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I love music and would love to develop a musical ear. My problem is that I can't get started. All tutorials that I find start at a more advanced point compared to where I am at. I can't carry a tune. When I think that I'm singing a melody, people tell me that I'm singing the same note over and over again. If a note is played on the piano, I can't sing it back even if it's in my natural range. When I took music theory in college, they would skip over me in all singing exercises. I can't tell intervals, except for minor second and sometimes an octave, although sometimes perfect fifths and fourths sound like octaves to me. The rest sound the same. I can't tell major from minor. When trying to pick out a melody, I usually can't tell if a note goes up, down or stays the same. Actually, notes that stay the same are particularly hard because the downbeat always feels higher than the upbeat, i.e. pa-PAM - where both notes are the same - sounds like the second note is higher. I can't tell if someone's guitar is out of tune. But I know I'm not tone deaf, as I've been able to pick out some melodies over the years that go I-IV-V-I.

All tutorials that I have found so far rely on singing or playing a note that you hear. But I can do neither of those things. Yet I refuse to believe that I'm hopeless. I listen to music for hours every day from classical to jazz to world to rock to pop and I love all of it.

So can someone recommend an approach where I can feel like I can get off the bench and get in the game and start making forward progress?

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    @MichaelCurtis - it's a fact that some people actually are tone deaf, and will never sing in tune. It's not a given that human = musical. Thankfully, it mostly is, but. – Tim Jan 20 at 16:59
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    "get off the bench..." I would honestly just buy a cheap-ass folk guitar for 30 bucks, and master 3 or 4 basic chords, and get good at strumming. IMO this will RUSH you off the bench the quickest way. After you do that for a few months, get a cheap keyboard and learn some simple tunes on that too. (But start with guitar .. piano is all intellectual and annoying :) guitar is easy-going .. go for it) – Fattie Jan 20 at 17:21
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    The guitar first suggestion is fine, but you have to be able to tune a guitar (even with a tuner you have to be able to get yourself to the ballpark). So, bearing that in mind, a keyboard might be better. – Areel Xocha Jan 21 at 7:49
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    Persist. If you have poor ear/voice it may take years, but you will gradually get better. – cbp Jan 21 at 14:55
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    Probably it would be helpful if you can give some more information regarding yourself, what is your age (at least the right decade) and, maybe, what are your general life circumstances? Why am I asking? I started out from quite a similar situation as you teen years ago, aged 24, never played an instrument or done anything related to music, as a computer science student. I sticked to it, gone through embarrassing moments, always on the edge of quitting, joined a couple of choirs, learned an instrument but in the end gained a skill. I can give you more details if wanted. – StefanH Jan 21 at 15:54
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Your absolute best bet is to find a teacher -- both to guide the process and to give you external feedback.

However, as an interim step, you could try this: get an electronic tuner (or app) of the sort that determines what pitch you're closest to and shows whether and how much you are sharp or flat. Then try shifting the pitch of your voice up and down. The tuner will let you know visually which direction your voice is moving. That way, you can begin to develop a feel for how your voice works without worrying about actually being on pitch or not.

That will also help your ear begin to sense whether pitches are getting lower or higher.

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    I'd also add that, from what's described, personal teaching is almost mandatory: it seems clear that the ear is just not (or uncorrectly) trained, as the ear/vocal coordination consequently and probably is. In principle, I always suggest to keep away from "online tutorials" (especially those on YouTube), unless they're specifically suggested by reliable people that, potentially, knows the situation. Even ignoring the fact that lots of them are just cr[*]p, the problem is that they're completely passive and, obviously, cannot consider the context of their viewers. Definitely, a teacher. – musicamante Jan 20 at 4:58
  • In English, raising or lowering the voice literally means changing the volume. I guess you mean pitch of voice! Pedantic - yes, helpful - hopefully. – Tim Jan 20 at 9:18
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I'm guessing you do not play any instrument. If you do, I'm amazed.

Get yourself something - a keyboard is recommended - a kid's one will do. The physical act of seeing where, pressing, listening and then singing will give you a better idea of higher/lower. Record what you do, so you can perform a post mortem.

As we say so often here - get a teacher, if only for a few lessons. They will pick up on exactly where you are, and tailor lessons to suit you. That cannot be done by any on-line stuff.

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If you enjoy music, then it's likely you have a latent and undeveloped internal ear, and can make progress here. It's a matter of building connections between your ear, voice, and understanding.

