by Evan Kepner
An important part of every musician’s evolution is ear training. It’s a strange concept, but becoming an active and educated listener pays off in a huge way. First lets cover a few points about what ear training is and isn’t and then we’ll get to the exercises. Ear training is a broad term used to cover two aural developmental practices – perfect pitch and relative pitch. A common misconception we’ve got to dispel right away, perfect pitch is learnable, but your expectations need to be reasonable. Learned perfect pitch is a very subtle thing. It’s not that you suddenly can call out every note in every tune; rather it gives you a deeper perception of music. The best analogy is to think of describing different shades of color to people. Relative pitch is equally important (and more-so for certain types of playing) and is the art of hearing the relationships between tones even if you don’t know the exact note e.g. minor third, descending diatonic scale, etc. This is also learnable with practice.
Ear training will not diminish your ability to enjoy music. Incredibly, I’ve heard other musician’s say “I don’t want [insert “perfect pitch / trained ears”], it means I won’t enjoy music anymore.” WHAT??!! That’s like saying you don’t want to see color because it diminishes your ability to enjoy art. I think this is an excuse because ear training can be abstract and difficult, do not believe this. If you make a regular point to practice ear training it will pay off.
I’ll admit that ear training is difficult for me. As a grounded bassist and otherwise instrumental player I don’t really relish the idea of singing a lot… that’s why I’m an instrumentalist, and why no videos are included with this lesson (believe me it’s for the better). Over time I’ve found that these exercises have been extremely useful in my musical development. I make a point to do singing exercises regularly (and I am NOT a trained singer by any stretch of the imagination) and it gets easier over time. Remember that these are all a process of refinement. If you can tell that a bird chirping is higher than a dog barking you can learn this, we just have to work to where our ears can distinguish finer and finer pitch differences.
Finally, why bother? In the gigging world the musician with the “biggest” ears wins. If you have developed your ability to hear quickly and accurately, you’ll never be lost in a tune and you can get through most obstacles in a gig on the spot. Good ears = lots of gigs. Also transcription will become much easier and this is one of the most important steps in developing a soloing style for jazz.
For this lesson the exercises are very sequential. Each one builds on the abilities learned in the last. These are also very plain-clothes, salt-of-the-Earth, non-flashy drills. I like to think of them as musical meditation. Without sounding too corny, seriously try to clear your mind and immerse yourself in the individual tones, there’s a lot of subtlety here. Part two will take this another step farther, so make a point to work on these exercises in preparation for more.
Sing a scale. This is the classic Do-Re-Mi drill from grade school, if you don’t remember the notes it goes like this:
Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do
This is important though, you have to be able to sing these tones in key. Play along with your instrument as you sing these scales. Just make it part of your practice routine, anytime you play a scale you sing it as well.
Once you feel comfortable that you can sing a scale in tune, focus on each interval. For example sing and play the following at 40 bpm, changing notes every 2 clicks:
Do Re Do Re Do Re Do Re Do Re
Doing it over such a long interval is important, you need to really let your ears soak in each tone. Now once you have that down, repeat it but only play “Do” on your bass. You’ll be singing Do Re Do Re Do Re while your bass is sounding a consistent Do Do Do Do Do – creating a drone. I cannot stress enough how important this boring simple exercise is to your ear development. You really need to meditate on each note, we have some serious bass zen going on but this is what it takes.
Remember this is all about development, which happens slowly. Repeat exercise 2, but do it with each interval in the diatonic scale. That means you do Do Re, then do Do Mi, then Do Fa etc, each to completion. Start small, pick one interval a day to start and dedicate yourself to spending 10 minutes on it. So Sunday would be Do/Re, Monday Do/Mi, Tuesday Do/Fa and so on. Set a timer.
Again this is all to get your ear used to distinguishing the subtleties between the pitches. Try to pick out one thing that differentiates the tones from each other. For example when I compare an F# and and Eb the F# has a more twangy sound to it. My best typed rendition would be “rrrwaanng rrrwaanng rwaaang” underneath the actual pitch. With an Eb I hear a more “woooooaaaa wooooaaaa woooooaaa” – it’s a very delicate difference but it’s there, and that’s what you have to hear and take notice of in this exercise. If you don’t hear anything that stands out, don’t try to force it. Continue with the exercise and come back to it another day, you want the subtlety to be something that is noticeable to you without intense effort.
