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Ear Training Part 2: Sound is a “quality” and not a measurable “quantity”

April 19, 2017

A reminder – no prior musical training is needed to begin ear training.

If you have difficulty understanding what I say here about the difference between a ‘quality’ and a ‘quantity’, it is only because almost always substitute in our mind a quantity for a quality.  We think we’re dealing with a quality about something, but we have already substituted something countable, quantitative, about it.

Sound, as we hear it, as it occurs in our consciousness, is a quality.  By this I mean that it is like a perfume, which impresses us directly with its scent, without our having or needing any extra information as to the chemical makeup of the molecules bearing us the fragrance.  A quality can be experienced, but not explained.  Quality is something that we can grasp instantaneously – unless of course one is willing to lose the immediacy of the conscious experience of that quality, in which case we often substitute for the quality an idea about the quality.  This is no longer a quality but a form of an intellectual idea.  As an idea we can analyze at will, and for as long as we want.


Ear Training is most successful when you work with qualities; when you use your fast, intuitive faculty, possessed by all of us, to directly perceive and recognize the quality of the sound.  It does not help our ability at ear training to change or convert the feeling of the sound to quantities which we can measure, counted, or analyze.  Sensing the quality of a sound is as easy as knowing when you are smelling a rose, and not some other flower.  We can even use the word “smell” with sounds.  You ‘sniff’ or ‘smell’  the quality of a sound or a group of sounds.  Being able to tell the difference in the quality of a ‘major chord’ from that of a ‘minor chord’ is no different smelling the difference between a rose and a lilac.

An example:

As an example of the difference between quality and quantity, consider two “notes” sounding together at the same time.  We can use the intellectual term of “interval” to mean the relationship between those two sounds.  But this name is irrelevant to our experience of it as a sound.  Each so-called ‘interval’ has a characteristic sound-quality, different than any other ‘interval.’   It is best if we don’t think of words at all.  It is best if we avoid the temptation to convert quality into quantity.  We should avoid the temptation of thinking that there is a distance between the two notes, which distance we can measure, with some sort of “musical ruler”; a ruler that instead of counting inches counts something called “Half Steps”).    If we leave the sound of the two notes as a quality to be enjoyed in our consciousness, enjoyed as a certain shade or coloring among the sound(s), then we need only give the name that we have learned to associate with that sound-quality, for instance a ‘third’, or a ‘fourth’, or if we prefer a ‘shlumff’ or a ‘flibbertigibbet’.  The names are important only if you are communicating with someone else: you have to agree about you terminology.  But otherwise, you can give any name, you want to give, to a quality of how sounds mix together.

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