"Ear Training" and Pitch Perception

The idea for this thread has come from recent efforts to improve my aural skills. I have no affiliation with any company offering ear training programs, and this is not a “sponsored” post. I am simply sharing my own recent experiences.

To clarify, I don’t have “bad” ears, I think it would be fair to say that my ears are average. Over my twenty or so years of playing guitar, I’ve worked out plenty of songs by listening. I’ve practiced recognising intervals and chord types, and I would score quite well if tested.

However, aural skills have never been a strength. My aural skills, particularly pertaining to pitch, has always lagged behind the other elements of my musicianship.

@JakeEstner (who clearly has excellent aural skills) shared this gradation of aural recognition skill previously on this forum.

On this gradation, I would say that I’m typically between grades B & C. I have only very rarely experienced grade A, and I sometimes find myself in grade D when transcribing complex music, or when dealing with a confusing timbre (synth sounds, etc).

I’m sure in part that some of the time, resorting to grade D is the result of my perfectionism, a need to get every detail just right, rather than “good enough.”

The issues are solely related to pitch. I can recognise and internalize rhythms quickly. I have a very good sensitivity to timbral characteristics, for example, on a typical guitar part I would have little difficulty identifying the broad type of guitar and the pickup position, the type of amplifier, etc. Pitch has been the only thing which has given me problems.

Again, I don’t think I have “bad” ears. However, no amount of transcribing or supplementation with interval and chord recognition exercises have helped me to get beyond this stage. Transcribing most songs is pointless busywork, and transcribing complex music can become very difficult and time consuming with little benefit. It makes transcribing feel like a chore, or at best a labour of love.

I’ve always been envious of the musicians I knew who just seemed to be able to hear everything instantly. My old guitar teacher is astonishingly fast at transcribing. One of my close friends who started playing about the same time as me had more aural skill within his first three years of playing than I have now, he just seemed to take to it incomprehensibly fast. I’ve always regarded the people who can transcribe without an instrument, purely by their sense of relative pitch as having a truly extraordinary musical ability. For a long time, I just believed I didn’t “have it,” and that maybe I never would.

I’ve mentioned this in @tommo 's recent thread about the process of becoming an expert, but I’ve I’ve come to believe more and more that when we encounter an expert whose capability and performance seems incomprehensible to us, it’s extremely rare that they are doing what we are doing and simple “doing it better.” Much more often, they are doing something different, which is much more amenable to achieving their seemingly incredible results.

In the last few months, I realised that this was likely one of those cases. So, I began looking for more information on ear training. I really wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew that the approach of practicing interval and chord type recognition (which is by far the most prevalent method in most apps and courses) and just “doing more transcribing” wasn’t it.

I must have alerted the Google and YouTube algorithms, because very soon every advertisement I saw was for some ear training course or app. I looked into reviews for each course, and found that almost all of them follow the same approach of interval and chord type recognition.

Then, I saw an advertisement on YouTube for a course on relative pitch by a website called Use Your Ear. The style of the advertisment was honestly off-putting, it seemed so reminiscent of all of the advertisements for for guitar courses I’m typically inundated with (Guitar Mastery Method, BERNTH, Guitar Speed Builder, Breakthrough Guitar, etc, etc) that I almost immediately skipped it without a second thought.

However, I caught myself, I told myself to at least watch the advertisment and if it turned out to be more of the same, I could forget about it. The advertisement actually said very little, other than that the method of learning intervals and chord types and just doing more transcribing doesn’t really work. So I clicked the link to visit the advertiser. The page gave almost no information away, but it offers a chance to view a presentation on the method. I didn’t like how this all felt, it’s so reminiscent of all of those time-wasting presentation style adverts we’ve all seen before. The page said the presentation is 3 hours long. I really wasn’t expecting much, but I had a large block of free time the next day. So I signed up.

The next day I sat down to watch this 3 hour long presentation. Again, initially this all felt like your typical time-wasting advertisment. A lot of time trying to sell the idea of why relative pitch is important (as if I didn’t know already), some time spend stressing that learning intervals and chord types doesn’t really work without really explaining why, and some video comments from satisfied customers. I was beginning to lose interest and I was ready to close the presentation and move on with my day, and then it became interesting.

There were a few short demonstrations of the problems focusing on interval and chord type recognition. Essentially, recognition of intervals and chord types depends upon musical context and is affected by timbre. In the absence of a tonal framework, we may be able to instantly recognise a melodic/harmonic interval or a chord type. However, when a tonal framework is established, we do not recognise equal intervals as equal. For example, if we establish C major, we do not perceive the major 3rd interval C to E as being “the same” as the major 3rd interval G to B. We may instantly recognise a a maj7 chord in noot position in the absence of the tonal framework, but we do not perceive the Imaj7 chord as having the same quality as the IVmaj7 chord. The tonal context takes priority. If we try to focus on the intervals or the chord qualities, we lose our tonic and our place in the tonal framework. We then need to re-establish our tonic, and we may unintentionally modulate.

