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I'm impressed by Kevin Wang's ability to identify chords aurally. He graduated with a BM in Piano Performance from the Rochester School of Music in 2016. I'm assuming that

  1. he has never seen the score for any song that he's reviewing, but I can't verify this. I know that he could hoodwink us by covertly studying the score, before appearing in these YouTube videos.

  2. he doesn't have absolute pitch. I suspect he does, but I want to ask this question for those who lack absolute pitch.

Here are some examples from different Youtube videos featuring him.

1:27 B minor is a rare key for Kpop, so nice.

13:43 B flat major 7 to E major, without transition. The tritone, guys.

14:00 Lil flat 6.

How a/typical are such identifications of chord progressions? Can all competent B.Mus. graduates accomplish this? If not, how much ear or musical education is required?

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  • Kevin's comment at 13:43 actually suggests to me that he does have absolute pitch. – Richard Jun 13 at 6:18
  • @Richard Hi again! I think Kevin does too. But I want to ask this question for someone who doesn't have absolute pitch. How much ear training is required to accomplish Kevin's accomplishments? Don't hesitate to edit my post. – user52144 Jun 13 at 6:20
  • Recognizing harmonic relationships (like hearing that tritone move from B-flat to E, or hearing something as bVI) is certainly doable within two years, although some trickier relationships may take some more study. But being able to recognize specific keys and chord roots is a sign of absolute pitch, which is really something someone has to learn as a child. If someone doesn't already have perfect pitch as an adult, their time is best spent working on relative pitch instead of trying to obtain absolute pitch. – Richard Jun 13 at 6:24
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A typical BA-level ear-training course takes two years, by the end of which individual chords (chord qualities, not the key itself, which requires perfect pitch) and inversions can be identified. This is typically tested as individual chords, or brief, basic chord progressions, not identifying complex chord progressions in a piece of music. What is being demonstrated in the video represents someone who either has above average natural ability and/or training/experience beyond the standard curriculum.

The University of Rochester School of Music, better known as the Eastman School, is one of the world's top music schools, so it's not surprising that a student graduating from there would have this level of ability/experience.

However, to the more general question of how long it takes to achieve this: it takes as long as it takes.

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Let me concentrate a bit on the "perfect pitch" part.

There are some ways of obtaining the precise information about key even without perfect pitch. The two I know of are a bit weird, and I'm not trying to say that they're being used here. I just want to bring attention to the fact that some trick could have been used and perfect pitch (as we imagine it) is not (strictly said) needed.

  1. I can often tell the key if a guitar is being played. This works best either with simple songs where "standard cowboy chords" are strummed, or with classical guitar, which uses open strings quite a lot. In these cases, the reliability is close to 100%. (Example: I can recognize drop D tuning just by the sound of the 6th string. Another example: Once upon a time I had over 50 unlabeled recordings of classical guitar pieces, and all the corresponding scores. I needed to find out which piece is which. So I sorted the scores by key and then identified the key and meter of the pieces. That left 1-2 candidates for each piece, and I checked them one by one.) However, 2 days ago, I visited a jazz jam session, and this didn't work (jazz people use weird chords with no open strings and they mute the chords quite aggressively — a bad combination :—)). This method will also have trouble with keys that have lots of flats (where "lots" usually means more than two :—)).

  2. Another venue to getting exact pitch info is singing. For instance, if I just decide to sing a "low note" without context, it will most probably be a C♯2. A second trick that sort of works for me is this: if I imagine a guitar string being plucked, I can also imagine a corresponding sound. If I sing the note that I imagined and then check on the piano, it is often within a semitone from the correct note (it works best with A). I find these methods to be quite unreliable, and it is important to try this without context. If I heard some music or even a tone recently, this will fail utterly, because my brain will take that as some kind of a base and stick to it.

To make it clear: I DO NOT have perfect pitch but nevertheless I can do the things described above. In the case of the guitar, I'd say that in each key you use the open strings differently, which gives the keys different "vibes" that can be recognized (which explains why it has trouble with keys like B flat minor that use no open strings). With singing, you need to convert between music and actual physical activity, so I guess that by paying attention to your body, you can guess the associated music, and vice versa.

These two tricks are something that I haven't even learnt; it's more of "one day I found that this actually works". I don't know how to practice that, but I guess there are ways, and if someone puts practice into methods like this, it could lead to a sort of "perfect pitch emulation".

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  • In 1. - why mention only flats? Playing in, say, 3 sharps, but not using any open strings, isn't that just as difficult to determine keys? – Tim Jun 13 at 11:23
  • @Tim -- yes, it is, but with 3 sharps you have a lot of open strings available. Of course if they're not used (as in jazz), then it doesn't work too well. But with flats, these open strings are not available at all (each flat takes out 1 or 2), or they give less useful scale degrees (e. g. in F minor you can still use the G string, but the II is not overly characteristic of the key). – Ramillies Jun 13 at 11:48
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    @Tim I know plenty of pianists, for instance, that can instantly recognize pitches played on piano, but they wouldn't be able to do the same if the pitches were played by guitar. – Richard Jun 13 at 13:18
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    3. Using your environment. In college, my father apparently managed to trick the rest of his music theory class into thinking he had perfect pitch by keying off the 60 Hz hum of the fluorescent lights... – Micah Jun 13 at 16:50
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    On cello there are also hints. In baroque one can often hear the open strings, similar to guitar. (Even more true in folky fiddle.) In classical and romantic, open strings are eschewed but certain position changes have a revealing character too. I'd imaging that many wind instruments also have quirks on particular notes that professional players would be able to recognise. – leftaroundabout Jun 14 at 9:24
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Just how long is that piece of string?

This is impossible to answer. As Aaron says, the course is two years. So what? Someone might get there in a few weeks - others might still only scrape through after the full two years.

How much effort needs to be put into it? How much time? How much incentive? How much experience is there already?

What level of recognition is under discussion? Basic triads - to recognising a 7♭9♭5 chord?

Absolute pitch must be of great assistance, but once a key is established, most of us lesser mortals manage pretty well with relative pitch. And time taken varies between a few weeks and many decades!

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