Write down your “identifying subtlety” for each note. Some people find it useful to associate the tones with colors, others don’t. The important thing is that you identify something about each tone that sets it apart. This is the first step to developing perfect pitch.
Exercise 3 is great for really getting inside the tones, after you do it for a week or two you can start to streamline the procedure just to keep your ears “refreshed.” Now keep the metronome at 40bpm, but count in 4/4 meter (one beat per click). Now sing exercise 3 with each diatonic interval getting one measure. This means you’ll have:
Do Re Do Re | Do Mi Do Mi | Do Fa Do Fa | Do Sol Do Sol | ….
When you hit the octave, sing coming back down referencing the higher Do (the octave tone). Ascending you have Low-High (in terms of the pitch relationships), descending you’ll have High-Low (since the octave is the highest).
Repeat Exercises 1-4 in the different keys. In exercise three you should notice a lot of overlap in your “identifying subtleties” – once you’ve identified a tone as having a particular characteristic try to focus on hearing it when that tone comes up in other keys. For example, an F# should have the “rrrwaanng” sound whether it’s in the key of D, G, E, A or B even though its intervallic relationship is different in each one.
If you have a recording device you can make yourself different practice tracks for different keys to do at different times. For example, make a practice tape for the keys C, G, D and A to work on during your commute to work. Another for E, B, Gb and Db to do during your lunch break and finally one for Ab, Eb, Bb and F to do on your commute back home. You’d have all twelve keys covered without losing any of your normal practice time (assuming you don’t shed and drive…).
There’s a lot going on here, and it’s worth taking the time to do these exercises properly. As musicians how often do we really take the time to immerse ourselves in a single tone’s quality? This is a process of musical discovery! A final note would be don’t try too hard and don’t force it. Eventually your ear will open up, it will be different for everyone and will take time. There’s a reason why lots of musicians don’t have good ears, developing them takes a lot of patience and a lot of practice. Keep at it and in the next lesson we’ll step it up a notch.
Article courtesy of our friends at notreble.com, the site for bass players.
Image via ShutterStock.com.
47 thoughts on “The Zen of Ear Training – Part 1”
The thing about ear training is that it is not a thing you can master in days. To train your ear fluently, some people train for months after months. In this process, you never stop learning. I hit a creative block when I was in training. I couldn’t comprehend the rhythm and couldn’t identify the intervals. Took me a lot of time to come back on the track. Online programs really help. Once I joined Ear Training HQ. They have some very good knowledge on this matter and make your learning curve less steep. But I would also recommend, an “Offline” training. Because the insights you can get from a live trainer immediately are worth it, rather than waiting for some minutes for the answer.
Hello there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my zynga group?
There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content.
Please let me know. Thank you
good stuff in this post about ear training!… The Ear Training Resource Guide may also be a great help for others starting out with ear training: http://www.reddit.com/r/musictheory/comments/1mde7c/the_ear_training_resource_guide/
I love solfege, but I am currently a music teacher and have a few students who are studying aural skills with me and told me they prefer to use the numbers. I notice that a majority of people who come from backgrounds in styles other than classical (e.g. jazz, barbershop, and others) use the numbers more. Does anyone have advice for singing raised or lowered notes like “me,” “le,” “te,” etc. on the numbers, especially in a melody? Thanks so much!
Hey Alex. I use scale degree numbers a lot and I tell my students to stick with them if they haven’t already learned solfege (it’s a whole lot easier to get started with). If a student is practicing on their own I don’t consider it essential to say the numbers out loud at all – as long as you’re aware and thinking of them – which is one way to solve the problem.
The other way, if you like to have a syllable for each scale degree is to change the sound of the vowel, just like you do with solfege. For example I’ll often use something that sounds like farve for a flattened fifth scale degree. Not the prettiest sound but it gets the job done.
Hope that helps somewhat 🙂
Althouth I have Been Singing as a Frontman for over 4 Decades , I Have Found That You Can Teach an Old Dod New Tricks ! The Exercises have proven to be very useful , and now singing Arcapelo is a Breeze !
Jo Jo Taylor
I did all kinds of exercises just like these in choir. And I don’t have to sing these with instruments anymore. I can do it perfectly fine by myself and its in tune!