Another issue is that our preception of intervals and chord quality in the absence of a tonal framework is affected by changes and differences in timbre. If we play the major third interval in the absence of a tonal framwork and simply make the higher note brighter, we perceive the interval as larger. If the relative brightness or darkness of the individual voices in a chord change in the absence of a tonal framework, we perceive the chord type as having changed.

The presentation went on to explain that the tonal context is fundamental to our perception of music, and that when presented with any melody or chord progression, we naturally attempt to establish a tonality in our mind. Clear examples were provided, and a list of references to peer reviewed studies on musical perception were cited.

The video explains that the internalisation of tonality and the tonal gravity of each scale degree are therefore the foundation of the Use Your Ear method. At this stage, I was positively intrigued.

The video then gave some exercises for the viewer to follow along with, related to identifying scale degree over a tonic drone, retention of a melody in short term memory and identifying a scale degrees, and identifying the chords in a chord progression. You’re told not to use an instrument as an aid. I did really quite poorly.

Then, the presentation included footage of students who have been using this method. After signing up, they were offered 1-on-1 sessions with the course instructor Leonardo, and asked to do excercises similar to those in the last paragraph. The student’s struggles all felt very real. They’re all clearly uncomfortable, and they fail. They feel embarassed and disheartened. They soon resort to their instrument as an aid, and the exercise devolves into a process of “hunt and peck.” This was very much my initial experience when I started trying to train my ears.

The same students were shown after several months of training. Now, they recognise the melodies and chord progressions without using their instruments. Their retention of the melodies and progressions in their short-term memory is more reliable. They still make some mistakes, but they’re much more comfortable and less embarassed. Even their vocal pitch has improved.

This all felt very real. I was more than interested, I was impressed. I was waiting for the video to wrap up and tell me how much this program costs. The price they give is €697. I could not justify that price to myself at the time. Had it been €300 I’d have bought it on the spot. I thought to myself that I could justify €400, but not €700. I told myself I’d keep it in mind for a later time.

Again, I was just about to exit the presentation when they give a discounted price, €397. That’s still expensive, and I can definitely understand somebody saying it’s too expensive. I’ve spent more on CTC overall.

I decided to go for it, and I’m very glad that I did. In the short amount of time I’ve been practicing the exercises in the introductory early units of the course, my aural skills have improved dramatically. My internalisation of the tonic function and the tonal gravity of the scale degrees (the “key’s colours”) has become much more robust.

It turns out, that my internalisation of Do, Mi, Fa and Ti were all very strong, Re being just a little weaker and Sol and La being noticeably weaker. I’m not sure exactly why these weaknesses had persisted through over twenty years of playing guitar (and having taken singing lessons). I imagine that being so consonant with the tonic, I perceived Sol as having a weak pull to the tonic, and that being the tonic of the relative minor, I perceived La as stable or not wanting resolution.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to install locking tuners and switch from 10s to 9.5s on my Strat (very happy with both changes by the way). I wanted to learn something with a real Stratty character, and I decided to learn Big Log by Robert Plant. That’s a song I like, but not something I’ve listened to all that much. After one listening, I could pretty much play the intro & verse parts immediately. I was a little thrown by some borrowed chords in the bridge section (“Leading me down…”), but I recognised that they were non-diatonic immediately and I could recognise them soon enough. Granted, it’s not that complex a piece of music, but this is the closest to @JakeEstner 's Grade A that I’ve ever experienced.

The realisation relative pitch is not so much the ability to recognise intervals or chord quality, but instead the ability to strongly establish and retain a tonal framework and understand and recognise the notes and chords we encounter by their tonal gravity, function or “key colour” has been incredibly powerful for me.

I’m reminded of when my father (a very good drummer) insisted I spend time with him as a teenager learning to feel a pulse, internalise rhythm, follow a groove and find my pocket. I didn’t “have it” and then one day, in one of our sessions it all came on like a lightswitch.

There was nothing wrong with my ears. There never has been. There were issues with my internal representation of the major scale which affected my ability to retain the tonic and identify scale degrees. There were issues with my approach to and thought processes while listening. We call it ear training, but it is really the mental programming of our internal representations of musical structure. It’s our mental representations and our interpretive processes which improve, not our ears.

I have begun noticing some very strange things occurring. The first thing I noticed was that when practicing melodic dictation exercises, I recognise the scale degree much more immediately than the octave it’s in, which I now only notice afterward. Before, when trying to follow intervals and melodic contour, the change in the height of the pitch would have been the first thing I noticed.

I’ve also noticed that more and more often, I find the pitch I hear (externally or internally) on the guitar without playing any reference notes. It’s not 100%, but it’s definitely rising. Some sort of intuiton seems to be leading me to the correct note on the first attempt. This is very strange, because this isn’t relative pitch and it’s not something that the course promises or attempts to teach.

It’s possible that this is due to the improvement in my relative pitch, with reference to some tones held in memory. Indeed that seemed to me the most plausible explanation. I can’t quite explain it, but it feels wrong.

