I've always had trouble with relative pitch and hearing music in general. When I was younger I couldn't tell you if it was a major or a minor chord I was hearing (when other people seemed to be fully able to), and very recently I didn't do much better than a dice at telling weather the interval I was hearing was an octave, a perfect fifth or a major third*. I'm also terrible at remembering how songs go.

I have trouble recognising consonance and dissonance, so most of the music making I've done so far is by strictly following the few theoretical "rules" I know, but that doesn't help much when it comes to impromptu playing.

Despite all this, I love music, and I would love to be able to play it on my own. I used to play the piano from reading sheet music when I was younger and the few times it felt like I was playing with my heart were absolutely amazing. Now that I'm older and playing around with a guitar (and more recently a harmonica) I feel like my lack of relative pitch is severely limiting me.

I don't want to think I'm tone deaf in the medical sense**, but I sure am darn close. What are the things I could do to improve this situation? I feel like a graphical designer with colour blindness and it's been haunting me since I was very young. Every music learning material seems to assume a normal relative pitch, i.e. they assume you can hear when things are dissonant and correct yourself based on that.

My dad has been making music all his life, my mother was an accomplished piano player, and my sister can pick up any instrument with relative ease. One of my highest wishes is to be able to unhindered create music with my dad before he passes on. Unfortunately, with his close-to-absolute pitch, he doesn't understand my situation and doesn't know how to help.

I understand I might not have said everything I should say, so ask any questions if you need clarification.


* It's not that I can't hear the difference between the intervals when I hear them in succession, it's just that when I hear them in isolation I have no idea which is which. It was the same with major and minor chords last I tested (which was a while ago.)

** According to The Internet™ I am just above "possible tone deafness," touching the "low performance" boundary in a tone deafness test. This gives me some hope.

  • 1
    Without getting too controversial, there is very little difference between "absolute pitch" and deep training. Perhaps your problem is that you hang around with people who make you feel inferior. Identifying arbitrary notes has little to do with the act of playing music in much the same way as identifying positions has little to do with love making. Certainly study can be fruitful in both domains, but experience trumps all. – horatio Jul 18 '13 at 15:45
  • @horatio thank you. I don't think you're very controversial, because there's definitely an element of truth to your comment. I was under the impression, however, that most people (even those without musical training) can (e.g.) identify chords as being major or minor with a higher success rate than my 65%. My main problem is however with my difficulty in hearing when things are dissonant. That makes it incredibly difficult for me to use tones/chords that sound well in the context. I just assumed that disability is connected to the others. – kqr Jul 18 '13 at 17:11
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    I am 100% self taught and have played for nearly 30 years. When my children's (over 18) friends have overheard me they think my kids are pulling their leg when they are told it is me and I am not listening to the radio or playing guitar hero or whatever. I have played in bands and have done a lot of jamming. That said, I cannot identify chord names in isolation but I can find them pretty quickly. There is no doubt that learning the right way is the better way, but unless your goal is to be lead X in Orchestra Y, you are playing for personal enjoyment, forget about parlor tricks and have fun. – horatio Jul 19 '13 at 19:18
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

I can tell you right now you're not tone deaf. Tone deafness is a myth and I'll tell you why.

From an Anatomical Point of View

If you were tone deaf, you wouldn't be able to understand voice phrasing. You wouldn't be able to Even recognise between playing 2 notes on the piano. you wouldn't even be able to understand speech.

http://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.html

This is an important point for getting past that, because when you set the limiting belief of "I am tone deaf" your mind will find ways to make it real. I put it to you that you're far more attuned to pitch than you give yourself credit for. It's been discussed elsewhere on the site that anyone can learn realtive and perfect pitch, It's just that some people have learned it from a much younger age, so it is more natural to them.

Secondly, this is a psychological hump to get over. I, and I all musicians go through the same problem where they think "I cant play x", and the important word to add is always YET. "I can't play x YET" but I guarantee given enough time you can find a way. I can confidently say that if I spend enough time on it, I could play Rachmaninoff, Ligeti, you name it and come see me in 30 years ;) It took me about a year to learn to Identify all the ascending intervals up to an octave, and I've got min6 - maj7 left to get good at descending. It's not arrogance to say I can achieve these things , because anyone can do it, these systems of learning are built into us as human beings but the limits happen when someone talls us "this is not for you, it's too dificult" or even worse "you're not good enough".

