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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 Matt,

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 very 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 each and every note of our musical system in every song you hear. If you didn't, then it wouldn't make any difference to you which note appears at any given place in a particular melody. All melodies would sound alike to you, and if somebody played a wrong note you would never even notice.

Is that truly your situation?

I 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, because 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".

I could go on with my example and show you that you also know the sound of every other note in our musical system, but the point is that you need to discard this idea that you have a "bad ear" because this doesn't even really exist. Again, if you were unable to hear the differences between the notes of our musical system, then all melodies would sound the same to you and you probably never would have decided to become a musician in the first place.

Something practical you can begin doing right now:

I think the key for you is to stop spending your time on abstract exercises and begin studying the music you love. In other words, stop beating around the bush. If you want to understand the sounds in the music you love, then study the music you love. For example, think of one of your favorite songs. Right now, make the commitment to yourself that you're going to transcribe the entire melody in tonal numbers like we study in IFR. You don't have to do this by ear. It's fine to get a copy of the sheet music. You can even just write me an e-mail telling me the name of the song and I'll send you the tonal numbers myself. All we need is a faithful transcription of the melody expressed in tonal numbers, because THIS is what we're going to use for the next phase of your ear training.

musician struggling with ear trainingThen what you're going to do is sing this melody every single day, but instead of singing the lyrics you will sing the tonal numbers. The tonal numbers will become the new "lyrics" to the song, and your mind will form an association between the beautiful sound of each melody note and the exact tonal number which produces that sound. And most importantly, you'll be learning what these notes actually sound and feel like in a real musical context.

Keep singing this song every day, even long after you've already committed all of the tonal numbers to memory. No amount of this exercise is too much, because it's always helpful and empowering to review the sounds of a beautiful melody and see clearly where each sound is located within the tonal octave. And as soon as you've really mastered one song then you should add another song to your repertoire. Again you should pick one of your favorite songs, something that you personally know and love. I can practically guarantee that if do this with 10 or 15 of your favorite songs, after a few months (at the most) you will begin recognizing these same tonal numbers in literally every song you hear.

And this exercise becomes a hundred times more powerful if you combine it with the IFR creative exercises like Seven Worlds. What you need to do right now is immerse yourself in this world of sounds. It's important to know which tonal number you're playing at all times, but even more important is 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. Stop spending your time on abstract training exercises. Listen to the music you love and take the time to understand what those notes are. Play music yourself and learn through your own creative explorations. And 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!