It can be annoying when you look at the musicians around you and some have much better ears than you.

Is it nature?

Or nurture?

Were they born “gifted” with amazing musical ears…

Or did they work hard to achieve them?

In most cases, musicians who have significantly better ears than their peer group (for example the 12-year-old who can transcribe complex music by ear, or the jazz saxophonist whose improvisations are significantly more impressive and musical than the others in his class) have had better ears from an early age.

There are a number of factors which influence how good your ears are at understanding music, and how effectively you put that understanding to use in your music.

Factor 1: Early music education

There is some debate over whether musical ability is genetic, but one thing is clear: a child born to musical parents and raised in a way which promotes music learning and enjoyment of music will grow up more “naturally musical” than a child whose upbringing does not feature music.

It’s rare that a musical prodigy appears without some family history of musical talent. In most cases the children of composers are raised playing instruments from an early age, and encouraged to expect that they will become great musicians. These children grow up surrounded by music and plenty of opportunities to develop their musical ear, and by the time their peers get started learning music they are already years ahead of the curve.

When you next meet a musician with impressive ears, ask them whether they had much music education growing up. You’ll probably learn that they came from a household filled with music!

Factor 2: Dedication and Determination

For those who don’t have a “headstart” with early music education, the path to great ears is one of determined ear training practice.

Some musicians will practice this consciously, choosing ear training exercises which build the musical listening skills they covet. Others will simply incorporate careful active listening into every music practice session and develop their ears passively yet quickly.

The best musicians are constantly listening, learning from what they hear, and applying these new lessons in their music playing.

Whether or not you have had the jumpstart that musical parents or childhood music lessons can provide, you can follow the path to great ears by dedicating yourself to regular ear training.

Factor 3: The X-Factor

The third factor is that mysterious “X-Factor”: the talent which magically seems to imbue some people with the “gift” of music.

Just one problem: just like the ROUS, we don’t believe it really exists.

In most cases what gets called “talent” really boils down to charisma – and some combination of Factors 1 and 2 above.

The “gifted” musician more than likely had an excellent early music education and improved their ears even further with determined ear training practice. Wrap that headstart and gritty determination up with an attractive persona and “pop star” charisma, and it suddenly seems effortless: a magic “gift” (instead of the down-to-earth hard work truly responsible!)

Whether you believe that an “X-Factor” is responsible for great musical ears or not, there is no question that Factors 1 (start early) and 2 (work hard) are the most effective way to develop your own superb musical ears.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • What is the “X Factor” in music?
  • Why are some musicians just naturally talented?
  • What if I don’t have the musical gift?

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