Great music educators and players Leni Tristano and Charlie Banacos believe that having a good ear is the most important tool a musician can possess.
In this article I'm going to dispel a few myths around tone deafness and perfect pitch and tell you what a 'good ear' is and why you need it.
Am I tone deaf?
Tone deafness has nothing to do with actual deafness but it is in fact a condition called 'amusia'. It has been estimated that around 5% of the population are tone deaf. Are you one of them? Probably not. If you really enjoy listening to music then you are not tone deaf. Tone deaf people describe listening to music as something akin to hearing pots & pans banging about.
So if you love your music but think you maybe tone deaf it's more than likely all you need is a bit of guidance and training to learn how to use your ear.
Do I need perfect pitch?
'Absolute Pitch' or 'Perfect Pitch' as it's more commonly called is the rare ability to name a note without using any other note as a reference. Notice I used the word rare, not many have it and it can't be developed and even if it could it's more a party trick than a requisite skill for a musician. "Whats the note of that car exhaust"?
You may have seen methods selling the idea of perfect pitch as the holy grail, it's not and what they are selling is a pseudo form of perfect pitch that takes a lot of work to see minimal results that disappear when you don't do the exercises. You either have it or you don't and it's not important. Don't waste your time.
Developing your musical ear
'Relative Pitch' is what every musician should strive for, the ability to hear a note or interval against a given pitch or reference note. Everyone, unless you are truly tone deaf can develop 'Relative Pitch'.
Having good relative pitch will help you to play whatever you hear, whether it be some idea you have or something you are listening to. All of the great modern players have a good feel for relative pitch whether they know it or not. They all learned at some stage by working out songs and solos from the recordings of their heroes. They didn't use TAB's, they used their ears.
All students should work out music in this way; work out the melody of the song and be able to play it in multiple positions on the guitar. Then work out the chords, if you hit a roadblock then develop your skills with relative pitch to define the root movement of the chord progression, usually defined by the bass. Once you have this then add the chords. After you've done this then work on the solo if there is one.
The most important thing to know here is it doesn't have to be right, it's more important to get in and have a go at working out a song than getting it right. The more often you do it the better you get, I often come back to songs and find something I missed before.
As you can do exercises to train the body you can also train the ear. There are quite a few approaches to this and I've developed one that I am now starting to teach based around 'Relative Pitch', melody, hearing chords and hearing chord progressions.
As I said previously, you will get a lot of this stuff naturally if you keep working out tunes but the beauty of the training is it focusses you and gives you a process to work by. It's still important to work out the tune but now you will have some tools to help.
...and it doesn't take much of your time. Just a few minutes at the start of a practice session will be enough to make considerable gains if you do it consistently.
Like training the body and the mind, training the ear is an ongoing pursuit. We can always get better at it.