I have been playing music for years and i have lost some of my high pitch hearing.
For The young music performers protect your hearing by wearing ear protection while performing on stage.
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Howcee Productions Gospel
P o box 104, 231 Six Ave.
Beatrice Al. 36425.
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The Soundscape Recording Studio
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The word “Zen” has become just such an overused word and is regularly used by anyone wanting to sound profound or deep. Whenever any word becomes a cliche it eventually loses most of it’s meaning. This has happened to the word Zen. It has become a good but meaningless gap filler and marketing tool. I suggest that anyone who is seriously interested in using words as a form of communication should be very wary about using the word Zen unless they know what they really want to say and know that using the word Zen is a meaningful way of saying it. Otherwise best not to sound like one more dummy on a sad modern bandwaggon.
You wrote a whole freaking paragraph about a word not used correctly! Get a life Harvard! I think its a helpful article.
Perhaps you should work on basic grammar before getting into a debate on etymology.
It would be a far greater value for the modern musician to sing the numbers of the scale as apposed to do re mi etc…
I have never heard anyone say ” this chord progression goes from the Do to the Sol.” The number system makes street sense and is very handy for translating what you hear to what you play or write. Of course it would change the lyrics of that great song from Sound of Music tremendously! “One a….????” well you see what I mean!
Hey Mitch I think you are mostly correct in the North American context, but in Eerope and the Middle-East people commonly do say
“this chord progression goes from the Do to the Sol.”
I have heard it many times.
Don’t want to be a pain but the note are:
do re mi fa sol la SI (not Ti) do 🙂
Yes, it is “Ti”. Go back to the Sound of Music. “Ti, a drink with jam and bread”.
Lots of good comments on this post… thoughtful, inquisitive, insightful, respectful… refreshing after viewing YouTube comments. 😉
Sorry Bob, don’t know where you got your info, but the 7th tone has always been Ti to my knowledge. Nobody I know of drinks “Si.” (except fish)
Is that possibly from another language? Not all the “solfège” syllables are universal from language to language… I worked with a Hungarian composer for a bit that used different syllables. (ex. my “Do” was his “Ut.” )
Mitch’s comment on this topic, about the numbers, was actually how the composer and I came to common ground. I agree that modern-day scale practice is probably more effective and practical using numbers.
And I was about to mention the chromatic syllables… but it looks like Rick Stone already covered it! Thanks Rick.
My 2¢ on perfect pitch: it really isn’t as useful in the real world of music as really good relative pitch, regardless of what colors you’re seeing. 😉 If someone else’s untunable instrument is “out of tune” for a performance, or you’re playing or singing along to a recording that’s sped up or slowed down slightly, you have to adjust anyway. You have to use your ear to understand what the intervals will be from ANY reference pitch you’re given (based on A=440 or not!), in order to play a scale in tune or harmonize with anything relative to that reference pitch.
Another other thing I have found extremely useful over the years, in both learning scales as a young’un and teaching them as an adult: the harmonica. It’s a miniature diatonic scale theory machine. Fun to just play anyway, but if you really understand how its scale works, it unlocks a lot of mysteries not intuitively clear on other fully chromatic instruments. And — unlike a guitar, or your voice — you don’t have to know how to tune it.
Another fun trick is that you can sing right into it, and match pitches! And it’s almost as portable as your voice.
In regards to “SI”………..quite simply….the SI comes in to play when one using the CHROMATIC scale….IE…asecnding and descending ….the sharps (asecnding) and flats (descending) have to be accounted for. Hence:
ASCENDING: do di re ri mi fa fi sol si la li ti do
DESCENDING: do ti te la le sol se fa mi me re ra do
In regards to numbers vs solfege, I have leanred both. We are oriented to a numbers world and so some people find this easier. But, for true ear training, the solfege system is the way to go. It gives a clear “picture” to the intervallic structures/sounds. We learn the keys with letter names, not number names. The guru’s of the theory of music development hundreds of years ago had it right.
Actually, in the FIXED DO system (which is used in almost all Latin cultures INSTEAD OF note names) the note that we call “B” is indeed “Si.”
This used to drive me absolutely NUTS when I was teaching guitar at the Harbor Center in Spanish Harlem about 15 years ago. I would show my students the major scale C, D, E, F, G, A, B and when I’d ask them to play “C” they’d often play “Si” which would make me crazy.
