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Started playing at 20 and have no ear, am I doomed?

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(@guitarbum)
New Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 2
Topic starter  

Was hoping some of you might be able to shed some insight on some doubts I am having about what I have chosen to do with my life. I started playing about a year and a half ago at the age of 20. I would like to pursue guitar (for that matter, music in general) as a career path/lifestyle, but fear I do not have the natural talent required to do so. The following history may be a little too personal for this type of forum, but I think it's important to answering the question. If you don't feel like reading the admittedly long history, perhaps you could offer some basic beginner tips for ear training or your own experiences with developing an ear at a later age.
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The past four years of my life have been mired in drugs and a whole mess of other issues that accompanied that. I felt like I was living "on the edge" for awhile, but in reality was just wasting my best years (and braincells) away with nonsense. I was a gifted student (despite not putting in much effort) in high school, and managed to get into a good engineering school. It wasn't what I wanted to do, it just seemed like I didn't have much of a choice at the time. I was naturally talented in math/logic so I figured my chosen major, software engineering, would be a breeze. I never even considered going into the arts, I just took it for granted that it was too impractical.

Unfortunately due to unfortunate life events, genetics, and poor decisions, I wound up a drug user near the end of high school. Pot and psychedelics mostly, among some momentary dips into the harder stuff. Failed out of the engineering school, but decided to go to community college. Couldn't hang with that either. My mood and functioning had been poor/unstable before 3 years of that lifestyle, but after wards, oh boy. A year of therapy and some lifestyle changes later (bye bye drugs, hello diet and exercise), my parents are supporting me to try to start a life yet again. I would really like to pursue music. I don't need to become famous, and I don't care about living in poverty. I just want to become a competent musician and play music as much as possible. Above all I would like to start writing my own songs and doing something creative.

The difficulty I'm having right now, is that while I can learn songs/technique fairly well, I seem to have no natural ability when it comes to improvisation and having an ear for music. If anything I have an impairment. All my life I've heard music very vividly in my head, even more so after the drugs, sometimes to the point where it's basically an auditory hallucination. I always assumed I was hearing the actual notes, not my own messed up version of the song. It's like all I hear is the rhythm and timbre, but not the pitch at all. For that reason, I have a really tough time doing anything by ear. When I try tuning my guitar by ear, I feel lost. Often times I will be off by a whole step or more and not realize. When I try and improvise, I can do it mathematically/geometrically by thinking about note positions and scales, but it has nothing to do with what I hear in my head. When I do hear music in my head and try to get it out on the guitar, it never seems to come out right. Granted, I haven't put any time into ear-training or learning by ear, because every time I try I get too frustrated, but it seems like a handicap.

What I'm wondering is if this is something that can ever be corrected or if I should start looking for a new life path. I'm willing to put in the time on ear training, but isn't a lot of it genetic? Should I cut my losses and get a real job where I'll be miserable, or continue pursuing something I have major doubts I'll ever be good at? I seem to be pretty good when it comes to rhythm and memorization, I have a pretty easy time learning songs I know in my head when I have the notes to play in front of me. I just have no natural ability when it comes to pitch. Thanks to anyone who took the time to read through all that junk.

Thinking about becoming a drummer,
Brian


   
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(@joehempel)
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Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 2415
 

I think that it just has to be practiced, over, and over, and over.

I also think that learning theory will help in a big way because you learn HOW things go together and WHY they work well.

Learning theory may sound pretty boring, but when you start applying the knowledge something just clicks and the light bulb turns on inside your head and suddenly things start falling together.

Learn scales and the positions of scales and which ones that work with each other etc.

I know for me, I've only been playing about a year and a half, and didn't have an ear at all when I started, but over the past couple of months things have been slowly coming together for me, so it's just a really slow process, but in my opinion it CAN be learned.

Also get to know the fretboard like you know your best friends. That will help as well. I don't know it that well yet, but it's coming pretty darn fast.

In Space, no one can hear me sing!