I was in a similar situation. When I started playing piano as an adult and became interested in ear training, I discovered that my vocal range was less than an octave, and that it was difficult for me to match pitches with my voice. Either I never wound up finding the note, or it took me 5 seconds of shifting my voice and up down nearly at random until I found it, or I would wind up a fourth/fifth off the note and not realize until I checked against an electronic tuner. I partially attribute this to being a shy child and speaking in monotones.

I wouldn't consider myself to have a good ear now, but it's better. I can now sing most scale degrees against a tonal center (if I hear a C for example, I could sing you A by knowing that it's the "la" in moveable-do solfege or the major sixth of the scale), and my vocal range is 2 octaves and a fifth (I can match pitches, but it sounds like garbage). I can sing along to some things I hear on the radio too.

I've never had a teacher, and this has certainly held me back, probably more than I realize, but I will tell you what I've found helpful personally, because realistically not everyone can/will get a teacher. There are few resources for people in our situation who couldn't get off the ground. Most resources are for people who already naturally have an ear -> voice mapping. Here's what's helped me:

Get a keyboard and an electronic tuner. Play a note on the keyboard and try to match it with your voice. Sing into the tuner so you can figure out how far off you are. When you land on the note, you will feel the resonance physically. Sing the pitch for a long time, just enjoying how the resonance feels.

If you're trying to be quiet, or you're hesitant to make noise (I was self conscious), it will make it harder because there will be more tension in your throat. Try to find a place where you project with confidence.

Over time, you will start to learn how keys on the keyboard feel in your throat/chest. You'll know approximately what type of physicality is required to hit a certain note by where it's located on the piano. (But you will still have to hear the note to reproduce it; you won't develop perfect pitch.) This is like a set of training wheels for your ear -> voice connection. With more practice over time, you will no longer need the visual aid, and will be able to match a pitch just by hearing it.

On the side, I encourage you to improvise on the piano, play notes and do whatever is fun. Play a major chord in your left hand and notes from the scale in your right hand. Suspend all self judgment and mess around. You will unconsciously learn some sounds. If you can, try singing along with what you're playing. But don't worry about it for now. Learn some music theory to help you conceptualize what you're hearing.

Once you can reproduce pitches, start learning how to sing scales with moveable-do solfege. Put on a drone http://www.tuningdrones.com/ (I recommend the clarinet sound) so you can hear the tonic at all times, then play the scale on the piano and sing along. Go as slow as you need. To really internalize the sound of each note, associate it with a feeling, emotion, or color. I am a visual thinker and have very very mild synesthesia, so I give each note in the scale a color. "Sol" is a pearly white, "Fa" is grey, "Mi" is yellow, etc. You can also use the app "Functional Ear Trainer" to work on identifying notes against a tonic.

Recently my daily practice routine has been this:

Walk up the scale and down the scale: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-ti-la-sol-fa-mi-re-do. Walk up and down in thirds: do-mi-re-fa-mi-sol-fa-la-sol-ti-la-do-la-ti-sol-la-fa-sol-mi-fa-re-mi-do. Walk up and down in fourths, fifths, sixths, and sevenths. Starting with each note, jump to each other note in the scale: do-re, do-mi, do-fa, ..., do-ti, do-do; then re-mi, re-fa, re-sol, re-la, ..., re-do, re-re; etc. All the while, the drone is going in the background, reinforcing the relationship of each of these notes to the tonic.

I'm making significant progress with this.

Today I discovered hooktheory, which has a database of song breakdowns. I'm going to acquire some melodic vocabulary by singing pop songs I'm already familiar with in moveable-do using their database. Here's an example: https://www.hooktheory.com/theorytab/view/taylor-swift/22 . I'm hoping that with enough of this, I will be able to hear a melody and know that it's "mi fa do la ti sol" for example, then play it on my piano.

Throughout this endeavor, try not to judge yourself, and enjoy every little victory along the way. Good luck in your journey!

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  • Thanks for this, it was inspiring. do you know of a website that can emulate an electronic tuner device? – Spaceploit Jan 21 at 22:45
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What you want is called "Ear Training" and is part of the basic curriculum any musician (especially vocalists) go through when taking formal training. Ear Training teaches you many things about the basics of music, but what is relevant to your question is learning how to hear and recognize (with you ears) the various intervals within a scale.