You’ll find this article pretty informative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solf%C3%A8ge
(as you can see, it goes back a LOT further than than Julie Andrews running through the hills of Austria 🙂
You are incorrect. Fixed DO has nothing to with using SI. Fixed DO means that DO doesn’t change with the major/minor scales…hence…in the key of C, C is DO and in it’s relative minor (a), a stays as LA, not chaning to DO when a minor is the scales. Movable DO makes any root note of the key DO.
Sorry Barbara, in the moveable Do system that’s taught in most American schools now “Si” is the sharped version of “So.” The chromatic scale ascending (with sharps) goes like this:
Do Di Re Ri Mi Fa Fi So Si La Li Ti Do
And descending with flats is:
Do Ti Te La Le So Se Fa Mi Me Re Ra Do
Of course, the direction of the line doesn’t necessarily dictate whether sharps or flats are used, but the actual construction of the scale, so a Harmonic minor scale for instance, is going to have both a minor 3rd and a Major 7th and would be sung (both ascending and descending) with the following syllables:
Do Re Me Fa So Le Ti Do Ti Le So Fa Me Re Do
(and after typing all this, I see that you did address it in a post further down in this thread).
However, if we talk to some our friends in Latin language speaking countries, I think we’ll find they use “Si” for 7th note of the scale and in a “Fixed Do” system, that’s ALWAYS the note “B.” Check out this link (and scroll down to “Fixed Do” and you’ll see this).
singing is the best practice then you will remember automaticly the waay it should sound so zen or not you will get you ear correcttly trained to note the difference between frequencies, obiusly if you claim before practicing is useless.
try it first and get use to this is an every day thing then reply with your results (month or 2 of practice is a must!)
Great article; being a music composition major and having taken ear training, I definitely value it’s importance, yet definitely realize that many others (including my peers here in college) do not. Although perfect pitch is considered to be a somewhat illustrious talent to gain, just as important is relative pitch, without which the pure form of the music is lost. (Think of notes as syllables, and intervals/chords as words…and in my opinion Schenkerian analysis is as close to grammar as we can get.)
Also, although solfege (Do Re Mi…) is a great tool to help train your ear, it can also hold you back if you have trouble memorizing the syllables (I find I constantly end up singing La and Fa). Work on the understanding the relationships between the pitches within various scales, melodies, and chords, and then apply solfege. Eventually after the solfege syllables become second nature (and don’t forget about the chromatic alterations), you will be able to sight sing melodies that you would have thought impossible before.
ABOVE ALL ELSE: LISTEN TO AS MUCH MUSIC AS YOU CAN!! That will truly be your saving grace.
Interesting article. You’ve come up with pretty much the same approach that I finally figured out to use for training my ears about 30 years ago. Going VERY slowly and repeating these exercises day after day is definitely the key, as is starting with the diatonic scale. After that, you can extend these techniques to the chromatic scale using the syllables:
Do Di Re Ri Mi Fa Fi So Si La Li Ti Do (ascending)
Do Ti Te La Le So Se Fa Mi Me Re Ra Do (descending)
Since the David Burge course has come up here, I’d like to mention an (I feel) important distinction. David has TWO courses; the “Perfect Pitch” course and the “Relative Pitch” course. I own both and used them extensively back in the 90s (when they were still just cassettes) so here are some thoughts:
The “Perfect Pitch” course (which David advertises very heavily in all sorts of music publications) is fewer CDs, and about half the cost of the “Relative Pitch” course. Included in the Perfect Pitch course is the first CD from the Relative Pitch course. I can see his reasons for marketing this way, I mean everybody KNOWS that relative pitch is a LOT of work. Perfect pitch somehow sounds so much easier. But I’ve known MANY people who have worked with the Perfect Pitch course, but NONE who’ve actually developed perfect pitch.
On the other hand, David seems to downplay the “Relative Pitch” (until after you’ve shelled out for the Perfect Pitch course). The Relative Pitch course IS EXPENSIVE and IS a LOT of WORK. On the other hand, many people (myself included) have found it to be VERY USEFUL. The exercises DO work, and relative pitch is something that EVERY musician MUST develop. I know and have worked with MANY famous, world class jazz musicians and know very FEW with “perfect” pitch, but I CAN’T name a SINGLE ONE who doesn’t have EXCELLENT “relative” pitch. Relative pitch CAN definitely be developed. It IS a lot of work, but if you’re serious about music, any work that helps you improve as a musician should be work that you actually enjoy doing!
