GuitarWorld.com is revisiting Steve Vai's classic column, "The Ultra Zone," for this crash course in ear training.

I could never overstate the importance of a musician’s need to develop his or her ear. Actually, I believe that developing a good “inner ear”—the art of being able to decipher musical components solely through listening—is the most important element in becoming a good musician. Possessing a healthy imagination is a necessary ingredient for creativity.

But without the ability to bring those imagined sounds into the real world, one’s creative aspirations will remain crippled. Training one’s ears to understand and recognize musical sounds and concepts is one of the most vital ways to fortify the connection between the musical ideas in one’s mind and the musical sounds created on one’s instrument.

All musicians practice ear training constantly, whether or not they are cognizant of it. If, when listening to a piece of music, a musician is envisioning how to play it or is trying to play along, that musician is using his or her “ear”—the understanding and recognition of musical elements—for guidance.

This is also true when trying to emulate a piece of music, or transcribe it, or even just finding inspiration in it. No matter what one is playing, one’s ear is the navigational device that steers the musical ship where it will go. Without a good ear at the helm, you could find yourself musically adrift at sea.

I've always been fascinated with looking at music written on paper. When I was in college, I took a class called solfege, which entailed learning how to sight-sing. Sight-singing is the art of looking at a piece of written music and singing it. First, you identify the key center, and then you sing the written pitches, using the

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