Can You Fix a Tin Ear?

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:

Identifying what we hearWhether you call it “having a tin ear” or “being tone deaf”, many musicians feel the great frustration of not being able to accurately label the sounds they’re hearing. It’s a sophisticated activity when you think about it: we’re essentially listening to the air vibrate, and then identifying what that was. But if those kind of listening skills are in short supply, is there any hope for you?

I teach aural skills at university, and I’ve changed my view on this over the years. While there is a window of opportunity that is wide open in childhood, slowly closing as we age, I believe that adult musicians can make great strides in training their ear, and I’ve seen it happen.

A big step toward improving your ear is to learn a bit of basic music theory. Even if it’s just the nuts and bolts of being able to name notes on a musical staff, and learning how to write out some simple scales, this knowledge will get you going in the right direction. It’s part of basic music literacy.

Beyond that, I strongly believe that transcribing music will strengthen your aural skills more than any other musical activity. Here’s what I get my own students to do: I give them sound files of different pieces: solos, duets, trios, and so on. I give them a month per song to write down what they’re hearing. I encourage them to sit at a piano, or with their guitar, and find the notes they hear. Most students find this frustrating at first, but then become surprised by how much they are learning.

This kind of transcription exercise is a bit like learning a language by speaking it. At first, you feel that you’re getting no where, and then – you realize that you’re getting better and better.

I like transcription exercises more than simple “identify the interval” or “identify the chord” exercises, because it presents real music in a musical context.

The older you are, the slower progress can be, but you mustn’t give up. I have seen people of all ages improve with these kinds of transcription exercises. If you are in your late teens or early twenties, the window of opportunity is definitely closing, but it is not closed, and you will be surprised by how much progress you can make. There are lots of sites that can play intervals and chords for you, and tell you if you’re getting close.

Singing is also a great ear trainer, especially singing that requires you to match other singers, like in a choir. And singing in choir is great because you can couple your singing training with your ability to sing what you are seeing printed on the music in front of you.

It is normal for ear training to be a long, slow process, even at the best of times. So be patient, and you will see improvement.


Gary Ewer has written six songwriting e-books designed to get you writing the songs you’ve always known you could write. Read about those e-books here.

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