I've been playing guitar for more than 10 years, although not very seriously. I'm not at all gifted, but I'm not tone-deaf either. I've always thought that I'm not meant to understand music, so I didn't try proper ear training or anything. And I've never had any kind of musical training.

I've been taking in more and more music theory, mostly through YouTube channels (12tone, Adam Neely, Rick Beato, Signals Music Studio, Holistic Songwriting...) and some books. But the more I learn, more disappointed I get.

I can't recognise intervals properly (apart from an octave), I can't identify chord quality (I tend to identify lower or quieter ones as minor, and vice versa), I don't ever hear the root or have a "sense of home" when the root note/chord is played, I don't recognise tension and release (you can persuade me you've played a V-I if you only let the last chord ring out longer or strum it slowly), I can't differentiate between I-IV-V and ii-V-I... People talk about chord colour, but I hear it through the qualities of sound (actual sound of a particular instrument or effect), not pitch relationships. And the leading tone? Yeah, I'm not hearing... The list goes on.

What I can do is maybe identify harmonic minor, but you could trick me with Phrygian if you played it with such a purpose, I guess.

I repeat, I'm not tone-deaf. I can sing on pitch most of the time, and although I can't sing an octave above or below very well, I seem to be able to whistle things even more accurately then I can sing them. And I've been exposed and drawn to music that's not exactly "simple", so it's not that I haven't had the chance to hear more than I-IV-V in action.

Is there any way to learn these things? I feel like a colour-blind person being shown a test for colour-blindness. I know the numbers are there, I'm just not seeing them.

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    Recognising musical things means, "what would I have to do to make it sound like that". How much do you play yourself? How much do you try to play by ear? Do you try to accompany songs by ear? For every hour of youtube videos and internet forums, spend ten hours playing. You only actually learn by doing. Media is mostly just entertainment and a market where your attention is the merchandise. Do you have gigs? Do you accompany songs for friends and family? :) Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 1:52
  • Thanks for the comment! I play almost every day, from 15 minutes to 1-2 hours, it depends. I'm not a musician and I do this only as a hobby. I'm not aiming to have the ability of a working musician, but come on! If someone spells it all out and then plays it, I thought I should be able to at least go like "ahh, I get it". Not like "it's all the same to me".
    – dzenesiz
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 1:56
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    You can’t recognize those things just by learning they exist. You have to practice and train your ears, just like you train your fingers to play an instrument. And it takes years, just like playing an instrument. Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 4:17
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    When I was young I was a crack in solfege. Since 30 years I am working with computers and I’ve been realizing how this virtuousity gets lost and lost if I don’t imagine or whistle the tones. I have to recover everything. Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 6:57
  • When you say you "play", can you add a bit more detail? Are you playing from a score? From tabs? By ear? Do you improvise or compose? Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 8:56

4 Answers 4


Here are some things you can do:

  • Sing everything you play; sing the voicings horizontally and the chords vertically
  • Follow your inner ear when you play.
  • Sing canons one voice after the other; try to hear the other voices
  • Sing the cadence I IV V I horizonally and vertically
  • Train to sing and hear the resolution of the dom7 (each tone separately!)
  • Do the same thing with vii°7 chords
  • Practice singing major and minor triads on the same root
  • Play the authentic and deceptive cadences, listen to the differences and sing them.
  • What do you mean by horizontally and vertically?
    – Anna
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 10:32

Why am I not hearing concepts I'm aware of?

We have to acknowledge that different people have different abilities. Sometimes these are inborn, sometimes they are learned and of course sometimes there is a combination.

I personally can only marvel when I hear that most conductors can look at a full orchestral score and hear the music in their heads. Their job is then to make the orchestra sound like their imagination. The same is usually true for composers. Mozart was known occasionally to keep his compositions in his head until the last minute and then scribble them down a few minutes before a concert to be sight-read by the musicians.

I do believe that we can maximise our innate ability and Albrecht Hügli has given some good tips - practice makes perfect.

There is a parallel with learning a language. Young children can pick up a new language remarkably quickly - adults not so much. Note that adult learners almost always retain a 'foreign' accent whereas children don't.

The best advice is "Start young!" as did Mozart, but for you and me that is perhaps not possible - I was a late starter in music.


I feel like a colour-blind person being shown a test for colour-blindness.

I'm not a psychologist and I haven't studied pedagogy. But I claim that you develop a better sense for distinguishing colors and tastes and sounds by producing them, not only observing. If you don't see yourself as an active and responsible part of the chain of actions, your observations don't serve anything, you don't even really see, hear or taste things in the analytical sense you want.

For learning to happen there has to be a motivated feedback loop where you are the producer, observer, evaluator, owner and decision maker. If it succeeds, you gain from it, and if it fails, you suffer the consequences. You set out a goal ("throw the ball into the basket"), you try to do it (throw the ball), you observe (look at the trajectory of the ball), you evaluate (did it go in? did it go in only barely or by luck?) and decide if it was what you wanted, you make the decision to try again, something a bit different, or the exact same thing. Repeat. And slowly but certainly, you start to develop a sense for that subject - you start to notice new things about the intricacies of ball throwing, or chord harmony or whatever.

Some people are more "talented" and sensitive to harmony than others, perhaps making the learning process faster, but everyone has to practice. Each time you'll make more and better observations and decisions, and you develop a model of the subject domain in your mind. I strongly believe that you cannot receive the model into your brain from youtube videos or anything, even though that's what everyone would like. That's what technology is for, gain without pain, right? I hope not. Be a subject, not an object.

Practice accompanying easy songs by ear. Use an instrument that gives you a strong bass tone. A real physical acoustic piano might be a good choice, or an acoustic guitar. Play strongly melodic songs that are in C major and can be accompanied with the chords C, F and G, maybe also Am, Dm, E for the minor side of music. Every once in awhile, look at ready-made answers from lead sheets and play the songs from there. Then put the written music away and try to play it again. Try other songs you've never seen written music for, but that are familiar to you. Repeat this. If possible, boost your motivation by trying to do it with an audience. ;) Or imagine there's an audience. But you have to believe very deeply that getting it right matters, like your life depended on it or something.


Why am I not hearing concepts I'm aware of?

Most theory concepts aren't inherently "there in the sound" - they just are a way that we choose to model the sounds, or the way those sounds are produced. Often, music theory even offers us more than one way to model a certain sound - if you could actually "hear" the theory concepts, you'd be hearing more than one thing at once.

So - listening to (or even playing) music in itself won't teach you music theory. Learning music theory will teach you music theory, but it won't necessarily teach you to relate that theory to the music you hear, which seems to be where you feel you could improve.

Personally, I found the best activities to do for relating theory to sound are not playing, but composition and figuring out songs by ear. Both of these activities encourage you to use music theory because the theory makes the process a lot easier; you're also naturally constantly correlating the sound with the concept.

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