My musical ear is terrible. It is so bad that I don't think any amount of training can get me to a reasonable level (I've tried). Is there a way that I could improve it dramatically?

I am open to any means, be it surgery or using a device in my hear.

My goal is to be able to sing properly.

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    Please also see music.stackexchange.com/q/98/28 and music.stackexchange.com/q/178/28. I do not think Dr Mayhem's suggestion of a coach is needed for improving your ear, though it is for singing. – Matthew Read Aug 24 '16 at 15:06
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    @MatthewRead - a coach is usually a trained, qualified, experienced person. With singing, ear training is paramount. It's not like hitting a key on a piano where you know a right note is going to be. The best person to help with this has to be a tutor or coach, who can correct mistakes there and then., and suggest rectification solutions. Who better? – Tim Aug 24 '16 at 15:18
  • While I think this question probably could be a dupe of the one Matthew gave an excellent answer to, the goal of being able to sing is key here. – Doktor Mayhem Aug 24 '16 at 15:58
  • @Tim You don't need qualifications or experience to improve your ear, you need to train and practice. Frequency is objective, you don't need another person to correct mistakes because you can have a reference that knows exactly what frequency was being produced. Everything you do to assess a the frequency is inside your head, not something a coach can see or hear like singing. – Matthew Read Aug 24 '16 at 16:11
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    @MatthewRead "Pitch is objective" No. Frequency is objective. Pitch is entirely subjective - it's is your brain's interpretation of how a particular sound transducer (your ears) respond to different frequencies. For example, psychoacoustics experiments show that the perceived pitch of a constant-frequency tone is affected by whether its amplitude is increasing or decreasing. Personally, I can raise the perceived pitch of a musical note by up to a minor third, simply by clenching my jaws tightly together - but I have no idea whether or not other people can do the same thing. – user19146 Aug 25 '16 at 3:10

Tone deafness is a thing according to this answer, but "everyone is born with the ability to learn absolute pitch" according to the other answer on the same Skeptics question.

As perception of pitch is dependent on perception, surgery or a device in your ear are not going to help. And be aware that while being able to sing in tune is definitely helped by being able to recognise notes, but there are ways to sing in tune even if you are deaf.

My suggestion is that you should get some targeted training from a qualified and experienced coach. You may think it is impossible, but I'd definitely doubt it. If you decide it is too much effort, then you should perhaps reconsider learning to sing properly - but that will be up to you.

  • Ok, I'll definitely get a teacher. A few years ago I took 1 year of singing lesson, but after that I was still singing completely out of tune. I am able to reach a correct note when singing on top of an instrument. But my singing is completely off with no instrument support. How many years of teaching do you think it can take to a bad singer to become ok? – DevShark Aug 24 '16 at 14:53
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    Being able to sing with an instrument proves you have relative pitch. Absolute pitch is remarkably rare, so don't worry about that. Even professional choirs drift away from the correct pitch if unaccompanied. – Doktor Mayhem Aug 24 '16 at 14:56
  • A good voice coach makes all the difference to how fast you can learn to sing well. – Doktor Mayhem Aug 24 '16 at 14:57
  • Ok, thanks. When choosing a singing teacher, what question should I ask, what should I look for to make a good choice? – DevShark Aug 24 '16 at 14:58
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    I must say @DevShark, your issue is pretty unusual. At first it thought this had nothing to do with aural skills and more with vocal technique. I'm pretty sure it's not tone deafness, because normally tone-deaf people tend to enjoy music less than the average person, or in some case, not at all. Since you love music so much I think it's unlikely that you're tone-deaf. Do you play any instruments? Have you ever tried to play any melodies by ear? It could be that you just have a hard time matching the pitches in your head with your voice. For most people though, this is a very intuitive process. – Anthony Aug 25 '16 at 21:40

Many of the comments here seem to assume that you are only having trouble assessing the pitch of your own voice (along with creating pitches). However, based on your comment it's clear that you are having trouble assessing pitch in general:

I can't think at all about the correct pitches. When I hear a note, I can vary the frequency of my voice until I hear it "resonate" with the note, and then I can hear that I sing the same note. I can sing the same note and also octaves of that note (I also hear them resonate).

