Well, hello everybody. I have so much to tell you about this subject and we’ll take it step by step. Some people are born with the ability to calculate Intervals (distances between notes) on a very intuitive level, just like people who are good at mathematics. This part of their brain is just wired to do that, somehow. Those people are divided into two groups. Those who have Absolute Hearing and those with Relative Hearing. Both of them can possess pitch perfect abilities. Personally, I prefer having Relative Hearing, and I’ll tell you why it’s probably better in most cases. Over the years I’ve tested myself and many other’s hearing abilities and have come to a pretty solid conclusion on that matter.
This is a very impressive and interesting skill. Basically, it is the ability to tell exactly what note is playing without the need for a reference. For example, I play one random note for you and you can tell me exactly what note it is and what octave it is on the keyboard. Usually, people that have absolute hearing can pick up even the slightest change in pitch. It’s like they have all the chromatic scale on a pitch grid flawlessly mapped in their brains. In most cases, if they’re keyboard players, they would find key transformation or pitch shifting very annoying. On one hand, they can see that they’re playing C sharp but they hear D sharp for example, and that can drive many of them a little crazy. It also happens with string instruments that are tuned incorrectly, higher or lower than the standard 440Hz. The absolute hearing ability is great for people who are making classical music, play a classic instrument like a violin or cello. It also a great thing to have if you’re a composer or a conductor. It is great to be able to “see” the music in your mind like a picture. That’s Absolute hearing or perfect pitch.
This is a more common skill owned by many musicians. It is more trainable and more achievable even if you were not born with it. Basically, relative hearing means that you have the ability to identify a given musical note by comparing it to a reference note. For example, if I play you the note C and I tell you that it’s a C, and after that, I play a different note, you would be able to tell what note it is, based on the relative musical distance between this note and the C that you heard before. This skill is also one you are born with, some would be able to sharpen it and take it to the maximum and some will stay limited. Many people say that relative hearing is better than absolute hearing because it allows you to “move” freely on the chromatic scale and use key transformations whenever you like without it driving you crazy. You’re practically not bound to any rule. Personally, I prefer having a relative hearing and that’s what I have. Over the years I’ve sharpened it and trained it to a point that allows me to quickly find chords and notes, based only on how they feel in my mind relative to a reference note.
A trained and good relative hearing is very similar to absolute hearing in nature. I can listen to a song for the first time and tell you what chords are playing in real-time as long as I know what key it’s on.
As a producer, yes. It’s a tool that can help you a lot. You’ll find yourself working with that skill all the time and it usually saves a lot of time. I can compare it to reading with and without glasses. When you don’t have your glasses you’d have a little hard time to focus on things but eventually, you’ll succeed. So most music producers have Relative Hearing and it helps them achieve their goals and visions. When you have your glasses on, everything is a lot easier.
“What about songwriting?” you ask, the simple answer is you don’t really have to have an exceptional musical hearing but it definitely helps. It’s important to say, it’ll never stop you from writing the best songs ever and I saw many cases like this. In fact, the best songwriters I’ve ever worked with were complete musical morons with very strong emotional intelligence. Hopefully, they won’t read it:)
Well, it’s a bit complicated. The simple answer is NO. You don’t really have to be born with Relative Hearing to be good at it. Absolute Hearing is a different thing though. Again, this is my personal opinion on the subject based on years of testing myself and other people’s hearing abilities. In my mind, it is very similar to mathematics. Some people will be good at it without burning steam and some will spit some blood before they’ll be able to do the basic stuff. I guess there are does who will forever stay in the musical darkness and would not be able to tell which notes are playing in any situation. That does not say that they don’t have good intuition and the ability to say what works and what doesn’t. The plain truth is that 100% of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met had an extraordinary musical hearing, even the drummers. So yes, I guess it is a necessary tool for musicians.