   
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(@kent_eh)
Noble Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 1882
 

A year and a half of learning isn't a lot of time in the grand scheme of things.
I started sometime after I was 40, and I have never had much of an ear for pitch either. Rhythm I have always been able to feel, but I always thought I was tonedeaf.
After 3+ years of learning guitar, I can tell by listening if my guitar is in tune or not , but I still can't tune my electric strictly by ear.
I can follow the progression of a song and figure out when the chord change is coming, but if i don't have some notes or tab or something, I have no idea what chords the song is using.

I'm sure I'll eventually get to where I can learn a song just by hearing it. It'll take a lot more practice than I have time for at this point in my life, but I'm in no hurry. If I wanted to learn faster than I am, I would find a teacher to work with me. And I would practice a lot more than I do.

The way you tell your story, it sounds like you have a history of starting something and then not finishing it.
If you want music to be your career you will have to be stubborn and stick with it.
Give it 100% and don't give up.

That said, making a living in music is a hard road.
Most of the gigging musicians that I have known teach music lessons as well as play any gig they can get.

Speaking of which, a good teacher can help you improve your musical skills, including ear training.

I wrapped a newspaper ’round my head
So I looked like I was deep


   
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(@guitarbum)
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Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 2
Topic starter  

The way you tell your story, it sounds like you have a history of starting something and then not finishing it.
If you want music to be your career you will have to be stubborn and stick with it.
Give it 100% and don't give up.

Definitely some truth to that. I've been plagued with low energy/motivation for most of my life, now I'm finally at the point where I have conquered my demons enough to pursue something wholeheartedly, and I don't want to go down the wrong path. That being said, music IS what I love and what I want to do, so I think that answers the question to an extent.
That said, making a living in music is a hard road.
Most of the gigging musicians that I have known teach music lessons as well as play any gig they can get.

Yeah, I'm definitely down to give lessons, live as frugally as possible, and do any sort of work to get by as long as I have time left in the week for practice.
Speaking of which, a good teacher can help you improve your musical skills, including ear training.

I do have a teacher, but not a very good one I think. That may be a part of my frustration right now. My current teacher gets visibly frustrated when I can't figure out an "easy" lick by ear. He played a lick (about 7-8 notes on the pentatonic) and expected me to just be able to mimic what he was doing right off the bat, because it was only 3-4 different pitches. Besides not having a very well developed ear, he makes me nervous as hell and doesn't give me the time to work through it at my own pace.

Thanks for the thoughtful replies! :)


   
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(@jase36)
Reputable Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 247
 

Above all I would like to start writing my own songs and doing something creative.

Why wait, why don't you start writing songs now. Less is more at times, so many songs are based around 3 and 4 chords. Use your abilities with rhythm to be creative. I think the musical geniuses are those who can take a few chords and turn that into a song.

Keep working on all the other things you want but dont let want you cant do stop you enjoying what you can do.

http://www.youtube.com/user/jase67electric


   
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(@dalboy)
Eminent Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 29
 

Hi

First things first. Dont give up.

In such a short time of learning certain things are not going to come naturally. Everyone struggles with different aspects of learning the guitar, after all there is a vast amount to learn from a guitar.

I've only just skimmed through the thread so apologies. I still have some difficulty tuning a guitar by ear. It only comes with practice and you obviously need to know what is right and wrong to start with otherwise you wont know where you are. Ive been playing for about 3 years and im constantly learning new things (helps going round a friend who is brilliant at guitar).

My aim when I first decided to pick up a guitar was just to strum along consistently to some of my favourite songs. Set yourself some goals and try to work towards them. If you think it might help, get a tutor or a friend to aid you. I felt I achieved my main goal a while back and now I'm concentrating on lead guitar - scales, notes, fretboard, harmonics, vibrato etc...

Ear training comes differently to everyone. The more you play and listen to stuff the easier it will be - You'll notice little things as you progress.

If I were you I would concentrate on keeping it simple - get chords, barre chords, rhythm etc... down and being able to play in time and consistently to some basic songs unless you have already done this.

I find the guitar is great to just pick up if Im stressed out or just wanna relax a bit. Ill just strum away for half an hour. Dont give up. Even if you get cheesed off with the thing and want to throw it out.

Hope this helps?


