A Musical Ear
Most people I know – including a large number of those who insist that they can’t sing – are able to manage a close enough likeness of a song that it is recognizable. Undoubtedly that will stop some of you in your tracks, but let’s suppose there’s enough truth in that statement to go on.
When you sing, you are, in a sense, playing your voice. You know how to make the tune go up and down at the right times, controlling your voice so that it moves step-wise or in leaps, depending on the needs of the song. Almost everyone who listens to a song a few times is able to sing it on the first try. There is no groping for notes or confusion - you hear it with your ears, absorb it with your mind and transfer it to your voice.
So what is the difference between singing and playing an instrument? I am suggesting that figuring out a tune by ear on, let’s say, the piano, is nothing more than singing on an instrument. The only difference is that your familiarity with your own voice enables you to know when to go up or down and arrive at the sounds so easily that it feels like second nature. There’s a good chance that you have not spent nearly as much time exploring a keyboard; therefore, you are not as sure of the relationships. If you were as familiar with the keyboard as you are with your voice, playing by ear would be a breeze.
I have a very easy time finding a tune on the piano. I don’t even have to think about it – it does feel just like singing on the instrument. Could it be that one reason for this is that I’ve been spending time at the piano since the age of two? I believe that anyone who has the time, opportunity and interest to sit at the piano and explore its notes will, after awhile, become comfortable playing some things by ear. This does not mean that you will be improvising like George Gershwin – it means that you will probably learn to do a lot more than you can do now, or than you ever imagined you’d be able to do.
If you really, truly cannot reproduce a tune with your voice, it doesn’t matter. You can still master the logic of the piano keyboard enough to learn to play by ear. If the idea seems overwhelming, perhaps an understanding mentor can be on hand for consultation. The point is that a rudimentary ability to play by ear does not require extraordinary musical ability, only a basic grasp of musical logic that can be acquired over time.
During the first year that I worked with William, he did not appear to have “A Good Ear," or what I would then have called talent. Although he could tell whether the tune he was looking for sounded right after he groped around trying notes at random, he was unable to sense the tonal relationships enough to anticipate them beforehand. He would go up when the tune went down, skip around when the tune should move stepwise, change notes when the note needed to be repeated and stray far enough from the path to forget where he’d been trying to go in the first place. However, he remained remarkably undaunted, and though there was no apparent progress for several months, he kept trying.
One week, shortly before his eighth birthday, there was a change. William began to make fewer mistakes, correcting them more quickly, and was able to retain the whole longer without needing my help to get back on track. A few weeks later he was able to pick out virtually any tune by ear, more or less on the first try. Anyone stumbling upon William at this point would unquestionably have said, "What an incredible talent - This boy has an excellent ear!" The truth is that I knew him when this was not the case, and had the privilege of witnessing the spectacular transition.
William has since gone on to do some really impressive things. He can play almost any song on a variety of instruments. He seems to be a natural, getting it right on the first try. People have trouble believing that there was ever a time when William couldn’t do these things. One day he greeted me at the door playing the Queen of the Night aria from “The Magic Flute” on – what else? The harmonica!
When we think of talent, we usually think in terms of an innate capacity to achieve, but I think it has more to do with a capacity or inclination to stay interested in a particular thing long enough to “get it.” William’s interest enabled him to keep trying for a very long time, till he finally understood what was what – up, down, skipping, stepping, repeating. Conversely, I have some students who, having made successful preliminary efforts at playing by ear, show no interest in taking the skill further, despite my encouragement and creative attempts to entice them. They frequently turn out to be interested in other areas of music-making that are of less interest to me. This seems to support the theory that capacity for interest is a significant aspect of talent.
This “interest” theory might also offer an explanation as to why some people decide, later in life, to take up a new hobby or career, or otherwise try something that they have never done before. It is hard to believe that they did not have the physical or mental hardwiring to accomplish the same thing earlier in life; it is more likely that they were not ready to be interested.
I have developed a great respect for interest as a determinant of what direction a child will go. Thinking of it this way can fundamentally influence the way we interpret musicality and approach music learning.
© Meryl Danziger 2004