.  He was sitting squarely in the sweet spot of the speakers (you know what I mean here).  He looked up after a few minutes and said ‘This Sounds Amazing….’.  He totally got it.  That’s a good thing. 


As an audiophile you owe it to your children….don’t let them listen to substandard audio.  This is my public service announcement of the day.  If marginal sounding music is all around, they’ll never truly appreciate music or learn to ‘feel’ music like you and I did and still do.  From headphones that put design before sound, to computer speakers that have taken the place of traditional home stereos, we’re surrounded by a recurring element of marginal sound.  Thankfully, my ear was shaped by someone who was both equally neurotic and passionate about sound and now I’m passing that down to my kids.  I never would’ve thought those lessons would’ve trained me for the task of producing 5.1 surround releases, but it was the cornerstone to the foundation..and for that I have to thank my Stepfather.


Richard LaBonté, Music Valet