Friday, October 06, 2006

"Music" -> Ear Training Part II

My mother had the gift of “ear to keyboard translation.” Talent poured out of both of my parents, one that could play the Chopin Etudes (my father) and one that could have been one of the best Jazz pianist around, but spent her life in service to the Lord by playing every Sunday at Church, Sunday Schools and Weddings. While to me, as a musician, they both had equal talents, it was my mother that everybody had stories to tell me as I grew up.

A friend told me of her first meeting with my Mom, 35 years ago. Our friend has been directing the children's choir at my parents church with a tape recording (if you remember those), and she knew that she needed to find somebody to play the piano during the live service. To her horror, she realized that she never ordered the piano music, and since this was before the internet, she knew it would not arrive in time. At this point, somebody in the church introduced her to my Mom, explaining that there were no worries since all she had to do was hum the tune to my Mom and she'd play the accompaniment. What our friend thought was a joke, turned out to be true.

While I am not my Mom, as you can see by the attached picture, out of series of 300 notes, I picked out the right note 92% of the time this morning. Since starting to seriously ear train just last month, ear training has cause to re-evaluate how music resides in the brain, and it has given me some insight on my Mother.

If you had the perfect ear, what would you want as a musician?

I think most of us would simply like to be able to hear a melody, and walk over to a piano and simply play the piece of music with the right accompanying chords, just like dear ol' Mom. However, my mother couldn't do the next step: you would then be able to sit down with a piece of staff paper and write it down. Thus you could seamlessly transfer the notes or vibrations that hang in the air into something on the keyboard, then to something that is on paper. If you look at the truly great composers, they all seemed to have this 3 (triune) fold gift:

1. You can hear the melody and sing it
2. You can transfer it to an instrument
3. You can transfer it to paper

This is very analogous to how we learn to read, write and type. An excellent book to understand this is Diana Mcguinness's book "Why Our Children Can't Read."

In a nutshell, she goes through the science of why it is like second nature for us to speak, but it is very difficult for us to read. Our brains, as Noam Chomsky brilliantly guessed so many years ago, are wired for verbal speech. However, they are not wired for writing and reading. Perhaps, you have read and written for so many years, you can't remember how foreign and difficult it was to read, but watch children and you will understand this.

In the same way, the act of taking a melody and humming it is very natural, but the act of turning this melody into a graphical representation is absolutely foreign to the way that we are wired. So if you want to learn how to "train your ear," you will need to go back to school. In the same way that it may have taken you years to read to a decent level as a child, you will find that it may also take you years to learn how to listen and transfer that knowledge to a piece of paper.

However, the world will be much richer for this. If you carry the thought process further, you could write poetry without learning how to write, but it is so much easier to write poetry when you see the words on a page. It allows you to take and mold the texture of the words. You can see the phrasing.

In the same way, ear training will allow you to do this.

However, it is a bit like going back and learning your ABCs.

And the ABC never came easy for anybody.

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