   
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(@musenfreund)
Illustrious Member
Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 5108
 

I started at 45. You're in fine shape starting at 20! (I still hate it when I have to tune down by ear. I keep an electronic tuner around). Just be patient and keep at it and let things develop over time.

Well we all shine on--like the moon and the stars and the sun.
-- John Lennon


   
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(@scrybe)
Famed Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 2241
 

I struggled to tune my guitar by ear when I first started too. And 20 isn't too old to start playing. There's a famous guitarist (Joe Pass, I think, but I may be thinking of the wrong guy) who became one of the best guitarists ever, in terms of technical ability and topping lists of guitar players' fave guitarists. In the middle of his career, he had a brain aneurysm and lost all memory and ability of playing guitar. He had to relearn all over again, and he did it. Obviously, having already had a fan base and contacts helped him get back into work, but he had to go through the same process any beginner goes through, and do that process twice over.

There is a difference between pitch memory and rhythm memory. One of my friends has excellent pitch memory, but his rhythm memory isn't quite as good. My rhythm memory is generally much better than my pitch memory. We're all different. I just know I have to put more work into developing my pitch memory than my rhythm memory. For my friend, it's the other way around. Every musician has some form of "deficiency" - some area of their playing that is weaker than the other aspects of their playing, and something they have to work on in order to develop.

If you have an iPhone I can recommend the app Karajan. It's an ear training app, and they have a free version called Karajan Beginner. Some of thesets are ridiculous (I doubt many people on here could tell if four beats played by this app happen to be 80bpm, or 85bpm), but some are pretty crucial, and with practice you'll get to recognise the distinction (e.g. it will play a chord and you have to guess if it is a major chord or a minor chord).

As for lacking any pitch recognition whatsoever, I'm sorry but I really don't believe your hearing is that bad. Go put on MTV (or some music video or cd), and listen to it. Don't try to figure out the notes being played, don't try playing along on your guitar, just listen. Okay, you'll probably notice it's in 4/4 pretty easily (unless it happens to be in a different time signature...short story, you'll get the rhythm of the piece easily from what you've said), but keep listening. The vocalist, does it all sound like the same pitch? Or does it sound like he/she is varying the pitch? If it does sound monotone, don't give up just yet, some phrases have very little variation, and you might just not be used to detecting pitch in vocalists*. Listen to the other instruments, do they all sound like they're just playing one note? I'm guessing when you listen to music, you can hear pitch variation, where you're having problems is transfering this knowledge to your guitar playing. That's the bit that takes practice. But the very fact that you enjoy music indicates that you understand music at some basic level. That doesn't sound like you're doomed to me.

As for making a career out of it, be prepared that it will take some time. Be prepared that you may well have to work in another field while you are learning your instrument. Be prepared that the kind of work you do will depend on a combination of the the effort you put into it and the market for what you do. If you don't put the effort in, or if there is no market for a guitar teacher/rock star/session musician/composer/whatever then you wont succeed unless you can adapt in some way.

Above all, enjoy it. And, as much as I love music, I have to say don't make the only thing in your life.

* Also, transcribers often have "favourite" instruments to work with. When figuring out a tune by ear, I can guess the pitch more easily if the instrument playing the phrase is a guitar or piano than I can with woodwind or vocals. I know vocalists who can sing pretty much anything, but they can't transfer that knowledge to a guitar and pick it up easily. It differs from person to person, but the main point is that you're not the only one experiencing this, to some extent pretty much everyone does.

Ra Er Ga.

Ninjazz have SuperChops.

http://www.blipfoto.com/Scrybe


   
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(@dogbite)
Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 6348
 

sounds like you have brains, but haven't been challenged on an intellectual and creative level. that amount of drug use in high school is a major tell. good thing you sense something else in your future and left that stuff in the past.
learning music is not easy. taking it piece by piece, putting off immediate gratification, learning and paying attention, will get you there. patience and concentration will heap huge rewards on you. each one will come as a surprise.
to become involved in music in the manner you write you must make music your lifestyle. sounds dramatic, but it isn't.
you merely study, play, converse, and create an environment of involvement with others. [practice guitar and music, get a job in music, like a store, and hang out with music people].
grow old with music and see what your life will be.
make it your journey. the good the bad the easy the hard. all part of it.
that is what makes you.