We’ve probably all seen Rick Beato’s video on why adults can’t develop absolute pitch, and I had read and believed for years prior to that video that absolute pitch was something which could only be learned in early childhood. The working idea being that the development of absolute pitch is related to language aquisition in early childhood, and the closing of that window is somehow vaguely related to synaptic pruning. I had even read the assertion that absolute pitch is not actually learned in early childhood, but that it is present in all infants and it is only retained by a small percentage through their early childhood. We’ve probably all heard that those who have perfect pitch inevitably lose it in later life, with it shifting down approximately a semi-tone.

I have to say I’ve become very doubtful of all of this. Rick Beato is a musican, a songwriter, a producer and a music educator. With all due respect to him, none of these, nor him having two children with absolute pitch makes him an authority on the subject. Further investigation shows that there is some significant dispute in science about what absolute pitch really is, and the idea that it is impossible for any adult to develop it is actually in contention.

People can and do learn to speak new languages as adults, many with impeccable accents. Adults can learn to imitate different accents in their native language. Both of these tasks require the ability to hear and produce phonemes they are unfamiliar with. While the incidence of absolute pitch is higher in people who speak tonal languages, tonal languages do not demand absolute pitches while speaking.

Even the idea that those with absolute pitch “lose it” in later life isn’t really accurate. Instead, people who possess absolute pitch still retain an internal model of absolute pitch, it simply no longer agrees with the external world.

They lose accuracy, but they retain precision.

The only proposed mechanism for this shifting of absolute pitch I’ve found while reading is that it’s somehow related to changes in the cochlea with age. I’ve also read numerous comments by people claiming to have perfect pitch that they have in the past temporarily lost their absolute pitch when they’ve had an ear infection or a particularly bad cold.

We tend to treat the terms “pitch” and “frequency” as being synonymous, but “pitch” is the perceptual analogue of frequency. It’s natural to surmise that absolute pitch is a sensitivity to frequency, characterised by the ability to identify and reproduce frequencies without a reference tone. But this doesn’t really add up quite right for me. The frequencies of notes don’t change as we age, whether we have absolute pitch or not. The frequency of a note doesn’t change when a person with absolute pitch gets an ear infection or a particularly bad cold.

On top of that, frequency really has nothing to do with phonemes in language. We can all distinguish an “ooh” sound from an “ah” sound, the frequency of those sounds not being relevant. How does any of this add up?

What if instead of being a sensitivity to frequency, absolute pitch is a sensitivity to something else entirely? Then, if not frequency, what else?

If we were to record a base tone and produce subsequent tone by digitally pitch shifting the recording of the base tone, the only thing that would be different in an objective, physical sense are the frequencies. Our ears, and specifically our cochleas however, are an imperfect, soft structure.

Could it be the case that as part of how different frequencies of sound interact with the cochlea, there are very subtle different, internal “phonemes” that cannot be measure objectively, but which are subjectively experienced? Nothing so drastic as the difference between an “ooh” and an “ah,” but something of that type, which is repeatable and with each tone having it’s own characteristic phoneme. Could this be the element of pitch perception which enables absolute pitch?

To clarify, I’m not discussing timbre, or an objective interaction of frequencies which could be measured on an external measuring device. I’m specifically referring to the subjective experience caused by the imperfections of the listener’s own ear. Then, they learn to recognise and produce tones without a reference not by the frequency, but by the sensitivity to that internal phoneme.

I spent a few days wondering if this could be the mechanism of absolute pitch, as it reconciles the sensitivity to phonemes in early childhood with the gradual shift in absolute pitch due to aging. I wondered if somebody with perfect pitch might be able to confirm or refute this idea. I even thought about asking here if anybody had absolute pitch. However, it seems that most people with absolute pitch don’t know how it works and can’t explain how to do it.

I came to the conclusion that absolute pitch may indeed be something that could be learned as an adult, but if those who possess it don’t know how they do it and the rest of us aren’t even sure what it really is, it would be unfeasibly difficult to develop as a adult. However, unfeasibly difficult is not impossible. At the very least, my assumptions about what were possible had been examined and their validity had been questioned. Maybe indeed it can only be developed in or retained from early childhood, maybe there is a genetic component, maybe you do need to be one of the “special people.”

Then, I remembered the narrative I’d heard so many times as a teenager about Shawn Lane’s technical facility being due to him being some genetic anomoly. I remembered how I believed I had reached my “genetic potential” for guitar technique in my late teens, and I remembered that when I began to question that assumption, analyse Shawn’s methods and practice them, I was finally able to imitate some of his results. I remembered that my rhythm came on like a lightswitch as a teenager and that my relative pitch is rapidly blossoming now later in life.

Well, I had been thinking about these ideas for a few days, and I came across a commenter who claimed to have developed some degree of absolute pitch as an adult by following a method developed by somebody named David Lucas Burge in the 1980s. I looked into it, and I found the official website that Burge’s courses are sold through, which include citations of two university studies performed in the 1980s examining the effectiveness of his method. That was interesting.

While looking for reviews from those who had taken Burge’s course, I found the course itself hosted online. I usually pay for things, but curiousity got the better of me and I downloaded it and started listening. If the course works I’ll buy it.