@Bill, You should check out the very excellent (and FREE!) Ear-Training drills on Ricci Adams’ site http://www.musictheory.net. There are drills for intervals (ascending, descending, harmonic and mixed). You can turn different intervals on or off so as to fine tune your hearing for very specific things, like just learning to spontaneously hear the difference in a M6 & m6 (or what ever else you choose). The site also has Scale and Chord Ear-Trainers. And once you learn all those and need to move on, check out Earope! from http://www.cope.dk/. It works similarly to the trainers at musictheory.net, but has a MUCH more extensive menu of scales and modes, etc. There are also some great ear-training games included in the program Band-In-A-Box from http://www.pgmusic.com (which many musicians already own). Lots of other stuff out there nowadays too. Just google ear-training and start checking out the demos to figure out which is right for you.
Hope this information helps someone.
All the best,
Also research generally shows that relative pitch can be aquired skill (with lots of work), perfect pitch is developed in a small number of people during their earliest years. It is most common in people whose mother tongue is a tonal language (madarin, Thai, etc. )
Studies in Speech and Hearing science confirm that human beings cannot discern differences in pitch less than two cycles per second. The mechanism of our hearing is simply not that fine so how can “perfect pitch” exhist?
Don’t know, but if you consider that color and sound are both vibrations, it makes sense that some people can associate colors with musical vibrations, meaning when a certain note is struck, they see a “color” in their mind. Ex: “G#”=light green, “G”= darker green, “A”=aqua blue/green etc. Whatever color your mind associates. Just one explanation. I worked with a guy at a music store once who could identify literally ANY note I played. As he sat behind the counter with his back turned, I would walk around the store and pluck different notes on different instruments-guitars, mandolins, violin, piano, cello, even harmonica. He NEVER missed a note, and was so accurate he often said things like, “Yea that’s an F#, but it’s just a little flat.” I busted out the tuner, and the dude was RIGHT!
Unfortunately he wasn’t that great of a guitarist or singer for that matter!
Just thought I would share with you guys some of my work. I am an orchestral composer from Tucson, AZ and have been deeply involved in sound to color relationships, sometimes known as synesthesia. I have used color extensively to better my ear training and hone in on perfect pitch; some are born with it and others develop it. If you are interested in this subject, visit my website @ http://www.musicalcolors.com/whotimeline.html for a complete synopsis of the use of color in music throughout the ages 🙂
Interesting . . Helmholtz seems to come the closest to actual true non-arbitrary correlation, drawing a direct physical link between notes and colors through simple multiplication factors into actual light frequencies. “The simplest answer is usually the best answer” and this one hits the nail on the head IMO.
When I was a kid, my dad would sing a note and we would have to identify it. Then some one would go over to the piano to prove the note. This was a great approach for us kids, and by Junior High, I could tell you the notes without having to reference anything but the notes in my head. With time and effort, and listening everyday, it is possible to train your ears. This article is a great start.
My parents for example are not musicians at all 🙁 I have to practice all on my own :-(.
I think there are some tools that can play a note and you have to identify what was played.
I have found one here for perfect pitch:
I don’t yet have a absolute pitch, but I will be practicing. Let’s see if that will do me any good.
From what I heard you cannot actually “learn” perfect pitch, but you have to be born with it.
I will try to bust that myth 🙂
Practicing everything without a sense of attainment. No deluded, foolish mind but discerning false from true.
@Timothy Kelly, I also have the David Burges course and it is EXCELLENT! But it is very deep and, not to mention, expensive. IMHO, if you have the time and resources there is no other course out there that will provide you with a better understanding of “Ear Training”.
That in mind, this is a great article. I am a mix engineer who was recently introduced to Bob Katz’s book on mastering. If you have the book you know that he talks about the relationship between note and frequency. Actually, they aren’t related, they are the same thing, as he explains. For musicians this should be a no-brainer. If you play an instrument you will certainly need to know which note/s you are playing. And if you are an engineer of any a kind this knowledge will be more valuable to you than any piece of gear you will ever own.
