Play It by Ear. (ear training software) (evaluation)
by Kathy Yakal
Few professions have embraced the arrival of the personal computer as eagerly and as creatively as musicians. While people who crunched numbers and processed words found immediate and effective applications for the new technology, composers and performers exploited the artistic power of the new machines just as quickly. Amateurs, too, found that these electronic tools offered them inexpsnive ways to pursue music as a hobby or to prepare for at least a part-time career.
Three features of personal computers make them good tools for musicians: their sound capabilities, their connections to real musical instruments through MIDI interfaces, and their unlimited patience. A human music teacher can tire quickly of the repetitive drills necessary to train a musician in some of the more elementary aspects of composition and performance; a computer exists to serve the student.
Ibis Software's Play It by Ear is an effective training tool for both amateurs and professionals who need to either develop or hone their skills in ear training. The included exercises help you recognize and play back melodies, chords, scales, and intervals, using graphic representations of either a piano keyboard or a guitar. You select the desired execise, listen to the series of notes, and play them back using either the mouse (no option for keyboard control is available) or an actual instrument (if you're connected through a MIDI interface). Or you can identify the chord or interval played from the list of several displayed.
The main screen is divided into several different work areas; pull-down menus present options available for choosing the desired exercise, difficulty level, volume, duration and range of notes, and type of scale or chord played. Once you've chosen an exercise and the combination of musical notes to be classified or repeated has been played, you can choose to hear the phrase again, skip over it, or display the correct answer. Good note/bad note icons track your correct and incorrect answers as you go along, and progress charts can be pulled up at any time to show how you're doing.
Play It by Ear's user interface is sleek. While crowded, the main working screen isn't difficult to navigate. Minimal written documentation is provided, though you likely won't need it if you just take a few minutes to explore the menus and control settings.
Ibis recommends a MIDI interface, but if you're using the program strictly for ear training, it's unnecessary. I tested the program on a bare-bones XT clone with no special sound capabilities, and the notes were clear and recognizable.
At $99.95, Play It by Ear may be more appealing to the aspiring professional than to the novice. If you want a simple drill-and-practice program that helps you recognize and play back notes on a guitar or piano, though, Ear's just right. For more advanced music students who want to train their ears to discern the difference between varying mode scales (Dorian, Phrygian, and so on) or to be able to tell what interval is being played in a chord (triads, 9ths, 11ths), Play It by Ear offers this more sophisticated capability, too.
Serious musicians would most likely want to be able to use the program by connecting their computers to an actual instrument through a MIDI interface or to at least broaden the program's usefulness with more enhanced sound capabilities. For people with such aspirations, this program facilitates a basic element of music education and offers a bridge to their real-life musical tools.