The course is quite poorly organised, but interesting. It requires several hours of listening before Burge gives any description of the mechanism of absolute pitch or any exercises to develop it. However, he does eventually explain that a listener has an experience of pitch seperate from the frequency, that each pitch has a subtle sonic character (which he calls “colour”). Again, he explains that this isn’t the timbre of the instrument or anything which can be objectively measured, but a subjective internal experience.

He gives the example of an F# and an Eb. He claims that every F#, regardless of the instrument timbre or the octave, has a subtle “twangy” or “vibrant” quality. He claims that every Eb has a mellower, softer quality. It may have only been the power of suggestion, but in that moment I heard it, and then quickly lost it again when I tried to focus upon it. Then, when I wasn’t trying, I heard it again. It felt absolutely bizarre. He then explains that you can’t try to hear it, you have to relax and let the experience happen.

I really don’t know what to think about that experience. Again, this could easily be the power of suggestion. I’ve studied sleight of hand and magic, I know how unreliable my sujective experience is in that moment. Others might think I heard it because I wanted to, but I don’t feel particularly emotionally invested in absolute pitch, particularly with my relative pitch rapidly improving. Still, I was curious, and so I continued.

The first exercise given is to listen intently to each of the chromatic tones from C3 to C4 and try to associate a feeling or character to each pitch, making a list. Relaxed, effortless listening without expectation. Honestly, this initially felt silly to me, but I got into it, made my list and I wrote down my associations. For example, I felt in the moment that C had a stable, tranquil character and that F seemed to convey individuality, a daring to be oneself. I feel silly thinking about the entire process now.

However, when I picked up a guitar anytime in the last few days, I try to remember how C felt in that moment. Not how it sounded with some known melody as a reference, not the tension in my vocal chords. Only the association. More often than not I’m singing a perfect C.

I genuinely have no explanation for this, but I’m incredibly curious how things progress from here.

I’m aware that this was a monstrous post, but if you have any thoughts you’d like to share on these topics, I’d love to read your input.

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I’m curious because I have an average ear as well. I bought the Beato program awhile ago but just couldn’t get into it for whatever reason. Is this the program you are referring to?


Yes, that’s the program.

If you look around on the website you should be able to find an option to sign up for the presentation. The discount codes are given at the end and they reduce the price very significantly.

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I think one aspect of ear training not
Mentioned enough deals directly with the instrument. Something ive gotten better at but haven’t mastered and its mostly for pure improvisation but i think it is a very valuable skill; which is knowing your intervals/distances between notes while playing. Knowing after I hit this note, if i move my finger up or down this much distance, the guitar will make this sound. I often will hit a fret thats one interval off like a major 3rd instead of a minor 3rd when just trying to play according to my ear instead of a memorized pattern/shape. I attribute this to ear training because if your ear is solid enough, it should be able to guide you along the fretboard however you deem fit. But i dont really ever see that get discussed with ear training. Maybe its a byproduct of good ear development so it doesnt need its own discussion? I dont know. But id love to get a stronger ear for sure, ive just never really seen progress with the little practice ive done. Ive considered going to like a formal piano teacher and beginning piano to learn proper ear training lol.

Have you ever tried the strategy of learning intervals by assigning them very well known musical bits? Like how a minor 2nd interval is the famous jaws theme song? Ive done that but if im listening to the newest pop song on the radio, i dont really hear it in the same context as that sort of practice

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This has been important for me in getting to the level I am at currently, and it was something Ive focused on a lot. I’ll share my approach here.

First, each of the twelve intervals up to the octave can be played starting on any of our four fretting fingers, often in mutliple ways. The shapes of the intervals are consistent across the guitar except when those involving the G to B string crossing, which are shifted one fret, or which are unavailable because they would be a fret below an open string.

For example, let’s suppose we’re practicing the major 2nd interval, and suppose for simplicity that we’re not involving the G to B crossing. We choose some note which we fret with some fixed finger. We sing that note (in whatever octave fits our vocal range) and then we play the note a major 2nd above in with the different fingerings which are reasonable, singing the interval each time.

Let’s choose the Eb at the 6th fret of the A string, for example. The note a major second above is F. If we fret this note with our 1st finger, the sensible position to play the F is at the 8th fret on the A string, with either the 2nd or 3rd finger. We sing the Eb and the F as we alternate between the (1 2) and (1 3) fretting combinations. In this way, we learn to associate the finger coordination with the sound of the interval.

Then, we change the finger which frets the Eb reference note. If we fret with the second finger, the sensible fingering for the F is to use the 4th finger at the same position as before (8th fret on the A string). Agin, we sing the interval as we play with the (2 4) fretting combination.

When we fret the Eb with the 3rd finger, the sensible position to play the F is at the 3rd fret on the D string, fretting with the 1st finger. So, our interval shape involves a string change. Again, sing the interval as we play with the (1 3) combination. However, not that the two notes are on different strings, we also take the opportunity to play the interval harmonically, listening carefully and then singing the individual notes which the harmonic interval rings out.

Finally, we fret the Eb with the 4th finger. The sensible fingering for the F is the 1st finger in the same position as before (the 3rd fret of the D string). Again, we sing the notes as we play the interval with the (1 4) combination, and we play the interval harmonically as before.

