How good are your ears?

July 21, 2017, 7:03 PM · How good are your aural skills? Do you struggle with dictation and transcription? Can you transcribe away from an instrument?

Also, if you went to grad school, what was your experience with grad level aural skills?

I'm curious to see the responses, especially as answers differ from amateur to professional.

I was thinking today about my aural abilities and what I wished they were. I have a degree in music education and I currently teach elementary music and I have a small studio. I have a good since of pitch svc rhythm, I can figure out simple melodies pretty quickly on the violin or piano. I suck, however, at notating chord progressions. I struggled with aural skills (my only c's in college).

Replies (21)

Edited: July 21, 2017, 8:26 PM · I'd say my aural skills are quite good. I can harmonize molodies and analyze chords and intervals with almost no error.
July 21, 2017, 8:16 PM · I never missed an interval, but in school I wasn't that great at notating chord progressions. However, when I eventually taught theory and aural skills at several colleges, I developed ways that students could become better at progression notation. It has to do with what you know about chords, and what is likely.

If you can hear the bass line and the mode (major or minor), then you can begin to make very good educated guesses about what the chords are. Here's an example: there are 3 minor chords in major, right? ii, iii, and vi. So you have a progression that has a V and then a minor chord, what are the options?
Does V often go to ii? No, other way around. Does it lead to iii? Again, no. iii is rarely used anyway. Forget about it. The best option is going to be vi. So you have to use the odds and learn to recognize shorter 3-chord patterns, like I-V-I, or ii-V-I (note the minor chord before V--ii is most likely) or IV-V-I (note the major chord moving by step to V here--only one chord makes sense).

The problem is, I didn't have many teachers who taught this way. They just randomly played chord progressions and we tried to guess what they were. Not very methodical or rational way of teaching it.

July 21, 2017, 8:29 PM · Most string players can likely do transcription and dictation without an instrument if they really try, at least at an interval level.

The segment of those whom can get the correct starting note without it being given to them is significantly smaller. I've only met three people who can do 'This is a C', etc, without any other frame of reference besides hearing the pitch. The first is relative pitch, the second is absolute pitch.

For me, notating a chord progression is much easier than notating a melody. The chords have their own 'feels', much like intervals (I mean they are intervals), but the likely progression is much more predictable. The more chord progressions you're familiar with the easier I find it is to notate the progression, either by already knowing what's coming up, or by being able to fill in the blanks based on what you expected. Even if your aural skills aren't that great you can use the intervals you're good at to deduce where it's going. If you go from tonic and what you hear next isn't the dominant, but you know what that transition is supposed to sound like, you've suddenly halved your options. If you know what a leadingtone/subtonic sounds like, and you know what the mediant is supposed to sound like, and again it's not any of those, you can quickly deduce that it is not the I, the iii, the V, or the vii. If it's a major chord it's the IV, if it's a minor chord it's either the vi or the ii, easy to distinguish between (Minor is slightly harder, but not really).

7ths, augmented and diminished chords all have pretty distinct sounds. It can be tricky to figure out a secondary chord but the 'logical' options make it easier. To be honest I have a very hard time figuring out secondary chords by ear in a progression. I can usually pick one out, but naming it is difficult for me.

Any that's my thought process. Sounds unwieldy but it's basically automatic in the back of your head.

In general though, yes, I do struggle with dictation and transcription. I have a good musical memory, so if I'm doing a fast melody I use a cheaty-speed notation tactic I learned in an ethnomusicology course for notating non-traditional music. You start as a straight line, and you either go up or down with the line based on the interval you hear. You can go back and figure out what the actual intervals are later based on how high or low they are. Works okay if you only have a single shot to write it down. The rhythm is just more or less time spent at that particular height. Slower melodies are easier and I usually just mark down the intervals on a score.

I'd say my aural skills are 'passable, but need improvement'.

July 21, 2017, 8:31 PM · Scott,

That's a much less wordy way to explain it. I had the same issue as you - no one bothered to break it down like that and it was just 'figure it out using your ears'. Great, thanks, that means nothing unless you already know what to look for!

Left to my own devices that is how I approached it because it just 'made sense' to me. randomly guessing at chords didn't make sense.

July 22, 2017, 5:11 AM · Some years ago a folk violinist I knew, who also had a very good classical music training behind him, told me that he did part-time transcription work for a major record company. This work involved listening to final studio takes of tracks by rock bands and transcribing them accurately into music notation which would be kept safely in the record company's vaults.

The reason for this transcription work (quite well-paid, I understand) was that there was a strong element of improvisation in the bands' playing, no one take being exactly like another, and it was important to have a sheet music copy of the final release tracks for copyright protection, so that pirated CDs on the market could be positively identified as such by comparing them with the sheet music. My folk violinist friend was apparently not allowed to identify the record company, and I could see why. I'm still mightily impressed by his skill.

Edited: July 22, 2017, 1:30 PM · As a teenager I had a piano teacher who could transcribe Oscar Peterson solos in their entirety. He could play them along with he recording too. That's something to see.
July 22, 2017, 3:41 PM · I have pretty perfect pitch (meaning that I can toss a viola into a dumpster and rarely hit the sides) and did very well in dictation classes at school.
July 22, 2017, 3:45 PM · I have perfect pitch, but a lousy short-term memory.
July 22, 2017, 6:14 PM · Learning the violin has helped me with my pitch. I can usually get a melody with no problem. I'm ok with intervals, however if I'm playing blind as backup I'm not always sure what I'm playing. I just know it fits. I generally have the key within the first few measures.

I usually have no need for dictation of transcription. I'm spoiled in that regard. I play midi into my software and it can tell me exactly what I'm playing with the option for me to have the transcription printed.