Dave Lopez – Mixing and Mastering Specialist / Emerging Music Producer
Cr@zyEye Music Services
Marketing Music Online
Hi all, for years I had David Burges Perfect Pitch Course and also his newer Relative Pitch Training Course on My To Buy List. Finally I purchased them a couple of years ago . They are both excellent and you go through them at your own speed.
These exercises are good singing exercises, and very worthwhile. But (always a ‘but’) since the goal is to enhance the ability to hear and identify intervals, how about some listening with the ear training? Consider working with a buddy and a keyboard instrument. One of you play intervals, the other identify them. Then switch. Go through the exercises above, but with one playing, the other listening. It would be helpful to write the answers: the ‘player’ writes what he plays, the listener writes what he hears. Then compare – or compare as you go – or both. See what intervals you always hear correctly and what you don’t hear as well. Do some additional work on those you don’t hear as well. By the way, and in case anyone is wondering, this is not something I just thought up: this is standard fare in music schools – often in classes with lots of listeners.
To add to the singing exercises in the article, and on the flip side of these exercises, instead of listening and identifying the intervals, have your partner call out intervals, then sing the interval. Put the intervals in random order.
This is the basic stuff: the building blocks of music. Chances are, if can already play well, you already hear and recognize these intervals. This puts a name to what you are hearing and playing. As an example, suppose you’re in a rehearsal working on vocal parts. The arranger tells you to sing the 3rd. If you don’t know what ‘the 3rd’ is, you probably won’t last long. But if you can hear, sing, play, and name any interval, it will simplify learning melodies and simplify discussing melodies with other musicians. And thinking in relative intervals makes transposition much simpler. Rather than having to think “A becomes C, so D becomes F” and so on you can think minor 3rd, whole step, minor 3rd.
If there is anybody that still thinks learning music theory will somehow hurt your playing, ask the guy that knows intervals, understands chords, voicings, etc. how enjoyable it is to work with the guy that doesn’t understand ‘sing the 3rd’ or ‘the changes go like this: I IV I V iii ..’ You won’t like the answer…
As Mr. Kepner says, “There’s a lot going on here!”. And let me add a strong 2nd and say keep at it! It’s worth the effort!
Relative pitch is easy to learn.
Perfect pitch is harder, but not overly difficult.
Studies show that when people remember a song that they know well and have heard many times before, they remember it in the exact pitch it was recorded in. So you can take a tune that you know really well, and that you know is in a certain key, and when you remember it in your head, you’ll “hear” that specific key.
I’ve adapted this to my up-right bass that is on a stand in my living room. Every time I walk by, I try to remember what the open E string sounds like, and I hum that note I think it is. And then I go over to my bass and pluck it and see how close I am.
Now, after a few months of doing this, I can always correctly guess the note “E” when I look at my bass. And thru understanding relative pitch…I can then get to any other note I want…all in my head.
Anyone can learn this, if you try hard and long enough.
I also teach ear training as part of my guitar lessons. My approach is different. First, I teach the intervals (minor 2nd, major 2nd, minor 3rd, etc) then I teach what they look like on the guitar. Finally, I associate each interval with a familiar tune (“here comes the bride” for perfect 4th, etc), so that they will remember it specifically. I have an 8 year old student that can differentiate between a tritone and a major 7th. He has relative pitch pretty much down. Figured I’d throw it out there. I’m just a country boy from North Dakota, what do I know…
This is definitely not zen. But it does seem like a sound approach to ear training…
Not Zen?! Then what, exactly is? In fact, nothing is Zen (and vice versa). If Zen could be described, it would be described as “paying attention.” That is exactly what this (excellent) article is about.
awesome reply daniel. hans: don’t be too caught up on what “zen” is defined as, or whether these concepts fit into what you already seem to have preconceived what it is. just let it be what it is and call it whatever you want; words are merely signposts between ideas
I think that we should not get caught up into the technical sense of pitch
or the use of phrases which throws off the entire concept of what we are
trying to achieve, instead listen to the sound, disern the perfect beauty in the sound,
[like looking at colors], find the vividness of the pitch, when looking this closely
your ears will begin to take their natural position, hearing,and amasingly
they will find what your mind has communicated them to look for,PERFICT PITCH.