To what extent can you fix a tin ear?
January 26, 2010 2:56 PM   Subscribe

How important is having a good ear to studying/writing music and how much can a tin ear be taught?

I am thinking about going back to school to study music but I have a pretty damn bad ear. I can't even really tune my guitar and I'm a pretty terrible singer. I realize I'll probably never have perfect pitch and of course, I realize that studying ear training will help me improve. But how much can I improve?
posted by saul wright to Education (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's very important and you can improve a lot if you work at it.
posted by The World Famous at 3:07 PM on January 26, 2010

I'm a Suzuki Method violin teacher, trained Suzuki until my teens, then traditional. It's been my experience that increased frequency, intensity, and duration can help just about anyone develop better pitch. My Dad, for example, "played" guitar when I was growing up to the extent of strumming along to Grateful Dead songs. He has always had a nice singing voice, but his pitch was beyond atrocious - even in songs he thought he knew quite well, he would wander all over the tune and never end up where he ought to have done. About 10 years ago (at age 49) he got inspired to start playing guitar again with his church group, and his improvement has been amazing. He has never been to music school and has his own (more than) full-time business, but even in the limited time he has to practice he has made terrific strides. He tunes his guitar nearly perfectly now without a pitch pipe, and lately he's been learning songs by ear for us to play together. It's wonderful. Anecdotal, I know, but still true!

Also, Dr. Suzuki said he could teach anyone - even an adult - perfect pitch if given enough time and focus. I couldn't find an article on this, but if I do I will post it.

Have fun and good luck!
posted by chihiro at 3:08 PM on January 26, 2010

It's very important and you can improve a lot if you work at it.

This is exactly right. Before I picked up a guitar at age 16 I was functionally tone-deaf. I couldn't match pitches or carry a tune to save my life. I studied and practiced a lot and went on to get a degree in music composition, teach guitar full-time for 2 years, and sing in a band.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:12 PM on January 26, 2010

I guess I'll just nth the 'it's very important and you can improve a lot if you work.' It's totally true. It is extremely, extremely important, but you can get better - it ain't easy, but you can.

When I entered conservatory some years ago, my ears sucked. Daily intensive sight singing for four years made my ears hear good. Now I can comfortably open a score (within reason; pre 1920 or so) and sing any of the parts with pretty damn good accuracy. But it wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty getting there. But you can.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:17 PM on January 26, 2010

Also, Dr. Suzuki said he could teach anyone - even an adult - perfect pitch if given enough time and focus. I couldn't find an article on this, but if I do I will post it.

There are a lot of programs that purport to do exactly this, but evidence suggests [PDF] that while it's not totally impossible to pick up, learned absolute pitch is less accurate than "innate" absolute pitch, and it requires persistent training to prevent its loss. All of that is to say that there's no utility in trying to learn absolute pitch. I perform and compose and I can't think of a single reason to want absolute pitch unless you hate carrying around a tuning fork or you're really into atonal music. Absolute pitch is a crutch for a lot of the musicians I know that have it, because they tend to think of intervals in the context of pitch space rather than in the context of key.

Otherwise, I agree with everybody up-thread: if you can listen to music and it makes sense to you, syntactically, then you have all you need to make a major improvement in your hearing abilities. Ear training is all about learning to distinguish information that's already present in the sound you're listening to, so as long as you can hear the sound properly (i.e. you haven't suffered a traumatic injury to your hearing apparatus) the rest of the progress you'll make is cognitive in nature.

Make sure to be honest with yourself about why you're doing this, though. If you're looking to become a performance major and enter that very competitive market, you're going to have a hard time catching up to people who have been working on this sort of thing for much longer. Otherwise, go for it.
posted by invitapriore at 4:26 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might want to start with taking a Music Theory I or Music Fundamentals type of class at a local community college. Before signing up, make sure that the course includes a significant amount of ear-training and sight-singing.

Also, find an outlet for performing, preferably with other people. Join a choir, play guitar in an ensemble (or take guitar lessons with a teacher who is comfortable focusing on reading music as opposed to "just" memorizing chords and riffs).

Once you get into some kind of playing routine and a regimen of ear-training/sight-singing, your ear should start to improve. By the time you finish the Theory course you should have some perspective on music and your ear's capabilities -- and you'll be able to decide whether further music study will be worthwhile.
posted by Alabaster at 7:36 PM on January 26, 2010

I have nothing new to add; I'm just seconding that 1) it's REALLY important and 2) ear training is a pain in the ass, but totally doable.
posted by KathrynT at 11:22 PM on January 26, 2010

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