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I heard that Mozart heard Gregorio Allegri's Misere Mei Deus once at a concert and copied it down note for note from his head. I can copy down a piece note for note if I have it in my head, but I'm really frustrated because I'm having trouble listening to more than three or four voices at a time when listening to dense polyphonic music (5-15 voices). Is still enjoy listening it to an extent, but it feels increasingly more like a reminder of my ear's incompetence than anything else. How did composers in the Renaissance listen to 8 simultaneous, independent voices? I'm wondering if there's anything that I can do to help me improve this skill.

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    I think that was a special talent of Mozart’s. You shouldn’t feel bad in any way if you can’t also do that. – Todd Wilcox Feb 5 at 16:39
  • Agreed. I had a friend (not seen him in years) who could listen to 4 bars of any orchestral piece & immediately write it out - vertically down the pages - then another 4 bars, on an old piano-key cassette player (inc tinny speaker). I've always imagined that was rather something of a special talent. I've never met anyone else who dealt with that kind of task truly polyphonically, most will concentrate on one instrument or section, then go back to get the next. – Tetsujin Feb 5 at 18:25
  • I read one report that Mozart actually listened to that piece twice, not once, although he might not have heard the same vocal solo both times. – Dekkadeci Feb 6 at 3:12
  • Relax, you’re not that special. Music isn’t made for parsing out, it’s made for listening to and getting lost in. If you can’t enjoy a piece of music without deciphering everything that’s going on, I feel badly for you. It’s like saying you don’t enjoy eating a dish if you can’t figure out every ingredient. Or focusing on every brush stroke instead of the whole painting. The artist didn’t create the piece to be a puzzle for us to figure out and replicate, they created it to be taken as an expression in its entirety. – wabisabied Feb 6 at 4:35
  • @wabisabied - I find myself unable to enjoy sandwiches at catering due to my dread - or certainty upon further observation - that the sandwich contains mayo or some other unpleasant sauce. Only if the sandwich contains no such unpleasant sauce do I enjoy it more, but I swear my dread detracts from my enjoyment and replaces it with stress. – Dekkadeci Feb 6 at 15:01
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This type of instantaneous recognition and notation is really something only possible for individuals with absolute ("perfect") pitch. And acquiring that is typically only possible for young children that are surrounded my music and musical instruction from such an early age (like Mozart was) that these skills are as natural to or I speaking, hearing, and writing in our native languages.

So don't fret if you can't do this. I have a PhD in music theory, and with a single hearing I could probably get, at best, only eight measures or so of only the highest and lowest voices. (Note that I don't have absolute pitch.)

With that said, there are common stylistic patterns that composers use that could help you with this. The opening chord progression of Mozart 40 is the exact same as the opening chord progression of the opening prelude of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (only the Mozart is in minor), and recognizing this can quickly help you fill in outer voices even if they aren't literally what was written in the score.

A similar question could be how these composers conceptualized writing these 8 voices (not to mention 40!), which may be more in line with what you were thinking.

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  • I have met more than one person (two, to be precise) who had perfect pitch and no musical instruction or ability. And the capacity to transcribe music accurately by ear does not depend on perfect pitch unless you want to say that someone who can transcribe a piece in the wrong key, but otherwise accurately, has failed to transcribe the piece. Mozart's feat was more an impressive demonstration of memory than of ear training, and the fact that the Miserere is so very repetitive makes it somewhat less impressive than most people assume. – phoog Feb 7 at 0:20
  • @phoog - I'd say that anyone who transcribes a piece in the wrong key has failed to transcribe it (correctly). Different remixes of the same theme in a video game series can be in different keys, for example, amplifying the need to transcribe each version correctly. An extreme example is Mario Kart: Double Dash!! track themes, which strongly tend to have their final lap versions be one semitone above usual, be sped up, and otherwise sound the same, including instrumentation. Transcribe them a whole tone down from in-game and those transcriptions are wrong, though. – Dekkadeci Feb 7 at 16:18
  • @phoog - Granted, I've heard that people who transcribe music accurately in the correct key without absolute pitch often use an instrument and their pitch-matching skills to help out. – Dekkadeci Feb 7 at 16:22
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" How did composers in the Renaissance listen to 8 simultaneous, independent voices?"

They didn't, or at least not any better than you or I can. The Mozart anecdote is supposed to demonstrate his unique talent. Not to show the general level at his time.

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