Frequently Asked Questions
Isn’t ear training something you’re born with?
There are 2 ways people play music by ear. Some people are born with perfect pitch – with no conscious effort these people are able to identify exact notes by their unique frequency. It’s rare to develop perfect pitch later in life, although some people claim to have done so. Relative pitch is equally valuable and effective (despite it’s inferior sounding name), and can be learnt by all musicians, at any age. It works by learning the unique sound of scale degrees, (root, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, etc), understanding the rules of music (music theory) and how those rules sound in action.
Can Ear Training be learnt by anyone? What if I’m tone deaf?
Tone deafness does not exist. It’s never been mentioned at any music college I’ve attended. If it were a real thing, it would be acknowledged as a learning disability and certain students would be allowed to take tests differently. It’s simply a phrase that gets used by non-musicians. No one is tone deaf, and every musician has the potential to master relative pitch.
How long does relative pitch take to learn?
Ear training is an ongoing process. You’ll be improving your ear for the rest of your life. However, 80% of the progress can be achieved in the first 4-6 months. There’s a definite breakthrough point when you realize there are more songs you can play by ear than songs you can’t, and you no longer need to check everything you hear on your instrument, because you know with certainty what you’re hearing.
Does ear training require constant practice to maintain?
Once a child has learnt to recognize colors, they no longer need to practice them – because they’re reminded of them everyday. The same goes for music – once you’ve learnt how notes and chords sound, you’ll be reminded of those sounds on a daily basis – every time you hear music played. You can’t avoid these sounds, or forget them.
Will learning to play by ear ruin my enjoyment of music?
No – it increases your enjoyment of music. It allows you to experience music on many different levels. Before I learnt to play by ear, listening to music was blurry, unclear (and dull) and felt one dimensional. There were songs I liked, but all I remembered were lyrics. Now when I listen to music, I experience it on many levels at once – I remember every melody note, every chord, and every bass note – it engages my heart and brain fully, and I still get goosebumps like anyone else. And no one who learnt to play by ear ever complained that they can’t enjoy music anymore – in fact it’s the opposite – once you learn to play by ear, that’s when you become immersed in music all of the time, and that’s where all the fun begins.
I can read music – why should I learn to play by ear?
Music is sound, not sight. Written music was only developed as a way to record composer’s work for future generations – it’s not meant to be the main thing. Many musicians rely heavily on what they see, but this only distracts them from what’s important – sound.
I’m hard of hearing / losing my hearing – will I be able to learn to play by ear?
Ear training actually has little to do with your ear. Ear training is actually brain training. It’s making sense of what you hear – whether that signal comes from an outside source (at a concert), or whether the music comes from your imagination. This is why Beethoven could continue to compose symphonies after losing his hearing – he had developed relative pitch to the level where he didn’t need to check how his music sounded at the instrument. Relative pitch is as much about understanding the music you hear in your imagination, as it is about understanding what other people play.
Ear training sounds vague – how can you teach it?
More than anything, ear training is studying the rules of music. 2/3rds of the work is learning the 7 note scale that western music uses (the key) inside out. You use process of elimination, crossing off all unlikely options until you’re left with 2 or 3 likely possibilities – and finally using your ear to distinguish between those 2 or 3 options.
This is the nice thing about learning relative pitch – it requires you to learn the rules of music at the same time. Whereas perfect pitch just hands you the answer on a plate and doesn’t require much understanding of music theory.
Want to find out more about ear training? Watch my free 4 part video series on ear training: