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Q&A - Hopeless at ear training

Hello David,

I have always had a terrible ear and I feel that it's preventing me from making the most of your method. There seem to be just two sorts of musicians: the ones who can play by ear and the ones who just can't. I strongly feel that ear training is based on natural ability and that someone without natural ability can improve a bad ear but never gain a good ear.

I even purchased a separate course on scale degree recognition and after about 4 months of very intensive training I can fairly accurately recognize the major scale degrees if they are played. But I still can't recognize any of these sounds in an actual musical setting like a song.

After many months of daily ear training, I still don't think I'm any closer to my goal of playing by ear except for being able to get better scores on tests which don't have any relevance to real music.

Can you help me?

David's response:

Hi Nick,

I'm sorry for all your past frustrations with this issue. But I don't believe that you have a "bad ear". I just think you've been studying the sounds in a rigid, formal way that is divorced from their beauty and meaning in a true musical context.

The first thing to realize is that there's nothing wrong with your ear. The truth is that you already recognize every note in every song you hear. If you didn't, then it wouldn't make any difference to you which note comes next. All melodies would sound alike to you, and if somebody played a wrong note you would never even notice.

Is that truly your situation?

musician struggling with ear trainingI suspect not. I suspect that when you listen to your favorite song, your ear perfectly anticipates the sound of every single note in the melody even before you hear it. For example, imagine that in your favorite song, at the song's climax the melody goes up to note 5. Even before we reach this climax, I'll bet you already know exactly how this moment is going to sound and feel. And even when you're all by yourself with no music playing, you can probably replay the sound of this song in your mind and remember exactly what this moment sounds like.

What this means is that you already know the sound of note 5. You just don't know that you know it! You've never stopped to name this sensation that your ear is anticipating. You know the sound by heart, but you don't know that the sound is called "note 5".

And this is exactly what you need to do. You don't need more abstract technical exercises. What you need to do is go into the world of music and discover what the notes of our musical system sound like in the context of actual melodies.

Sing the Numbers 1: The IFR Tonal MapThis is exactly what we do in our Sing the Numbers audio course. I think this is the solution to your problem because finally you'll be studying the sounds in a musical way, through beautiful songs and melodies that were specifically designed to train your ear.

And this exercise becomes a hundred times more powerful if you combine it with the IFR improvisation exercises like Seven Worlds. You need to immerse yourself in this world of sounds. It's important to know the tonal numbers, but it's even more important to experience these sounds as music.

If learning to understand and play music by ear is something important to you, don't give up on yourself. Just change your focus. Remember that this is an ability which you ALREADY have. You just need to bring a new tonal awareness into the relationship that you are already enjoying with music. The way to do that is to focus on beautiful melodies that you already know and love, and simply become aware of which notes make up these melodies.

And remember to enjoy and celebrate every little victory along the way!