You will learn how to not only recognize the auditory difference (interval) when the two pitches of, say, Minor 2nd are played in sequence, but also how to hear the auditory properties of those two pitches sounding at the same time (a wavering in the case of the m2).

You will learn this for each interval of the scale (m2, M2, m3, M3, P4, etc..). You will also learn how to phonate them with your voice. Your instructor will play a pitch on a piano and ask you to phonate it, then a Major 3rd above it, for example.

There are other aspects of Ear Training that will help you, too, but this is what is relevant to your question.

So, while you've done a bit of it yourself it sounds, seek out Ear Training classes at your local college or even online. I took evening classes for Ear Training at a college near me and it helped my musicianship 1000%.

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Julie Andrews, in the 1965 film "The Sound of Music" is faced with seven children (wearing curtains) who don't know how to sing, so she teaches them in a song called "Do-Re-Mi":

  • Do is the root
  • Re is a second
  • Mi is a third
  • Fa is a fourth
  • So is a fifth
  • La is a sixth
  • Ti ... I can't remember what Ti is :)

Sing Do Re Mi. Then sing Do loudly, Re quietly and Mi loudly. Now miss out the Re. Do - Mi is a third.

Sing Do Re Mi Fa So. Then sing Do and So loudly, and gradually "forget" the in-betweeners. Do - So is a fifth. Do - Mi - So is a major chord.

And so on. Now do it backwards, and learn about flats and sharps, and the difference between fixed Do and movable Do.

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    "Ti ... I can't remember what Ti is :)" A drink with jam and bread, of course. – John Montgomery Jan 20 at 18:55
  • So this is where the meme comes from :D dang that song sticks to the head! – Kaddath Jan 21 at 10:33
  • The hilarious part is that the movie version of the song is in B Flat Major, so she cannot have taught the kids accurate fixed do solfege. – Dekkadeci Jan 21 at 14:39
  • @Dekkadeci - The basic solfege syllables (for any major key) are:Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti nwisuzuki.com/solfege.html – chasly - supports Monica Jan 21 at 19:12
  • @Dekkadeci She doesn't need to teach fixed Do solfege (where Do is always C). Movable Do works just as well, provided someone provides a sample Do. – Boodysaspie Jan 22 at 6:01
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There is a difference between being able to hear a correct note and being able to produce one.

The first does not require physical effort, the second needs fine muscular control.

The first thing to test is, can you hear a problem with your own singing?

Record yourself on your phone, singing along to a well-known song in the background. Play it back. Can you detect any problems with your voice and how it sounds?

If you can hear that your voice sounds 'off-key', then you have a way forward.

If your voice sounds perfect to you but everyone else thinks it sounds off, then it's likely that you simply don't recognise pitch accurately or at all. This is true of some people.

Do you find that you enjoy listening to songs because of the words; or drums because of the rhythm; but not to, say, orchestral music with neither?

If you truly have little sense of pitch, it is not impossible that you could learn to be a drummer. Of course that requires an excellent sense of rhythm.

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I was pretty much in the exact same boat with no musical background. I found a great voice teacher and took lessons for a few years. A great deal of the first year was just ear training. Many times I'd sing a note, it sounded right to me, and then he is like "no, this note", "you're flat", etc.

As you can imagine it felt hopeless at times, but after lessons and practice I gradually got a lot better.

So yes, yet another "get a teacher" answer. I know there were debates about how effective remote voice/music training was but for something like ear training I'm sure video lessons (i.e. a synchronous conversation with a teacher over video chat) would be more than sufficient. And of course in current times I'm sure remote learning has gotten even better out of necessity.

A few other things that might help

  1. Try matching pitches in falsetto instead of chest voice.
  2. Record yourself every day and listen back to it until you get used to the sound of your own voice and can better evaluate it.
  3. As others have noted, get an instrument and learn. I know piano/guitar might seem cliché but they're great starting points for a reason. I was the same way with guitar, had no idea when it was out of tune, but now I can tell it seems "off" and in my brain I know now it needs tuning.
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Singing can help. I didn’t have the confidence to try this/ thought I couldn't for years - and wish I had just tried sooner.

Using a tuning app to help you see what you are singing is a good idea. (You may be latching onto overtones or other bits of notes - a guitar sound may be easier to match than a piano - a note from an instrument will often for example contain bits of other pitches and you need to learn which is the main bit to pay attention to).