This means that you first need to focus directly on training your ear in general, not related to singing. To do this, it is best to rely on objective frequency-based measures and techniques. These do not require a teacher or coach.

Your description of the problem matches exactly with my own experience. If asked to sing a particular note, I was completely lost. If given a played or sung note and asked to match it, I would usually start off completely wrong but could vary the pitch up or down until I heard it match (or "resonate" as you describe). As such, I will recommend the two techniques that helped me most.

  1. Interval training. The most basic exercises for this involve one note being played and then another, with a pause to allow you to identify what interval it is. I used a CD I bought for piano; there are also YouTube videos and similar options. Another is playing a precisely tuned instrument. As above, you want the note frequency to be pretty exact (so be careful if you used a resource based on sung notes — they should be pitch perfect) so that you can objectively assess how you are doing.

    You will start out having no idea what the intervals are, but will quickly learn to hear the "color" of the interval — the particular quality of the contrasting notes. One method to help when beginning is to compare what you hear to a known source of the interval. An example for an octave above would be the first two notes of Somewhere over the Rainbow ("Some - where").

  2. Learning the particular sound of one note. This is about learning the particular "color" of one note, that makes (for example) an A an A no matter what octave it is or what instrument is producing it.

    I chose A440 and started by having it played on my computer while I tuned the A string on my guitar, until I heard that resonating match you described. I also double checked the guitar against a tuner to ensure that objective frequency match. After a couple days I would play the sound on my computer, pause it, and then try to tune my guitar to match — then play both together and see how far off I was, aiming to improve next time. Then I progressed to tuning without playing the computer sound first, and only checking with the tuner afterward. Eventually, I was getting it right every time and didn't need to check anymore.

    If you don't have any access to an instrument, this might be more difficult. There are probably software tools where you could play a random pitch within a narrow range (say 435 Hz - 445 Hz) and vary it manually to do something similar, but I don't know anything offhand. You could do it with your voice as long and you have the ability to record yourself and some software to identify the pitch of what you sing; once again, it should be objective.

These two things combined should allow you to pick any note and "hear" it in your head by figuring out its interval from A, then how that interval sounds, and then focusing on how the second note in the interval (the one you want) sounds. With practice these steps become very quick, and eventually disappear altogether.

When it comes to producing notes with your voice and assessing it, I agree with the others that you want a good coach. But the above should still help as you learn to associate the physical feeling of producing a note with what you hear in your head, and how producing the same notes in different ways still creates the same intervals despite the different timbre and feeling.

I'm still not an amazing singer by any means, but I am massively improved compared to before I did this kind of training. It helped me immensely to be able to immediately identify when I was off-key and by how much, so I hope it will be at least a good start for you. Do also check out the other answers to these posts:

  • Thanks a lot Matthew for your detailed answer. It's also very encouraging to see that you've been able to improve significantly. How long did it take you before there were noticeable improvements? – DevShark Aug 26 '16 at 9:14
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    If you have access to a piano, trying to work out melodies to songs you know very well (nursery rhymes, pop songs, Christmas carols, I don't know your background but whatever is already already burnt into your memory). It will be hard and take a long time, but give immense satisfaction when you get it right, and train your ear a lot. This applies to any instrument but the advantage of piano is that you'll be able to "see" the way the melodies work in a transparent way, that it takes no training or physical strength to press individual piano keys and that the notes are intuitively laid out. – Some_Guy Aug 26 '16 at 12:14
  • @DevShark I would say that the interval training took about a month before I started seeing real improvements, but I only practiced about 5 minutes a day. After that, I started the second technique and was seeing results from it within a week, again with only a few minutes of practice a day. The entire process to fully improve accuracy-wise took maybe 6 months. – Matthew Read Aug 26 '16 at 15:18
  • For interval training and other kinds of ear training, there are several mobile apps. I'm particularly impressed with Perfect Ear, which I think is available only for Android. – ba_ul Jul 5 '17 at 1:14

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