I’m sure you can come up with ear training methods and cool musical games yourself. It’s all about not being restricted and let your creation Juices flow. You can even play musical games in your mind. Every time you hear a song or a noise with musical qualities you can sing with it and even sing harmonies. It helps your ear develop musical intuition. Hell, I even try to find the notes of barking dogs, screeching doors, sirens and a wide range of weird sounds with tonal properties.
Some people can keep musical events in their brains for very long times. Take me for example, I can’t tell you what I did last weekend, no matter how fun it was but I can remember a melody or a chord progression that I’ve heard only one time 20 years ago. I can replicate it note by note. Don’t know why and how I do it, it just happens.
There are people with much more complicated and deep musical memories. Those people can remember and recreate melody lines, mods, polychords, bitonal chords, harmonization and different musical parts of a song that they listened to only one time. I’ve even heard some stories of people who hear notes and sounds that gets translated to shapes and forms in their brains. The way I see it, this is savant territory.
Ear Training Methods
Learn To Play The Keyboards
Over the years I’ve developed unique ways to sharpen my musical hearing. The main thing that helped me create my understanding of music is the fact that I play the keyboards. When you have all the notes in front of you and you can put your fingers on them, your brain somehow creates neurological connections that work like a map of all the notes in your memory. This is how I see it.
In my opinion, when you play the keyboards you create a certain music map in your brain. This map helps you translate what you hear to musical understanding. When you learn to play a second instrument, like a guitar, for example, it creates a whole different music map in your brain. This gives you a different angle at the things you hear. When you “see” the music from two different angles it’s like seeing something in 3D. So more angles, deeper understanding.
This is a fun game to play and we all know that games develop the brain. The idea is to play a melody on your instrument and sing the melody at the same time. This creates even more connections in your brain. The more you do it the better. Every time you practice on your keyboards of guitars, just sing along with it. If it doesn’t come easily for you don’t give up and keep doing it. It’ll happen eventually and it will turn you into a musical beast.
Install a little keyboard app on your phone. Every time you hear a song, play the note C to yourself and try to calculate the distance from that C to the key of the song that’s playing. At first, it’ll confuse the hell out of you but slowly you’ll start “seeing” it. all the musical maps and the keyboards in your mind will start to appear and then you’d be able to see the song’s key in your mind. Beware, this can be very addictive.
This is one of the best ways to help you understand melody, harmony, and spaces between notes. Always try to find the best harmonies to sing along with your favorite artists. In my case, it’s John Mayer. I love his music and his songs. In general, he is like a whole music school for me. Great songs, great lyrics, great productions, great sound, and mixes. I always learn new things when I listen to him. Do it with your favorite artist or with any song you know and like.
As the title implies, find an app that plays whole chords for you and try to guess all the notes and find the root note. If you can’t find an app you can simply go to this cool website and just click on the chords names and start playing. It’s one of the best tricks for developing your musical hearing.
Best Ear Training Apps
This is a cool and simple ear training app and one of its options help you develop your ability to identify chords. In general, it plays a chord and you click the right chord name. Simple, cool and pretty much like a game. You can see the chords by their names (Letters) or you can choose to see them in roman numeral chords (First, second, third, etc). It has a lot more options that you can explore. What I like the most about this app is that the sounds are real samples. Which means that it contains real audio recordings and not just lifeless midi notes. ChordProg’s interface is clean and simple, just the way you need it. Small price, huge value.
This app also has a desktop version for PC & Mac. EarMaster is a training tool, built for musicians that want to improve their knowledge of music theory. EarMaster is one of the first applications out there (since 1996 on a DOS system) which means it had all the time in the world to improve and get better. I must say that it’s very music theory oriented so if you’re “that type” this app is for you. It is full of cool musical exercises to complete that analyzed and creates statistics that you can track and improve in time.
This one is a little different and not really topically related but it’s here just because I think it’s awesome. It’s built for us, audio engineers. It allows you to practice frequency recognition and to train your ears to easily tell which frequency you hear. Basically, the Idea is that the app plays a note in a certain frequency and gives you a few options to choose from.
These are cool musical games for 2, try it with a friend.
Check out this little YouTube video, it’s like a little musical game.