1st. There is no such thing as being tone deaf, this is a myth that does a lot of harm. In the past a person would play a note and if the student could not sing it, they would be considered to be tone deaf. Since they could not sing it was wrongly assumed that they could not hear it. The real problem was more likely that they did not have the vocal skill to reproduce the note. If you have this problem try to pick a pitch that is close to your normal talking voice and start from there. Once you get use to matching a note you can start to move up or down to other notes. It's very important that you experience the feeling of matching a note with your voice before you move onto singing intervals. You don't have to be a singer to do this just match the notes.
2nd. Anybody can learn to play by ear. This is another area where there are some myths that we need to dispel so you don't limit your real potential. Some of the comments you hear go like this "Playing by ear is gift", "you have to be born with it", "either you have it or you don't" ALL THESE COMENTS ARE WRONG. Playing by ear is a learnt skill and it has to be learnt in other words nobody does it without learning it and you too can learn it. But what are you learning? If you learn a song on your instrument by listening to it you have learnt it by ear. Usually the musician sits down with their instrument and listens to the song over and over again hunting for notes until they have figured out the song and if you keep doing this you will get better and faster at it. But you can do much better than that. With the right method and technique you can teach yourself relative pitch, the ability to recognize the distance in-between the notes. If you keep doing this you will be able play any music that you can here in your head, you will learn to play any melody, identify cord progressions, chord types all from just listening. It will also allow you to really improvise music on the spot. All that without having to go hunting or trying to guess notes you want to play.
3rd. Perfect pitch can be learnt. Perfect pitch is the ability to hear a note and name it, C sharp B flat and so on. You would be able to know the key of a song, the notes in a chord on just hearing it. Perfect Pitch does not replace Relative pitch, they are two different things, on hearing C major chord somebody with only perfect pitch could tell you the notes in that chord are C, E, G, but not necessary know its major chord and some body with only relative pitch could tell you it's a major chord but not know that it's in C. In real life a person wouldn't develop one without some of the other, however if you use a system that systematically starts at the very beginning and builds your ear one step at a time through perfect pitch and relative pitch. These days there is some really good ear training soft wear that will do that for you, instead you can develop your ear in such way that the flow of music is from your head to the instrument. Sometimes reading or playing music from tab can feel like your painting by numbers. Playing by ear will change the flow of music from inside your mind to the instrument.
4th. Slow is fast. When training you ear slow is fast and fast is slow, what I mean by that is that when you start to train your ear do it bit by bit and go slow, if you move too fast you can find yourself getting lost. Because you haven't really absorbed the previous lesson and the current lesson incudes the previous lesson. There's nothing wrong with going back, in fact I recommend it but what you really need to do is to understand that ear training starts with knowledge and then you convert it into skill. For example some body could read a book on how to ride bike and they would have the knowledge on bike riding but to get the skill they will have to get on a bike and apply that knowledge in order to develop the skill. With practice it becomes 2nd nature. It's the same with your ear. So if you want to make playing by ear 2nd nature practice using a good system and you will amaze yourself.
5th. Be kind to you self. When you do your ear training drills don't get hung up about how many answers you might get right or wrong. Its more Important that you do regular daily practice and that when you practice you focus your listening and give it your full attention. 15 to 30 minutes a day is enough. If you ever had a song ring in your head then that means you brain has the hardware to play by ear. All we are doing through ear training excises is loading in the software.
And one last thing, always remember that if you are human and you can hear, you already have the gift of music.
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