I would work through all twelve intervals up to an octave in some random order. I would perform all fretting permutations of that interval before moving on.

We also need to practice the shapes which involve the G to B crossing, but I’ve never found this to be a source of confusion. Both my picking and fretting hands always no which string I’m playing, so I intuitively know when the shapes/fingerings will change.

Then, I take some time to freely improvise, being sure to sing the tones I play (in whatever octave fits my range).

Again, I feel that this practice has been valuable to me. It has absolutely helped to connect my mind’s ear to my hands.

The result is that when I can clearly auditiate the note that I’m looking for, my fingers know how to find it immediately. However, this process is dependent upon my ability to clearly audiate the notes, and when I can’t clearly audiate the notes it’s of no help whatsoever. This process has been of limited help in developing my ability to audiate. That is, this process was of limited value when it came to strengthening my internal representation of musical structure and my interpretive processes.

As the practice focuses upon the intervals in the absence of a tonal framework, it has the same limitations that I discussed in the original post. Also, as the guitar and the coordinations involved in playing the different intervals are the entire purpose of this exercise, it did nothing to help me recognise pitches without the guitar as a reference.

Yes, when I trust that my hands will find the next note that I can clearly audiate, they do. When I think, or when I can’t audiate the next note, I would get lost.

Yes, I’ve tried this, and it has never worked for me. The issue is that when we hear those examples, we hear them in the tonal context and they assume a particular character. So, if a piece is in C major and it begins with a major 3rd from C to E, we cannot use that interval recognition to identify the major 3rd intervals from F to A to from G to B, because in the tonal context those major 3rd don’t feel the same to us, and becuase the tonal context gives different sensations of tonal gravity (pull to tonic) which takes priority over the distance between the tones.

The result is that if we try to recognise an interval by referencing the example melody, but the interval we wish to recognise has a different tonal gravity in the context of the music we’re learning than in the example melody, we must abandon our internalised tonic and mentally modulate. If we do this, we must either recover our tonic so that we can become grounded in the tonal framework again, or continue modulating to recognise each successive interval. It’s an extremely demanding mental process.

The better process is to focus on finding and retaining the tonic, and identify each pitch by it’s tonal gravity to that tonic. The mental process is much more efficient.

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Interesting indeed and we can def discuss this more in our next consultation. So would you say having a well developed ear is more like an on the spot skill? Or more of an aural memory/vocabulary of sorts? Take the classic blues pentatonic lick for example where you bend the G string up and hit the B and High E strings or the first part of the classic Chuck Berry lick; i can hear those and know within a song when that will fit our sound right. So i wonder if its just an extensive aural vocabulary that needs to be developed. I should preface this by saying i only watched the shorter intro vid to the UseYourEar so i dont fully understand his approach yet with the implied harmony

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Hey @Tom_Gilroy cool thread. Congratulations on your progress!

I’ll admit I skimmed, mainly due to being tight on time (you know I like reading anything you write :slight_smile: ). Are you referencing 2 separate courses/methodologies that you’ve test driven? I noted a lot of relative pitch specific items in the first half of your post, near the end I’m seeing more of the absolute pitch phenom mentioned and it sounds like you’ve progressed on both?

The way you describe associating notes with a particular mood or feeling reminds me of what I read in some of my music history courses in college, where many of the great composers chose the key of their pieces due to it just “feeling” different than if they had written in another key. It also reminds me of ads near the end of Guitar World magazine (1+ decades ago…I haven’t read the magazine in years) where nearly every month someone was selling a perfect pitch product. It always interested me and I recall him speaking about pitches having a particular ‘color’ to them.

I’d developed pretty solid relative pitch during my studies as a music major. I don’t practice it anymore but I could dust it off in a few days and be back I think. It was good enough that I could transcribe or compose without an instrument to test on (as long as I knew the key :slight_smile: ) Absolute pitch I’d always written off as out of reach, just from standard belief as well as Rick Beato’s accounts :slight_smile: You have a good point that even though he’s an amazingly well-rounded musician and has first hand experience with his children’s stellar pitch that it doesn’t necessarily make him an authority.

Also, I’d confirm that a strong sense of tonic and ability to know what all the scale degrees sound like in relation trumps great interval recognition. You’ve articulated the reason behind this very well - the context within a key changes everything. I had to be a good boy in college and learn the interval recognition so I wouldn’t flunk out :slight_smile: but things really started clicking for me when I started focusing on scale degrees.

Anyway, I’m interested to hear of any further discoveries or experiences you have with this. Ear training has always fascinated me and come very naturally. Knowing myself, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if whatever I did to achieve whatever level of success I’ve, was not the most efficient way lol! Hearing alternate perspectives is always nice.

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Would or would this not require knowing every scale then? Because modes (moods; thanks gambale) each have something different to create their unique character. Arent the scale degrees technically just intervals at the core?

