The Most Important Thing Music School Taught Me…

In light of last week’s email about my first week of music school, I thought I’d share the most valuable and practical skill that I took away from 4 years in a university music program.

Here’s the cool thing: You don’t have to go to music school to gain this skill.

The most difficult class I ever took was ear training. In this class we had to “sight sing” melodies (read the notes on the page and sing the melody correctly without accompaniment), listen to and identify chord types, scales, intervals, and more, and listen to melodies and chord progressions and write out the exact notation for what we were hearing. This musical “dictation” was the most difficult and dreaded portion of the class for everyone. The funny thing, too, about this kind of class was that there was no possible way for anyone to cheat. YOU had to be able to sight sing your melodies for the professor. YOU had to properly write out your melodic and harmonic dictation passages. And the class was way too small to even think about looking over a classmate’s shoulder. (I didn’t consider cheating btw. ;P I’m just putting this in perspective for you.)

But despite all the challenges of ear training, I really enjoyed growing in my aural skills. I quickly discovered that a few key things proved to be very practical for me as a drumset player playing in bands:

  1. I caught on to the Roman numeral chord system (which is basically the Nashville number system), which suddenly made understanding chord progressions in pop songs super easy! I found that I could better communicate with band members since I was listening to and paying attention to what chords they were playing now.
  2. I was also more focused in on melodies. I was hearing where melodies went, and I was even envisioning them on a staff. I was remembering them more easily, and I was interacting with them in realtime in more musical ways on the drums.
  3. I got way faster at transcribing drum grooves. At this point in my playing, my method of charting pop songs was to make notes on a chord chart. I could now very quickly notate grooves and rhythms, which made learning grooves and solidifying kick drum patterns way easier.
  4. I was listening to music in a much deeper way, thanks to being able to identify melodies, rhythms, and chords. I was hearing bass lines more clearly, guitar riffs more clearly, and I was totally nerding out on chord choice and chord inversions. Listening to music become even more fun.

I’m sure I could come up with more benefits I experienced, but these are the big four that come to mind. And if I could choose one of these to be my number one benefit, it would be #3. Being able to hear, identify, and transcribe rhythms, grooves, and fills, made my life of learning songs for church and other pop gigs a hundred times easier.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, though, you don’t have to go to music school to learn these skills and get really good at them. With some basic resources, you can become so-called “self-taught” in ear training if you’d like. Really the resources will be your teacher, but I say “self taught” because you’ll be learning independently. Here are some great ways to go out and conquer these skills on your own.

  • Tenuto from is a fantastic tool to use to develop your ear. There are tons of great music theory lessons on the site, plus you can go through a bunch of ear training exercises. I used this myself as a tool while I was in college a few years ago. I don’t think they’d released the app yet, but the website was there and it was great.
  • Get a keyboard (as in a piano keyboard) and start learning basic piano. If possible, get a few lessons. At least find some good fundamental lessons on youtube. Playing piano makes understanding music theory a thousand times easier, since you have a keyboard laid out in front of you on which to visualize things. My piano background proved invaluable in ear-training class. I’m a firm believer that learning piano will make you a better drummer. If you want to tackle a second instrument, make it piano.
  • Once you understand chord basics (i.e. - a “5” chord in C major is a G major chord, or a “2” chord in D major is an E minor chord), start applying your knowledge and listening skills to the real world. Listen to pop songs, and identify the chords. You’ll hear a lot of basic progressions, like 1-5-6-4 or 4-6-5-1. Those four chords are the most common “pop chords,” and identifying them actually becomes very easy when you learn the method.

Learning this stuff will not only impress your bandmates (who knew the drummer could do more than hit things?), but your listening will grow stronger. That’s the most important skill to have on the drums beyond good physical technique. You must listen well, and understanding melody and harmony only elevates this skill.

And of course, your transcribing abilities will be heightened as well as you work on this stuff. Being able to write out a groove or rhythm quickly is an invaluable skill when you’re having to learn songs quickly. Challenge yourself to tackle some music theory and ear-training, and you really will thank yourself down the road.

Also, let me know if you’d like to see a full-blown video on this. I figure this is an ultra non-glamorous topic, but if it’s one that helps a lot of folks out I’m happy to go more in depth.

God Bless,



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