The all powerful ear
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Music is a hearing art. Obvious? Yes, but this simple truth is not always understood. In our quest for musical improvement, we are often bombarded with material that is marketed to help us become the musician we would like to be. Much of this material focuses on methods of internalizing music with our eyes and intellect only. Let me say that I am not downplaying the importance of developing reading ability, or that having theoretical knowledge is a bad thing. I strongly advocate having a basic understanding of music theory as well as basic music reading skills- however, my feeling is that developing the ability to really hear music is a skill that is rarely emphasized, and is one that has tremendous potential to improve every aspect of our musicianship. The process of learning music this way is also referred to as "transcribing." Lets take a look at how to do it and how it can help us.

I remember well my first experiences with music. As a toddler, I was absolutely enthralled with my mother's record collection, and my favorite records were Wendy Carlos' "Switched on Bach," and Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours." As a three year old, I wasn't actively learning this music by ear and applying it to an instrument, but I believe that I laid the groundwork for my future efforts as an "ear learner" in this way. Later, I would blissfully spend many hours learning to play the entire Metallica catalog by ear on my guitar. Essentially, we all have this fundamental relationship with music. What we have heard and absorbed since childhood has helped to form our musical ear, and our musical ear is our strongest asset as a musician. 

As a child, we learned to talk by imitating the sounds of human language that surrounded us. It is much the same with music! We can be intentionally "child-like" in our endeavors, and have a lot of fun ingraining and deeply internalizing the musical sounds that move us. In fact, one of the most basic things we can do to improve in this area is to work on learning the nursery rhymes of our childhood on our instruments. This should be done because many of us are very familiar with the melodies of these simple songs, and it is a great first step in direct ear learning.



Boys at the Canterbury Club
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An example of this sort of practice might be to pick a simple melody that you are very familiar with. I would like to use "Pop Goes The Weasel" as our example. I know, I know- this may seem silly to some people. After all, many of us are capable of playing material that is much more "advanced." Ask yourself (and be honest)-are you really hearing this melody? Can you sing all of the pitches accurately? Could you play this melody in all 12 keys? This sort of exercise can end up being frustrating for many musicians. If this is challenging and frustrating for you, don't despair. You aren't "deficient" in some way. It is probably just that you haven't spent enough time developing your musical ear.

So, besides listening intently to lots and lots of music, what is another way in which we can develop our musical ear? By transcribing, of course! I want to clarify that when I speak of transcribing, I am speaking about the process of learning music by ear, without notating it on paper. I know that writing the music down has certain advantages, but I believe learning it solely be ear is the best method. 

I am a very passionate jazz fan, and I have been listening a great deal to the phenomenal tenor saxophonist Lester Young lately. Young played with a melodic simplicity and emotional directness that I find very appealing. He was a master at developing a melody, and excelled at delivering his musical messages with an astoundingly gorgeous tone.  Here is a video of Lester Young from 1957, playing with the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday. The song is called "Fine and Mellow," and Lester takes the second solo:




Beautiful, isn't it? If I was interested in transcribing this solo, here is how I would do it: I would listen to it many times, over and over again. I would then sing it, being sure to match the pitches, dynamics, and inflection accurately. Finally, I would work on transferring this solo to my instrument. Maybe I would only do it a measure at a time. It is counterproductive to overwhelm yourself with too much information. In other words, don't try to tackle an entire song at first! This solo is really perfect for our purposes, because it is only about eight measures long, but oh what measures they are!

This approach is wonderful because we are learning so much in transcribing this way, and we are getting the maximum amount of information out of a minimal amount of material! What are we learning when we take on a piece of music in this way? The benefits are astounding! We are learning:

  • How to develop a melody
  • How to place phrases against an underlying rhythm
  • The importance of inflection, dynamics, and nuance
  • The importance of musical communication and emotional content

All of this from eight measures! You no longer have to spend money on books of written out transcriptions or search the internet for guitar tablature! You can teach yourself, and your efforts will be incredibly worthwhile. You will be developing a deep relationship to the music you love in this way, and music that is ingrained in this way is much more likely to stay with you for the long run. Imagine being able to take your eyes off of the page and focus on really connecting to the music you are playing! When you learn music in this way, you are very unlikely to forget it.

There will be challenges in doing this. If you haven't spent much time developing your musical ear, it can seem like very slow going and will be frustrating at times. Remember: the goal is to derive the most benefit from the least amount of information. It is ok if you have to take things one measure at a time. This is the practice of listening, singing, playing, repeating, and then doing all of those steps again! I know it is a lot of work, but just by embarking on this journey you are on your way to a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with music.

We are fortunate to live in a time when there are many technological developments available to help us with our goal of transcribing. I used to use a Tascam Guitar Trainer, and it was a great tool. This is basically a CD player that allows you to slow down and loop sections of music you are interested in learning. Not so long ago, musicians had to learn by ear by listening to records and hoping to catch the music as it went by. They could attempt to slow the record down, but often the pitch would be altered in this way. The Guitar Trainer allows you to slow down the music without changing the pitch.

More recently, I have been using the aptly named program, "Transcribe!" This is downloadable software published by a company called Seventh String. This program allows you to import sound files from many different sources, to slow them down in increments without changing pitch, and to continuously loop sections of a song that you are working on. I have been using "Transcribe" a lot lately, and can't recommend it enough. 

I hope you have been inspired to begin the process of learning the music you love, and learning it in the most direct way possible- by ear. You will need patience and resolve to embark on this journey, but I can assure you that the results of learning in this way will greatly enhance your relationship with and enjoyment of music.