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I don’t think of them that way, not saying it’s wrong or anything. I just worked on being really strong on
A) NEVER letting go of “doh”
B) Knowing what each scale degree of the major scales sounds like
C) Same as above, but for minor

I don’t need to know every single scale. Anything like a mode would take care of itself since all the standard ones just have one or 2 (locrian I think is the only one with 2) different notes than a major or minor scale.

Example: Lydian is just a major scale with raised 4th and that’s how I hear it. Even if I was figuring out a song that was in “C” and I only heard the notes C E G in the background, I’d think of it as “C”. Once I hear an F# I know it’s actually Lydian, but it jumps out to me because I heard a raised 4th scale degree.

This type of ‘relativity’ would then transfer to all major scales, I wouldn’t have to learn anything new if the same thing happened in the key of G.

EDIT: Fun fact, even Homer Simpson knows this. Look at him trying to get to the conclusion that his show’s theme song is in the Lydian mode. He has a great start, just finding “doh”

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I think it’s there an element of both.

For the “on the spot” aspect of the skill, there’s the immediate recognition of the individual notes and chords within the tonal framework by their unique characters, which are created by the tonal gravity. However, over time we also develop a vocabularly of larger units, which we can use for chunking. That could be a familiar lick, pattern or sequence of chords. That could be a II-V-I, a familiar scal pattern or the Chuck Berry lick.

I also think that both of these elements help to reinforce eachother. The more easily we can recognise the individual notes and chords within the tonal framework, the more easily we can build new chunks. The more robust our mental model of the individual chunks, the more easily we can recognise that a situation we encounter is new or different, and specifically how it is different.

Thank you! These developments have been very exciting for me personally. Practice feels fresh and productive. I feel that I know have a clear understanding of why I struggled in the past and what I need to do to improve. More importantly, I believe that I am improving rapidly and will continue to improve.

No worries, the post is a monster.

Yes, the TL;DR of the OP is as follows:

I have average ears and I was dependent upon having an instrument while transcribing. No amount of transcription or practice with intervals has helped me to improve beyond a certain level. I was looking for solutions and found a Relative Pitch course (Use Your Ear) with a completely different foundation and method, being focused on the internalisation of the tonal framework and different interpretive process. It was expensive, but I noticed rapid improvement in my relative pitch.

I experienced some peculiar moments which I could not explain through relative pitch or pitch memory. I started thinking about what absolute pitch actually is, and came to the conclusion that absolute pitch could possibly be a sensitivity to subjectively experienced “phonemes” characteristic to each tone, rather than frequency itself. During my reading into absolute pitch I found a course by another creator (David Lucas Burge) which seemed to support this hypothesis, so I started listening and doing the basic exercises. I don’t fully understand why, but there seems to be something to it. By only focusing on the “feeling” I associated to C, I am frequently singing a perfect C. No audiation, no trying to remember what C sounds like, just how it “felt.”

I have always felt that transposing some songs to different keys resulted in the song sounding “wrong,” without understanding why. For example, guitarists often play Hendrix (or SRV) tunes without tuning down a half step, and I always knew that something was off. It just “felt different”. I always assumed that I was just noticing the difference in timbre, but I’m beginning to believe it may well be more than that.

I wonder if that was Burge’s course, it’s been around since the 1980s.

Again, for anybody reading, all due respect to Rick Beato. I’m just entertaining the possibility that he could be wrong about something.

Every time I had previously looked into developing my aural skills, all I could find was the standard interval method and the “do more transcribing” advice. It’s very encouraging to hear that shifting your focus to internalising the scale degrees was what really accelerated your progression. It amazes me that this isn’t the standard method and that it took me so long to find this approach.

I will most definitely be giving updates on this as I progress.

I think Joe’s answer to this is spot on. Lydian is just major with Fi instead of Fa, Mixolydian is just Te instead of Ti. You internalise the major scale, learn what changes and you have the all the major modes. You internalise the minor scale, learn what changes and you have all the minor modes.

I’d also add that the vast majority of popular music is tonal and not modal.

Ok, here’s something you don’t know about me. I was obsessed with The Simpsons as a child. To this day, not having watched the show in about a decade and not having followed any of the new seasons, I still regularly and totally unconsciously respond in conversations with a related Simpsons quote. It drives my girlfriend crazy, like I’ve suddenly decided to answer a question in another language that she doesn’t understand.

My mental representation of the Lydian scale is stronger than my mental representation of the major scale. The pitch I can most easily identify and reproduce without a reference tone is C.

The Simpsons theme is C Lydian. That could be a complete coincidence, or it might not be. I just thought it was interesting.

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I don’t know if this is significant or not, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ll hum a song (even a ‘favorite’ that I’ve heard countless times), then pull up the recording to listen to it and what I was humming was off, usually half a step flat.

That’s to say, transposed songs don’t usually sound wrong to me because I erroneously do this in my head all the time lol!

I think I arrived at it pretty early in my ear training because that was the way my theory professor presented it. Particularly on:

  1. Melodic dictation
  2. Sight singing

I remember him always imploring us “Don’t lose DOH!!!” while we’d do the melodic dictation. His reasoning was, if we could remember “DOH”, and we could remember the melody (this was often the difficult part actually…holding onto the melody if it was one we’d never heard), we could just figure out what scale degree we heard and that was that.

