Practice Procedures: Part 9: Hearing and Bringing Out An Inner Voice
March 31, 2017
It is usually easiest for our ears to hear, and follow through time, a voice when it is “on top”, I.E. with all the other voices at a lower pitch range. It is like the relative ease of following the line of the sopranos in a chorus. Except in special cases, such as Bach*, the sound of the top voice acts to “block” our view (sic) of the other voices. It is like an opaque surface hiding what is within. The surface voice (the top voice) acts to “reflect” back to the listener its own content and resist attempts by the ear to penetrate under its surface.
If we want to switch our awareness to what another voice is doing through time, the obvious solution is to temporarily put that voice on top of the original top voice. This involves nothing more than transposing upwards the desired inner voice the (minimum) number of octaves that place it into a pitch range that is higher than the printed top voice. Then, the “accident of birth” that had placed the former “highest voice” in its privileged position on top is superseded by a simple readjustment in pitch. The inner voice now sounds like the top voice, and we can more easily hear its individual shape and melodic features, as well as how the other voices relate to ‘it’. When we shift back to the normal pitch arrangement of the voices, that distinctness of the voice in question can be still to a certain extent noted. Its “top-ness” may be more of an aesthetic quality or condition than a predetermined aural fact.
When you have a second pianist at a second piano, the latter can transpose one of the inner voices into several octaves at once, similar to what an organist does when adding a 16, 4, and 2 foot pipe too the standard 8 foot pipe. This has an effect on the ear similar to softening all the other voices and playing the target voice loudly. This helps explain why polyphony on an organ can sound so well blended (or homogenized) that each voice can be found in each octave, and it is more difficult to discern the contrapuntal relations between the voices. No voice ever gets totally free of the other voices, but is closed in on the top and the bottom.
* in Bach’s case, usually each voice is transparent to all the others. Being on top has just a temporary advantage.