These great composers of the past: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and my personal favourite Elgar, all lived in a time where they had only a piano to work out their various symphonies or their serenade for strings for example, when it came to notating their work, preparing it for orchestration.

This would surely mean that their ear for music would have to almost be of ‘perfect pitch’ would it not? This is something you are born with I believe. The great composers would hear (Beethoven was of course deaf in his later life) the music (as stupid as it sounds...in their head) and then, naturally, notate the chosen melodies, harmonies on the manuscript. They did not have an ability to plug in a keyboard to a computer; no software for playback and so on.

My question is, if one's musical ear (as I have found) is not up to that... craftsmanship shall we say, can it be trained as such? Are there any good examples or best practices for training your ear to gain almost perfect pitch, where you can hear it in your head and then write it down almost immediately?

Elgar for example, would pore over Brahms’s 3rd Symphony, reading it all the hours god sent, but in order to hear that, he would have to have an idea of what that sounded like. Does a bad musician translate to someone who cannot hear this, unless it is played aloud?

  • This would surely mean that their ear for music would have to almost be of ‘perfect pitch’ would it not? Why is that? What's wrong with a piano?
    – Stinkfoot
    Nov 16, 2017 at 1:33
  • 2
    And for what it's worth a piano is generally considered the best instrument to compose or arrange on. It has all the range you need and a relatively smooth gradient of timbre between registers. The general wisdom is that if if sounds good arranged on a piano it will probably sound good everywhere else as well.
    – user37496
    Nov 16, 2017 at 1:54
  • 1
    Actually I listened to lectures by Professor Robert Greenberg from Berklee collage, on the masters of classical music. He said just that, Mozart had everything in his head, he wrote a whole symphony hours before it had to be played. He had all the parts, everything, inside.
    – Nachmen
    Nov 16, 2017 at 8:09

2 Answers 2


Our ears can be trained. The notion that you're either born with "perfect pitch" or you're not is a myth, and "perfect pitch" itself is relative and comes in different forms.

Berklee College of Music : Ear Training

Ear training, one of Berklee's core requirements, teaches students how to hear and apply melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic musical forms.

Ear training assists instrumentalists and vocalists in mastering the technical and stylistic aspects of their instruments, writers in notating music they have created or arranged, and listeners in understanding what they are hearing.

First-semester placement is based on your music placement test scores, taken during your initial week at the college...


Is it possible to train perfect pitch ?

Do "Perfect Pitch Programming" tracks actually work?

Perfect & Relative Pitch, and its relation to genetics?

And many others.


Your focus on 'perfect pitch' is not all that helpful. Yes, a composer needs an 'inner ear' but, as you say, there is generally a piano for pitch reference. So let's not get too hung up on 'perfect pitch'. A composer certainly needs excellent 'relative pitch' - having established the pitch of C, he must just KNOW what A sounds like. And what a chord containing several notes sounds like. And how it will sound, and fit in to the music, when played by different instruments. And he needs to be able to 'read' a score, hearing in his head what it will sound like. It really doesn't matter THAT much whether he 'hears' it at a strict A=440 pitch or not though!

Yes, of course all this develops with experience, with practice and with good teaching.

Many of us here will be accustomed to 'composing' by trial-and-error. Maybe even by constructing instrumental music that way in a sequencer or score-writing program. And these can be excellent tools for giving a rough idea of what a musical idea will sound like, of trying out something that might otherwise be considered too risky to put in front of live players with limited rehearsal time.

And remember, as well as the part of the music business where a rock group may be able to inhabit a studio for weeks while trying out material, or a track may be endlessly developed by trial-and-error on a computer, there's the world where a studio and musicians are booked, the music is handed out and that is what will be played. It has to be right. And THAT is where the composer and arranger's craft is tested! The definition of a professional is not so much being able to produce occasional genius, but being able to consistently produce high-quality product, and produce it QUICKLY. Otherwise, it's a lousy hourly rate :-)

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.