Sight singing was just the opposite. If you know what “DOH” sounds like and you have your scales memorized, you’ll know what “fi” sounds like when you know you are in C and you are presented with an F#. That bit may be what @carranoj25 is getting at in the question of having to know all the scales. In that context, yes, you do. You have to be rock solid that if you are in B major, the 5th scale degree is F# and that note is “Sol” in your mind’s ear. Same for any key. Truth be told, most of us on this forum don’t need to be able to sing (out loud or in our head) the score in front of us as we tend to learn songs we already are familiar with, and 99% of the time it will probably be tabs we go to :wink: Still, I think having to go through the sight singing was an important step for me as it help me further internalize “scale degrees”. I always found it more difficult than melodic dictation, particularly because it needed to be done in “real time” to get all the points on the test :wink:

The interval recognition he taught us by the method mentioned earlier: minor second = jaws, perfect 5th = twinkle twinkle etc.

Honestly I never recall him telling us the significance of why we’d ever want to do this or how to use it in a practical setting. So to anyone new to ear training, I’d advise to concentrate all efforts on being able to know what each scale degree sounds like (and don’t lose “DOH”!!!). I think it will fast track your experience and I think it is closer to how you’ll actually use ear training in the real world.

Good for you!!! That is great to know. I think having an appreciation for clever, light hearted humor goes a long way in life! I use humor whenever I can. I’m often reminded by my wife that I’m nowhere nearly as funny as I think I am…but what does she know??? She has no sense of humor!!! lol! Plus, if I make myself laugh, that’s all that really matters. It’s good medicine for the heart.

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Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter

As for Rick Beato, he didn’t come up with the idea that you can’t learn perfect pitch as an adult.

What he has also always been clear on is that you can develop relative pitch as an adult, and you can get it to the level that it’s indistinguishable from perfect pitch.

I think (and this definitely isn’t going to apply to someone as analytical and thoughtful as Tom Gilroy) there’s a tendency to think of relative pitch as somehow “lesser” because it doesn’t have “perfect” in the name.

Here’s an idea, just something that might be fun to try. Think of a song you know. Try to audiate the melody and sing the first note. Check if you’re in key, or if you’ve naturally transposed.

Let some time pass (enough that you lose the tonic), maybe listen to other music. Then think of that same song but try not to audiate. Instead, try to think about how the melody makes you feel, it’s meaning to you and the character which makes it unique to you. Sing the first not and check if you’re in key, or if you’ve naturally transposed.

I would guess that these are very different mental processes.

Here’s an example of a case I found particularly interesting. Some time ago I decided to learn Holding Back the Years by Simply Red (Mick Hucknall is one of my favourite singers). Listening to it, I thought it would be easy enough to do. It’s a simple enough melody, and most of the song is just a II-V vamp.

I could not determine the key. Sometimes it sounded like it was D minor, other times like Eb minor. It doesn’t modulate, but it felt like a “blend” of those keys. It turns out that the recording isn’t in concert tune, and the tonic is somewhere between D and Eb. When I shifted the tuning to concert in Transcribe!, whether I shifted to D or Eb the song just felt completely wrong.

I learned it in Dm, because that seems to be the key it’s usually transcribed in. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it all felt so wrong to me.

When I associated characters and feelings to each concert pitch recently, I felt that D somehow wanted change, while Eb had a softer character, that it somehow had accepted what it was. It’s hard to capture in words.

Thinking of the specific emotion of that song now, it’s something between those for me. There’s regret, a wishing for things to change and be have been different, but also a softening, an acceptance that those painful memories have become part of us, and so we keep holding on.

That’s interesting that you were explicity told to focus on identifying and retaining the tonic and knowing how the other scale degrees sounded relative to it. I definitely agree that keeping a melody in our short term memory is another important task, and it’s something the Use Your Ear method has a deliberate focus upon.

I remember learning the intervals in this way also, but I was never really able to apply it practically.

I’m well aware of this, he’s just the most well known proponent of that position. I had read that absolute pitch couldn’t be developed in adulthood for years before Rick was making YouTube videos.

Many take his videos on the subject as authoritive. From my reading, it seems that there really isn’t a scientific consensus on what absolute pitch actually is or by what mechanism it operates. The position that it cannot be learned in later life seems to be in contention.

The reason I’m unconvinced that my recent experiences aren’t simply due to an improvement in my relative pitch based upon some memorized reference tone or tones is the following. In the moments where I can sing a tone accurately without reference, there is no audiation. I don’t audiate an internal reference tone and try to determine what the pitch is.

Instead, I simply allow myself to embrace the feeling I associated to the note, and when I sing it’s somehow automatically the correct note. I can’t do it with every note and it’s not 100% accurate yet, but it is improving. If I try to audiate the pitch, or audiate a reference pitch and apply relative pitch, it’s more difficult and less accurate.

I don’t understand how this can be explained by simply having improved my relative pitch. My subjective experience of this is completely different.