http://www.soundclick.com/bands/pagemusic.cfm?bandID=644552
http://www.soundclick.com/couleerockinvaders


   
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(@dubyatf)
Trusted Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 64
 

Thinking about becoming a drummer
Nooooooooo! :roll:

I kid! I kid! I have a drum kit in the garage! :D

Seriously - good luck and keep at it. If you like it you'll keep at it - and if you keep at it - you'll probably really like it!
I'm sure for every naturally talented musician that was born to play there are many, many others, who were successful only because they were driven.

A math/science background is a great music background too IMO! The inverse is true too - I know many great musicians who have flawless logic - and excruciating attention to detail. Business and musicians? Not so much usually! LOL.

Good luck!


   
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 Cat
(@cat)
Noble Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 1224
 

Music...and, specifically, guitar...is like life. You WILL be "doomed" until you find something that comes second nature to you. Maybe your genre of music just doesn't get into your blood. Find one that does. Find a career that does. Find relationships that do...

Belive me...this is the voice of experience! :wink:

Cat

"Feel what you play...play what you feel!"


   
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(@lenie)
Active Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 13
 

Quite a few things seem difficult when you first start out. When you were on drugs you probably felt as though it would be difficult to quit and yet you did. Every now and then, a challenge comes along that you aren't sure you can handle. You try to anyway and surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. :)

I would suggest singing along with songs. Match the pitch as well as you can. Once you can sing a song on pitch, pick up your guitar and try to find the note you are singing. Takes some practice, but after awhile you can get good at this. Also, choose an easy melody such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (a personal favorite :wink: ) and find the notes on guitar. Or, play a note on guitar and match it with your voice.

It might not be easy at first, but work on it a little every day and it will get easier. Don't push yourself so hard that you get frustrated and burnout on it, but set achievable goals and conquer them one at a time. Remember that it is not a race! :)

Hope some of this helps! :D


   
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 Cat
(@cat)
Noble Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 1224
 

On second thought...

Sniff around for a 4-year university that'll get you a Bach in Digital Recording Engineering. From what I can see...you have a FLAWLESS grasp of English...and have all they right attitudes...your "baby crap" is finally dealt with...but you lack being alive long enough to really see your own potentials!

The uni trip will place you alongside others that are equally interested...but from different angles. By the end of Year One...the a/holes will have washed out and you'll start coming on strong and the rest of your life will seem all the more clear.

I STRONGLY recommend you get back to university before 20 turns to 30...40...60. It sneaks up on ya quicker than you'd ever believe!

Cat

"Feel what you play...play what you feel!"


   
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(@mmoncur)
Estimable Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 168
 

First of all, I've been playing guitar for about a year and a half too. With hour-long lessons every week from an excellent teacher. And I've BARELY reached the point where, sometimes, when the mood is just right, I can improvise a bit and play some of the tunes that are in my head.

And I had 20 years of experience making music before I started playing guitar.

Don't rush it or give up, it will come.

Second, I was 30 when I first figured out what I really wanted to do with my life career-wise, and I've changed my mind a couple of times since then. You're young and you don't need to commit to anything long-term. It sounds like guitar is helping you through a tough time, so stick with that, but don't rule out the possibility of a career, travel, relationships, college... who knows.

Just survive, keep practicing, and grab whatever opportunities come your way.

Best of luck.


   
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(@mahal)
Estimable Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 107
 

I struggled to tune my guitar by ear when I first started too. And 20 isn't too old to start playing. There's a famous guitarist (Joe Pass, I think, but I may be thinking of the wrong guy) who became one of the best guitarists ever, in terms of technical ability and topping lists of guitar players' fave guitarists. In the middle of his career, he had a brain aneurysm and lost all memory and ability of playing guitar. He had to relearn all over again, and he did it. Obviously, having already had a fan base and contacts helped him get back into work, but he had to go through the same process any beginner goes through, and do that process twice over.

.

That's Pat Martino's bio. Wes Montgomery also got a relatively late start.


   
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