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, minor 3rd, major 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 an expression 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 as little as 3 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 – they’re reminded of how blue, red, green, and every other color looks everyday. The same goes for ear training – once you’ve learnt how a note or chord sounds, you’ll be reminded of its sound every time you listen to music. You can’t avoid it, or forget it.

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 unclear. There were songs I liked, but all I remembered were lyrics. Now when I listen to music, I understand it on many levels, how it makes me feel, what ingredients are making me feel that way, the composer’s thought process, and so on. It’s a far more immersed experience, and it engages my brain fully.

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, which prevents them from focussing on what they hear.

I’m hard of hearing / losing my hearing – will I be able to learn to play by ear? Ear training actually has very 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 the music you hear in your imagination. This is why Beethoven could continue to compose symphonies after loosing 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 key inside out – learning what can happen, and what can’t happen in a piece of music. It’s much more methodical than most people think – it’s a lot of process of elimination, eliminating the unlikely options until you’re left with 2 or 3 remaining possibilities – and using your ear to distinguish between those final 2 or 3 possibilities.

This is the nice thing about learning relative pitch – it requires you to simultaneously learn the rules of music. Whereas perfect pitch just hands you the answer on a plate and doesn’t require an understanding of music theory.