Some start by singing any comfortable sound, then using an app to tell them what the pitch is, and then using some kind of instrument or app to match that pitch - obviously if you have someone who can sing your note for you, all the better.

Some of us haven't had the experience of being in tune with someone else and need the experience of same and different. (Somewhere there's an odd story of a girl who learned to match pitch after realising what she thought was being out of pitch actually was the opposite.) I also found it helpful to hear a sound a major third away from me (Five notes up or down on the piano, counting top and bottom).

If like me you have never sung, you may just need to spend some time getting used to making random sounds and start with a small range - eg making sweeping sirens of sound up and down, imitate a fire engine. Or express surprise or disappointment- your speaking voice probably changes pitch. See it with the tuning app. Then try turning that into singing.

Some find humming easier - others recommend singing on the syllable 'bum'. Learning how to breathe for singing is said to help with pitch.

Learn to listen and try to remember what you have heard, and imagine singing the note before you sing it. But don't get hung up on it as you start.

If you can find a find-your-voice style choir/teacher, you may find it is full of people in a similar position and teachers with experience in helping. Beginner's Kodaly or Dalcroze classes are also designed for this kind of thing.

Are you really hearing yourself? Try cupping your ears/ recording the sounds you make - what comes out may not be what you imagine.

When you are close but off pitch, the dissonance can be quite crunchy - can you hear that? It can be easier to hear than being further off - again, if you have something that tells you what pitch you are singing, experiment with sounds around that note.

Spending time with really simple children's songs etc is also helpful - though be wary that you may be hearing an ingrained misheard version rather than the real thing) - and I still often find my poor singing gets in the way of perception sometimes.

When I started out I didn't know anything about relative pitch or harmony. (I didn't know for example that if you play the first and third note of a scale together, it can sound nice, and scales aren't random). Knowing about this helps. Plenty of online resources for that, eg - Andy Mullen used to have some helpful free resources - useful even though they went a bit fast for me - (https://theimprovingmusician.com/about/) - he's a follower of Edwin Gordon who did a lot of research on how kids learn music with a focus on trying to develop audiation skills - the ability to hear musical patterns internally)

Inventing tunes using a really few pitches - just messing about - is also a good thing to do.

Learn songs by heart - and when you can playing it in different keys. Edwin Gordon published collections of pattern-based songs for children. (Marilyn Lowe published a Gordon-influenced set of piano course books which I have found helpful.) Sing these into a pitch app once you can. (Eg singscope; or try use the sightsinging apps with their built in tunes for the feedback https://sightsinging.mystrikingly.com/ - you can start by playing yourself the sounds you are trying to match, sight singing can come later)
As your hearing improves, your memory for music should improve too.

You already have advice about drones etc

Persistence, patience, a little every day.

Start with recognising big differences.

Interval recognition is hard for some of us - as others have said, functional ear trainer's approach is more accessible- though beyond the basics you are likely to find it overwhelming at first.

Some intervals are thought of as consonant (Eg octave/fifth; some dissonant (Eg minor second, tritone). If you set an interval trainer to play harmonic intervals, can you hear if it sounds more or less settled?

Also there are apps that just ask you - higher or lower - someone else may remember the name of the app that does this with closer and closer sounds - the developer noted stringed instrument players before tuning apps were said to get good at discriminating pitch because they had the constant practice of tuning.

I do ear training exercises without singing too - my poor singing can get in the way sometimes and doesn’t always help me).

I can't claim any great success with these approaches and doubt I will ever play by ear - but they have made a difference to the way I hear.

There's a culture of perfectionism around music - being tolerant of what you can do is important. You learn by doing. While you are learning what you are doing won't be perfect. Especially if you are going to try singing, you need to be willing just to give it a go.

Also just relax and listen to individual sounds and patterns.

I also think that for me, the part of my brain that processes music isn’t well connected to the thinking/speaking parts of my mind - there is something about just letting go and trusting yourself to do that I still find hard. Interesting in this connection the reports about musical memory surviving in some people with advanced dementia.

There are lots of other solfege singing videos out there - find one you like - you can sing along as best you can without worrying if you might be out of tune - you are still listening and hearing, and your body is getting used to making sounds - Andrew Rostas has some I like https://www.youtube.com/c/AndrewRostasMusic/videos.

You can also look at primary school music teacher training videos online - the exercises they are learning to teach can be useful.

Good luck.

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