I think this is understandable to some degree. Interestingly, the course by Burge says that the domains of perfect pitch and relative pitch are completely different. In some sense, that absolute pitch is akin to the colour in an image, but relative pitch is the focus.

If the choice is colour without focus, or focus without colour, I would choose the latter. I would choose relative pitch.

Burge also claims that perfect pitch is like being able to identify the individual letters in a word, but


He claims that relative pitch is what allows us to recognise the words of music, rather than the individual letters.

Is the useyourear course well structured?

I’m still working theough the early units, but I would say it’s very well structured so far.

The central conceit of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept is that the Lydian scale should be treated as our parent scale.

Dang i just checked the site. Theres no way to watch the free webinar on your own time? You have to watch it at one of the scheduled time slots?

I happened to do some perusing on internet and came across this reddit post. Obviously take with a grain of salt, but seems like the course is just a solfège approach?

I watched at a scheduled time, but I didn’t know that you can’t watch it on your own time. I just chose a time that I knew I would be free the next day.

Also, the method is definitely more than “just a solfège approach.” Singing tones to internalise the scale degree is an important element of the method, and you are encouraged to used solfège syllables and movable Do (unless you live in a country with fixed Do), but it’s much more than that. Honestly, I think that to describe it as “just a solfège approach” is extremely reductive.

Solfège really isn’t a method. It’s really little more than a set of syllables for scale degrees and the principle that the best way to internalize their characters is by singing them. There’s no system of progression, no heirarchy of skill development. Solfège doesn’t address the development of short term musical memory or the analysis of chord progressions. It doesn’t tell you what to practice or how to practice it.

Again, I’m not in any way affiliated with this program, I get nothing for recommending it. Maybe the realisation that ear training should be studied in a tonal context is not revolutionary for some people. Good for them, for me it was revelatory. Maybe others would be happy to take that starting point and try to learn everything for themselves. Good for them, I would prefer having a clear structured method.

I genuinely dislike the clickbaity style of advertisement. I can totally understand how this appears like a “scam” to some people, but it isn’t.

Honestly, I think UYE is like the CTC of ear training.

Really interesting thread; getting those ears together is important for sure! I might check out that UYE and see what it’s about!

I too am a music school grad (1995) and while my picking blows (Don’t worry, I’ll get it) , there’s a lot of tools at my disposal due to that education that more than make up for the inability to play alternate picked 16ths at 300bpm or wherever the kids are at these days. The schooling I took revolved around eartraining, then harmony, and then arranging with instrumental studies feeling almost secondary. The emphasis was on reading, and chord studies - not one grade or bonus point was received for being able to play 16ths past 120bpm.

It sounds to me from what I have read in this thread that you are well on your way to getting what you want out of your ears, so keep on keeping on!

Eartraining at the school I went to was an hour long class, 3x a week and about 2hrs (minimum) practice every day. We followed the Berklee sightsinging book, and would have a full chapter of melodies and rhythms that would be practiced each week, and then tested at the end of the week. So you had to a) sing each example and conduct to keep time, b) transcribe any of the practiced melodies and rhythms c) guess pitches after he played a quick 1451 cadence (relative pitch) - he’d play it 3x. So a written and a singing test. less than 80% was a fail, attendance was mandatory. Fail eartraining and you were kicked out of school basically.

The difficulty grew from simple major melodies and triad chords to modal and polytonal melodies, key and time/tempo changes, simple rhythms to polyrhythms and odd time. It was pretty tough, but that experience really helped my growth as a musician, even now.

I think that because the curriculum at the school was geared to have you eartraining the concepts learned in harmony and arranging class, and then you play that stuff on your instrument one ends up internalizing the pitch, and then analyzing it, and then outputting the information.

A big part of it, for me anyways, was realizing that mistakes and failures are important too, so you have to learn to leverage those as well as your successes. I would confuse Re and Te sometimes and it was a big victory for me to understand why I was confusing them and sort of devise a mental trick to convert and understand that perception if that makes any sense.

PS modes are just not a big deal - I perceive them in a few ways 1) as an “inverted” parent scale - major, Melodic Minor and Harmonic minor 2) As a distinct tonality using a “parent” key signature. 3) Polychords ie Dmaj/Cmaj gives CEG DF#A (Do Mi Sol Re Fi La) Which just screams Lydian sound. I don’t ever “practice” modes as fingerings because, well all you are really doing is practicing a parent scale starting on a note that isn’t the root. Melodies just don’t work that way, so it’s better in my opinion to be super familiar with the harmony and intervallic structure and then improvise with said scale with a chord that ISN’T the tonic. For instance, use your Cmajor scale fingerings and all of the diatonic chord arpeggio harmony, but play that stuff over Emin7 and then you are actually playing Phrygian and hearing it, doing it in context. Loopers and recording software make this a great way to practice guoitar stuff AND burn a concept like modes into your ears.

Anyways, just some opinions. I love talking about this sort of thing so I’m sorry if I rambled a bit. Good luck in your quest, I know you’ll get it!


That is hard-core!

Wow that is way more in depth than anything we had to do. Definitely great for growth tho, as you said.

Oh stop it lol! Your picking is awesome!

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