If Yogi Berra were a musician he would have said: “You can hear a lot just by listening”. This may sound so obvious as to be insulting, but musical listening is not as simple and straightforward as it might seem.
What, in particular, should one listen to?
What, precisely, should one listen for?
Let’s take a closer look…
There are as many ways to listen as there are ways to direct your attention. You cannot hear what you do not listen for, just like you cannot see something if your eyes are closed, if you are looking in the wrong direction, or if you are focused on the wrong thing. Attention can range from broad and shallow to narrow and deep. The good news is this: Focusing one’s attention is a very learn-able skill. Read on to learn more…
One key to musical listening is not merely to absorb what something sounds like. It is much more about absorbing how something feels. For this reason, Piano-ology uses the term sound-feeling to describe the experience of musical listening.
Receptivity vs. Effort
Successful listening is not achieved by “trying” to hear something. It is about being receptive to the sound-feeling that you are experiencing.
Successful ear training is about associating sound-feelings with something you already know. This “associative listening” is simple:
- Pay attention to some music and be receptive to its sound-feeling.
- Associate that sound-feeling with something that you already know and that will be useful in performance.
By far, the most effective way to get musical sounds into your mind’s ear is to sing the sounds out loud, while associating these sounds with something you already know… notes in written music or keys on the keyboard. Singing out loud is an active process that excites many sensory and memory and motor pathways in your brain. This broad-based activation leads to much faster and deeper learning than passive listening alone. Singing requires you to generate something. This kind of ear training is hard work because it demands recall, which requires much deeper and wider processing than merely recognition.
For maximum learning to occur, you must sustain the sound long enough for each unique sound/feeling to make an impression on your mind’s ear. You will be able to feel when it “clicks”. This soak time is necessary for giving the sound enough time to transfer from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.
We humans do very few things in absolute terms. We perceive and conceive of most things in relative terms — bigger/smaller, louder/softer, faster/slower, and so on. “Big” and “loud” and “fast” depend on the context and our point of reference. The lesson here is this: We learn to distinguish things from each other by sensing, perceiving, conceiving, and understanding how they are different. In music, comparative listening is listening to the differences between sounds and is an extremely important aspect of ear training. For example, the sound/feeling of a major scale is not fully appreciated until is is played side-by-side with a minor scale and vice versa.
Melody or Harmony?
Melodic ear training is really a misnomer. Harmonic ear training is really a misnomer. There are enough melodic elements in harmony and enough harmonic elements in melody to make it pointless to quibble about the distinctions. Melody and harmony are just two different views of the same musical stuff, where melody describes the horizontal aspects of the music (things that occur in sequence) and harmony describes the vertical aspects (things that occur simultaneously).
Music theory, studied correctly, is an essential aid to ear training. Your knowledge of scales, solfege, chords, and chord progressions organizes your thinking about sound and allows you to make highly-educated guesses about which notes are being played. Here are a few examples:
- If you are in the key of F and hear a melody that sounds-feels major and there are no “weird” sounds, you can most likely limit the note possibilities to only those notes that constitute the F major scale (F,G,A,Bb,C,D,E).
- If you hear a dominant 7 chord in a jazz ballad and the piece does not sound “outside”, there are really only two reasonable resolutions for that chord: a perfect 5th down or a minor 2nd down.
- Can you think of some others?