Enough people say it an you start to believe it, even though it's an imaginary wall.

In Practice

For practical resources in ear training I highly recommend starting with ascending intervals.

Garry Willis has an ok book, but you begin to learn the CD patterns after a while, so it's like you memorise the answers rather than the pitches.

There are a few cool apps on Android too. Perfect Ear pro is the one I use. It's got single intervals(ascending, descending and harmonic), scales and modes, chords etc, but interval identification is the one to start with.

If you let me know what tech you have to work with I can tailor this section better

Sorry to go all oosie woosie on you, but genuinely you're not tone deaf, and accepting that you're not will go a long way to allowing yourself to learn. All perfect/relative pitch is, is to associate a pattern with a name. If you keep at it regularly enough your brain will work with you! I'm sure someone else can give a far better guide to physical books and resources, but reading your question I believe that understanding the psychology is important to making the progress you want.

Typical musicianship includes ear training with the goal of relative pitch vs. absolute pitch in mind. There are tons of tutorials and books to get you started on training your ear to perceive differences of melodic steps as well as harmonic content but the most important part is to have a teacher. If you were to enroll in a college level music theory course you should be able to get a reasonable challenge of learning relative pitch via ear training. Most college level music theory courses spend MWF covering lectures on theory while Tuesdays and Thursdays are devoted to ear training--learning to recognize intervals, chords, durations, etc.

Another thing to take into account is what instrument you are using for ear training. If you use an instrument with a complicated overtone series you will have a harder time distinguishing notes. For instance bells vs. flutes, complicated vs. simple. Also if you are using a piano, be sure it is of the highest quality and in tune. You would be amazed how a cheap out of tune piano can really mess up your ear training.

  • Sometimes you can even get absolute pitch on your instrument, but be pretty clueless when listening to other instruments. I can tell you for sure if you played the low F on a vibraphone, for example, but I've got a much harder time with non-percussive instruments (typically). – cjm Feb 13 '16 at 6:36

I'd like to add and reinforce the motivational and psychological answers.

First, I am in your exact situation as you precisely described:

"It's not that I can't hear the difference between the intervals when I hear them in succession, it's just that when I hear them in isolation I have no idea which is which. It was the same with major and minor chords last I tested (which was a while ago.)"

I am no better then a coin toss in distinguishing minor and major when my piano teacher would play chords to me (I tried playing piano for a few months). On top of this: I had a very broken sense of time, I would clap and find myself clapping completely off the beat. Someone commented on this when I was 14 and learning to play the drums, and I eventually dropped that too (and the memory hurt until today).

But, amazingly enough, all of these things can be trained. At the very least time keeping can and I suspect pitch matching as well. I know, because I've been playing the drum for a bit over 5 months. I am not great, but now I know that it's because I've been playing for only 5 months and not because I am broken. My way of listening to music has dramatically changed and now I tend to immediately lock into the time of all but the most complex song. I'd find myself tapping without even knowing it and, with a surprise and a joy I can't explain, I'd be right on the beat!

One very inspirational video that helped me struggle to my initial fear and my idea that I simply wasn't able to was this TED talk. Barbara Arrowsmith was unable to learn and understand abstract relationship. As she would later discovered the amazing neuroplasticity of the brain allows us to fill in for functions that we lack by training. When I saw this I though: even if I am broken, there's still a way!

One of the most important thing I learned was to learn how to listen. Apparently there's a lot of stuff that goes on in my head whenever I listen to a song and try to match the beat. There's anticipation, so I just want to jump in and start beating, without having given myself time to listen and understand what the tempo is. There's expectation and fear of judgment: will I be able to be on time? what will people think if I go out of time? as well as a lot of other distracting toughts. So, now, I try and relax, listen, feel the music, enter into that mode where intrusive thoughts stop and I just listen...and then I can play. And the more I train the faster I get in getting there.

I've been playing for five months and it's been a crazy voyage of discovery. Today, as a beginner drummer I need to understand and memorize and recall better the melody going around me. Next up!

It would be amazing if you could update your question too, how do you fare four years later?

  • Unfortunately, four years later I have not come much further, but I only have myself to blame for that – I haven't practised. When I come across articles on consonance and harmony I do read them to get new perspectives on the matter, but I'm not (currently) able to make the time for practise. I do sincerely appreciate your enthusiastic encouragement, though. And I will watch the presentation! – kqr Oct 30 '17 at 10:58

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