I've been trying to improve my aural skills for a while now, and I'm noticing that I'm not improving as fast as I used to when I first started. In fact, I'm not improving at all.

My vision was to be able to recognize every note of a melody I'm listening to in real time. This isn't an easy goal to achieve, I know that, but is it even feasible?

I can only recognize a note if it's held for long enough (quarter note or longer) and the tempo is low enough. If a note isn't really emphasized (passing tone on a weak beat) I have to replay the phrase a hundred times in my head before I can guess it.

Anyway, my question is not about the techniques and methods of ear training. I'm interested in knowing how fast and accurate a musician's ears can become (for people with perfect pitch, and relative pitch).

I don't have perfect pitch, and I wasn't born a musical genius. How far can people like me push their skills? And what about those exceptionally gifted people like Beethoven and Mozart, did they really have the superpowers we think they had?

  • Anthony your question raises issues that would be great to discuss in a live meeting but here they are probably off-topic because they are opinion based. But as a short answer I would say training improves skills. The more you train to sing in your head all note of a melody (by their note name), the faster you do the same next time/melody. About people with perfect pitch find out which note it is as fast as you would find out the words in a word like (yesterday). But of course everyone is different, so it's not a general rule. – Sergio Aug 16 '13 at 8:29
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    @Sergio I appreciate your small answer. I was hoping people could give some examples to make this question more "experience based" rather than "opinion based", there are plenty of music teachers on this site ; they can certainly give an objective answer. Maybe people can share how far they have progressed, and were they felt they couldn't progress any further. – Anthony Aug 16 '13 at 8:45
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    @Anthony - this question is probably too subjective to have useful answers.If I said that one of my pupils can hear a verse and play it back verbatim, but another cannot even work out what key it's in, both having played for the same number of years, it won't help, will it? – Tim Aug 16 '13 at 11:48
  • @Tim, well it actually helps a lot. It means that the answer varies from a person to another. And it's a completely subjective answer. Does the good student have perfect pitch? Are both students equally motivated? – Anthony Aug 16 '13 at 12:22
  • No perfect pitch- check out absolute pitch. Having this may not help much - relative pitch is far more useful when it comes to reproducing phrases.Knowing what the start note is, relative to keynote, is extremely useful,as is determining what sort of scale is being used, pentatonic, harmonic minor, etc. It's also good to be able to hear a phrase and play it back immediately,cutting out the 'thought' process.If one can write music,then listening to some and writing it down can help,or maybe listen and sing it into a recorder to give a good guide to show progress. Yes,both motivated differently. – Tim Aug 16 '13 at 17:44

Let me give you an example of where I'm at to start.

I just started practicing sus chords by ear

  1. Sus2 ascending chord is the same as Send in the Clowns.
  2. Sus4 ascending chord is the same as Final Fantasy Main Theme

Discoveries like this happen every time your ears begin to recognise new sounds.

I love Modes, and after spending time learning and playing the Lydian mode I began hearing it in songs where it's featured. The same with Mixolydian.

With Time signatures, learning how crotchets and dotted crotchets relate to each other mean unless there's something extra weird going on I can identify whether it's in 4/4, 7/8 etc, and even how the bar is subdivided. Having a developed ear for rhythm makes nightmares like this much easier to comprehend.

The Practical Value of ear training

When you train your ears you're lifting the bonnet on how sounds affect people. You're learning how to understand those sounds and subsequently, how you can use those sounds to affect people.

Just take a listen to Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde prelude. That opening chord has entire books written about it! If you developed your Ear to recognise that sound and how it's made, you could then not only reproduce it, but recognises places where you can utilise it yourself, which is an enormously powerful tool in your arsenal.

Incidentally the Tristan chord works by building to just before a note your ear expects, then playing a chord where the notes are just slightly off resolving, then doing it again and again.

Ted Greene talks about learning to recognise chords by ear and says

If you start to recognise the sound of nice chords when you hear them, you will also start being able to hear nice melodies or solo lines too.

He also says you will be able to anticipate the place that certain chord progressions are going.

John Petrucci said that Soloing is just getting the right balance of tension and resolution

as an extra from me. To do that you need good ears

How far can ear training improve your ears?

How long is a piece of string? in writing the Tristan chord Wagner pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable music at the time, and it took very well trained ears to know that he would be able to do that. Eventually when your ears are at the very limit of music that you listen to, they will go beyond that into something new.

How far can ear training improve your ears(alternate answer)?

It can improve your ears enough to take you next to a mountain, to chop it down with the edge of your hand.

It took all of the music that Hendrix listened to for him to create a new sound. All Hendrix relied on was his ears and intuition and it led him to Tritone intro and the Hendrix Chord used in Purple Haze

It allowed Robert Fripp to write The Court of the Crimson King.

Steve Vai said that your ears are the single most important thing to develop as a musician.

I hadn't really thought about just how far ear training can take you until you asked this directly, so thank you for that, but the real answer is that it can take you as far as you're willing to go. I'm learning to count advanced polyrhythms at the moment, but that's something that not everyone wants or needs to do.

Physical Limitations

Ok, let's take it down a notch, you can't as far as I know extend the frequency range of hearing for humans which is 20 to 20,000 Hertz depending on your age(wiki).

I believe the maximum number of voices you're able to perceive simultaneously is 9, so you couldn't transcribe most orchestral scores in one sitting, though you could probably get the overall harmony in most cases.

TLDR: It can take you at least as far as this

  • Wow thanks for the answer. The "physical limitations" part is very interesting. 9 voices is too much, i'll stick with 1 voice for now, and work my way up to 3. I guess what you are saying that there is no limit to what ear training can do. You also seem to know quite a bit of theory. I'm not focusing on theory anymore because I got to a point where I started relying heavily on theory to make up for my weak aural skills. Do you think that decision is bad? – Anthony Aug 16 '13 at 14:08
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    Well, the two go hand in hand really. I'm with you in that you have to be careful about going beyond what you're ready for theory wise, but abandoning it all together really sets a limit on how far you can go I feel. It all depends on your goal. defining that will dictate how much theory to take in, where to focus learning with your ears and importantly, what not to focus on so you can get there faster! – Alexander Troup Aug 16 '13 at 14:18
  • Link is dead, but not enough info to find a replacement. – Aaron Nov 5 '20 at 18:25

Most people start out slow and then get better as time goes on, so your experience is not unusual. There are definitely people who have a "better ear" than others, but nobody who you are, it's all about practice, practice and playing by ear.


I'm 36. I've done music for over 20 years now. The ear is the slowest, laggiest thing to develop. IT takes a long time, and always seems way behind everything else. (I've done SERIOUS ear training work, too - I'm not a slacker). https://printsbery.com/planner-templates/goal/worksheet

  • I apreciate the answer. May I ask what kind of ear training you did (or are doing)? Absolute? Relative? If relative, is it interval recognition, or scale degree recognition. PS: the link does you shared does not open a specific document, perhaps you could screenshot it? (If you open your link in a private window you'll see what I mean) – Anthony Nov 23 '20 at 13:22

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