I thought this thread was more about how we are able to hear. I have a 9000hz tone in my head 24/7. Tinnitus. If I tell myself it's a bunch of locusts in the forest at night it isn't so bad.It doesn't seem to affect my hearing since the tinnitus is generated from inside my head and 9000hz isn't in the spectrums I play in usually. I'm ok to hear 15-20,000 hz.

July 22, 2017, 8:55 PM · I am kind of slow when it comes to four part dictation, but I can do it pretty much correctly if given enough time. I never need to be given a starting pitch. Sometimes I mix up the different augmented 6th chords, as well as very tall chords. I usually try to go by the overall shape of each chord, but my knee jerk reaction when tired or panicked is to hear all of the individual notes and piece together the chords from them, so I lose a few notes due to my working memory limitations.
It's almost as if the relative pitch I have trained goes away sometimes. With melodic dictation, I can usually transcribe every note after one or two hearings depending on how long it is, though sometimes a couple of rhythms are wrong.
But if I have to transpose simultaneously , then the whole thing goes downhill pretty quickly. It's as if I've been told that the color blue is now called "yellow".
I had a professor who would purposely play his dictation exercises on starting on a different sounding pitch than he told us to write down as the reference. He knew it drove me and a few others in my class totally nuts, and got a huge kick out of it.

As for grad students, most of the ones I have been around are probably worse than you think. I have taken classes with doctoral students who cannot identify a dominant 7th chord and/or who completelt bombed their comprehensive exam the first time around. Honestly, I think ear training is generally taught in a completely dated, and uninspiring way, which is probably why so many people can't seem to pick up the basics.

July 22, 2017, 10:16 PM · I actually never had to take aural skills in either undergrad or graduate school; I tested out of it both times. So I hear and sightsing quite well but I struggle to teach these sorts of skills to my students for whom it doesn't come so naturally. It's hard to teach what was never taught to me.
July 22, 2017, 10:52 PM · Back in middle school and high school I always messed with MIDI on the computer, so ears became super precise!! Relative and Perfect Pitch used to be instant for me, but it has slowed down oger the years.

I also want to ask, does "pitch" seem like it has sped up over the years? Like, A = 440hz now sounds like it would have been A = 443hz a decade ago...

Also despite what anybody tells you, you can always train your ears! Some teachers would have you believe that you can't develope relative or perfect pitch and you have to be born with it, but didn't we learn how to count to 10, or ROYGBIV?

July 23, 2017, 6:33 PM · Brain,

It's very rare someone develops or trains up 'perfect pitch', but I agree that anyone can learn relative pitch. It's a skill like any other and just needs to be trained. If I can play a random pitch out of context and you can give me the note name, then I applaud you for being in the vast minority and I pity you greatly for choosing to play a variable pitch instrument!

As for pitch creep, it is a very real thing. A=440 is actually the ISO standard for in tune, but it's only common in North America and the UK. Many places in the rest of the world vary from 440 to 444, Organs are tuned up as high as 466, and HIIP can be anything from 415 to that, or even higher or lower - my knowledge on the topic is not deep.

July 24, 2017, 6:53 AM · Well in my long experience of music, I have started to learn a few notes and recognize their sound (Not perfect pitch but I can hear it and play it on a whim) for example open strings and octaves of violin. Piano is a little more complicated, but I can usually play back a melody within a few times of hearing it. Genetics, I think!

In music theory, I always found writing out chords by ear were rather difficult, as well as melodies in their proper time/note values (aka I wrote sixteenths instead of eighths and such), but I was only around ten or so at that point.

Harmonies are also a bit easier because of my history of playing chords and double stops and the like. For example-when trying to make covers of pop songs it is far easier to play along by thirds, sixths, etc etc.

I don't know if this is the same for anyone else but it's just my experience. :)

July 24, 2017, 8:19 AM · My ears are just fine. It's my hearing that stinks. LOL
Edited: July 24, 2017, 11:17 AM · Mine are medium quality old cloth, well worn.
July 25, 2017, 5:51 AM · Do your ears hang low? Wobble to and fro? Can you tie em' in a knot? Can you tie em' in a bow? Do your eeeeeeeeears hang looooowwwww. lol.

Sorry about that. I'm having some brief fun with juvenile humor.

Edited: August 3, 2017, 11:45 AM · I remember my music GCE "A-level" when we had to write down a four-part Bach chorale which was only played three times!

- First time, listening to the bass, as the melody is easy to catch at the same time;
- second run, catching as many middle notes as possible;
- third run, checking for obvious clangers.

Then we had half an hour to tidy things up and use our acquired knowledge of the style to present a credible Bach choral!

I was fortunate to have studied piano, and sung countless hymns and anthems (usually second treble). I always prefered trying the inner parts, just as I now play viola and sing tenor.

I do not have absolute pitch..

August 2, 2017, 4:25 AM · One other thing. I prefer "absolute pitch" for unaided note recognition, rather than "perfect pitch" which can be be con fused with perfect intonation.
August 2, 2017, 6:42 AM · Adrian, amen on your last comment. It is a rather frustrating misconception. Whenever I have told people that I have "perfect pitch", the next question is then something like, "So how much does it bother you when people play/sing out of tune?" or, "What is it like to have been born being always able to play in tune?" I truly cannot get it through people's heads that intonation has not been automatic for me. If I had a nickel for the number of times people thought absolute pitch was somehow equated with intonation accuracy, I'd be richer than Bill Gates.
Edited: August 4, 2017, 9:19 AM · I woudn't, as I only charge €0.02 per post.
(And can't spel!

Our Kokopelli
Please support
your donation
or sponsorship campaign. is made possible by...

Shar Music

Yamaha V3 Series Violin

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Metzler Violin Shop

Gliga Violins

Coda Bow

Corilon Violins

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin

Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance

Bobelock Cases


Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pro-Am Strings

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop