Ear Training, an Introduction: the What, the Why, the How
#1 Why do ear training?
Ask a student or performer if they listen as they play, and the answer which they give, without much pause to think, is generally “yes”. Yet the ability to hear clearly while playing, and to understand what one is hearing, is the principal things that sets a good player apart from others. The good player does not only have a good technique, but they have as strong an ability to listen completely and objectively to the sounds they are making. In the hands of a master, technical matters are brought under the control of the ear.
It is a surprise to most musicians if you tell them that they are not really listening attentively when they play. That too much of what they consider listening is actually physical sensations generated in the muscles causing notes to sound. At the moment of an attack of a new note, there is often more tactile and kinaesthetic feeling going on than listening.
When the physical action stops but the note continues to sound, it is easier to focus purely on the sound. Ideally there is a way to how to isolate sound from any muscular feelings or other sensations than that of hearing.
There is a way for the ear alone, whether that of the pianist or a listener, to learn to identify and distinguish among the many relations into which notes can combine.
Each such relationship produces for us a quality, and it this quality that forms the basis of ear training.
Being a good musician means having a mastery over the medium in which music exists, I.E. sound. When possessed of such mastery, one can mold the medium of sound to one’s will.
No prior experience is needed to begin to develop the sensitivity of the “ear”.
#2 Sound is a quality.
The experience of sound is a quality and not a measurable quantity.
How notes combine into a single conscious experience is not a dividable into half steps or ticks of a clock. Being a quality, there is no way of describing the quality of sound using words. We must experience it. If we try to ‘describe’ it to someone else, it is useless unless the other person has also experienced it directly.
The sounds we hear may result from combining notes in some measurable way, but we do not “hear” these measurements. The quality of a chord, for example, is like a perfume. It impresses us directly and unmistakably. We do not need anything extra, such as the chemical makeup of the perfume, to fill ourselves with its aroma.
As I walk I may identity a certain scent in the air as that of a “rose”. But unless one has already experienced this aroma and then also learned to associate it with the same word that I use, it is of no use to say the word “rose” to another and expect that they will know what scent we are talking about.
Associating an aroma with a word does not alter the aroma in any way. We can study and examine the rose, but all we gain is knowledge (facts, quantitative measurements, etc.). But all the while the fragrance persists calmly in our consciousness apart from anything visual, descriptive or analytical.
It is easy to stray from just the quality. We are apt to substitute for it a symbol in the form of a name or an image.
A ‘rose expert’ can tell us while blindfolded what the name is of the specific type of rose they are smelling. And though an ‘ear training expert’ would be able to give separate names to different patterns of sounds, it is more important that we simply have the ability to recognize when sound qualities are the same, or just similar, or vary more considerably. Thus, while we could say: ah, that’s a perfect fifth sounding, or that’s a major chord in the first inversion, or those melody notes all belong to this or that scale, the important thing is that when you hear a perfect fifth and then a perfect forth, you can “smell” the difference. If we never heard of a ‘half step’ we would still be aware of the difference in quality.
Ear Training is most successful when you work with qualities; when you use your innate, rapid, intuitive faculty of directly perceiving even the most subtle differences in quality between one combination of notes and another. At first maybe we may only notice the most obvious differences, as between a chord and a melody. In the world of odor, this would be like only being able to tell difference in quality between the smell of a lilac and that of a rose. Later though we will be able to notice the difference in quality between various types of chords (various types of roses), and still later the subtlest differences between chords that arise from the intervals between the notes in the chord, their inversion, the number of notes they contain. Our ability to distinguish between similar qualities in sound gets finer and finer.
If we hear a fast melody, we can tell from its overall quality through time just how many notes were in it (without counting as we hear them).
Eventually we become like the rose expert and can detect slight variations in quality between two roses on neighboring bushes. We will be able to tell the difference between two chords that have the same root note, same ‘quality’ (major, minor…), and the same number of notes, whose only difference lies in the arrangement on the staves of where the root notes are, the thirds, and the fifths. We will be able to single just one note from the chord with our ears and say whether it is a root note, third, or fifth.
We can be just as expert with intervals, melodies, and any other abstract relation between pitches (what I call “Sonic Geometry”). We just want to avoid the temptation of applying some sort of musical ‘ruler’ to the sounds, by which we can measure the distance between two notes by a sense of their distance on a staff, along a piano keyboard, or along a violin string.
#3. Resolving ‘complex’ ear training abilities into an amalgam of simpler abilities.
In looking for a starting point for ear training, we might be tempted to start with something like : what is this chord that I just heard? However, this is already a fairly complex ability. It entails separate skills: is it a chord I’m hearing; how many notes are sounding; is it in root position or in an inversion; if I wanted to can I single note with my ear each individual note; can I tell what the intervals are between these notes; which of these notes are root notes, thirds, fifths, etc..
To come to realize that the original question involves an amalgam of simpler abilities, we can learn to ‘refract’ through a ‘musical prism’ the original ability to see if it resolves into simpler component. Nor should we be surprised if these simpler abilities, in turn, if each is put through another prism, do not resolve into even simpler abilities. All ear training questions ultimately boil down to: 1) which is higher in pitch of two notes? 2) which is longer in duration of two notes? 3) how many sounds just sounded? Then we can work our way backwards to our original question: what chord did I just hear?
#4. Ear training is fun to do when there are two people together.
If you do not have access to a computer program*, or to a class being offered locally, Ear Training can be easily practiced with the help of just one friend and a room with two pianos (one will do also but it is a bit more cumbersome logistically).
The two people go back and forth presenting “questions” or answering questions. The questions are always some combination of sounds. The answer is either given in words or by reproducing the sounds on the other instrument.
Some examples on the simpler side:
Play two notes in a row: ask which one was either higher in pitch or longer in duration. You can do something similar with three or more notes in a row (which was highest in pitch; which was longest in duration).
Play two or more notes at the same time: ask how many notes were sounding. Play two or more notes one after the row: ask how many notes sounded.
Play a series of notes, one at a time, from an agreed upon range. Have your partner try to match each one. This range can after a while be expanded when agreed upon. Later, let it be two simultaneous notes from an agreed upon range.
Agree that all the notes will be, for example, C-naturals, then play C-s in different ranges of the piano and have your partner match it in the correct octave.
Some examples of something with moderate difficulty:
Play examples of intervals (harmonic or melodic) but limited to only two possible answers (major third / minor third; perfect fourth / perfect fifth …). Your partner provides the name of each that you play. Later, there can be three possible correct answers (and eventually more).
Did the two chords just heard contain the same notes, or was one or more different (one being much harder than several).
The same principle of starting with two correct choices, then adding a third, fourth, etc.. can be applied to most ear training situations: distinguishing among types or aspects of chords, three-chord harmonic progressions, types of rhythms, etc.).
As things advance, and the recipes become very gradually more complex.
Here are some examples of things of harder difficulty:
Which steps of a common scale did you just hear and in what order? Or match the same notes (given the first note).
Was the chord in root position, first inversion or second inversion …
Listen to two chords: by how many half steps (and whether up or down) did the root notes move.
How many of the notes in one chord were also in the next chord.
Here is the scale of a particular key (play it one octave up and then down). Then play a series of chords. Ask on which scale step each is built. Complicating factors can be whether the chord is in root position or inversion; whether non-diatonic chords are allowed; whether altered steps of the scale can be used for root notes.**
* You are welcome to request a copy of the “Joe Bloom Ear Training Program” which runs on PC-s but unfortunately not on Macs.
** For a more complete list of ear training activities, just send me a request.
Techniques in Opposition
E. and I were working on Variation 9 in the Brahms variations on a theme by Schumann (in F# Minor). In this variation, at the beginning of each measure, the right hand has two sets of triplet sixteenths in the form of an ascending arpeggio.
We discussed two opposite ways of dealing with the evenness required of the arpeggio.
In method one, the hand makes no rotation, the wrist makes no lateral adjustment, the thumb does not even come under any of the other fingers. The hand retains a constant spatial attitude and alignment. The only adaption necessary, which compensates for the other motions, is that the pianist ignore the moment when the thumb usually wants to begin its journey under the other fingers, and wait virtually up to the moment the next starts sounding before making any motion takes place at all. This delay compresses a spring-like mechanism in the hand, which when it at last releases, causes the thumb to simply ‘show up’ on its next note in the next octave higher.
This worked every time. However he said that it would be difficult for him to remember this procedure in each and every measure. He found it counter intuitive.
Thus, at least temporarily, I set aside method one, and switched to a method that was diametrically the opposite of the first as regards the motion of the thumb in time.
Not only would he pass thumb under the other fingers, but do so very slowly. It exaggerated things in the opposite direction. Thus, instead of one constant motion of the thumb rightwards, made in one brief span of time, I asked him to use a series of smaller motions of the thumb, one leading into the other. At every moment of time when the thumb was in motion, I asked E. to keep track close of where the thumb was exactly in space relative to the keyboard.
The overall motion of the thumb is the fusion of the smaller motions. Why go about it this way; it seems to make things more complicated? If the motions are practiced very slowly, the pianist will become aware that the thumb does not naturally want to move at the same speed through each of the subdivided segments in space. At different points along the thumb’s progress, different muscles will engage to different degrees, different leverages between the thumb and adjacent parts of the hand will become more or less activated. Without this overall flexibilty in stages of the thumb’s progress, then the pianist will assume that whatever way the thumb begins to move should continue to the end of the motion. Without the subtle changes through time and space, what starts as a fluency to the thumb’s motion at the beginning of the overall motion to its new note, can create, an instant later, through inertia, an abruptness or stiffness in the next segment and moment of the motion.
The first method relied on the hand’s ability to move, as if instantaneously, from one discrete position in space to a second, and being in as stable and balanced a stance in the new octave as in the previous. By making the motion unconscious, the body will insure that whatever details there are within the motion, they will automatically occur.
The second method relied on a close examination of the natural propensities of the thumb when assuming different spatial arrangements relative to the second, third and fourth fingers.
In terms of the overall speed and fluency of the arpeggio, each may work as well as the other, or the pianist will discover that one works better than the other, or that sometimes one works better and sometimes the other.
On the one hand there is no consciousness of the motion of the thumb, in the other the the motion of the thumb is being ideally tailored to each subdivision of space.
A Thanksgiving Fantasy; Thank you to all my Followers
I had one lesson today in the early morning. The ubiquitous “Irving” was over and played the Scriabin Etude in C-sharp minor (Op. 2, No. 1).
My mind was running at a very fast pace dreaming of turkeys with enormous thighs and having visions Japanese sweet potatoes drowning in Vermont maple syrup. The result was that I gave, let us say, a ‘rambling’ lesson, one in which I let my imagination loose, which caused me to use a lot of mental imagery, flights of fancy and outre analogies. It definitely wasn’t a very ‘literal’ or scientific lesson. But it worked.
Here were the main points we covered.
Irving spent a long time sitting at the piano and figuring just how to play the first chord. I interrupted the process and said: too much time spent in preparation – just “evoke” the sound out of the piano. Feel like a magician who casts a spell or waves a magic wand and a beautiful, resonant, soulful, balanced, chord emerges from the piano. Then I said: and incidentally, do this over and over again for every sound that wants to come to birth out the womb of the instrument.
That had an immediate and positive effect on the sound quality, both within and between the chords. But we weren’t there yet. It wasn’t the sound I had in my memory and imagination. At that moment Irving happened to be doodling around with the B key on the middle line of treble clef, playing it -then listening to it. This inspired my next flight of fancy. I said: when you play that note, hear it crescendo after it starts. Every note grows while it sounds. There is no such thing as ‘decay’ or getting softer.
The great French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote: “What philosophy has lacked most of all is precision. . . (philosophical systems) are too wide for reality. Examine any one of them . . . and you will see that it could apply equally well to a world in which . . . men . . . born decrepit . . . would end as babes in arms.”
Or, if you remember the TV series “Mork and Mindy” with Robin Williams: they have a son together, who hatches out of an egg fully grown, looking surprisingly like Jonathan Winters. Mork explains to Mindy that their son from this point on will grow younger and younger over the years.
I mentioned both of these things just to say that others beside me have had fantasies in which things defy the ‘arrow’ of time, or in my case, that a piano string, once set into motion and left on its own, will vibrate more and more strongly rather than less and less so.
You can also imagine a group of billiard balls, all in motion, which grow closer and closer to each other over the next bunch of seconds, until at the last moment they have come together in a triangular arrangement. And other such ‘entropy’ defying feats.
At this point we were getting close to the desired sound. The sound had been transformed, was lush and lasting. One more thing was necessary, which had to do with mechanics of playing each chord. Each time there was a chord to sound (which was pretty much every eighth note in the piece) create the chord out of its lowest note which then, figuratively speaking, opens up to the entire chord – only this has to occur simultaneously.
This is how we approached. We began by taking one specimen chord and played it, with the pedal down, as a very slow upwards arpeggio. We did the same again to the same chord only the arpeggio moved a little faster. Then a little faster…
If I remember my calculus aright, if “delta t” represents the time duration of each note before adding to it the next note of the arpeggio, then, we simply let “delta t” shrink gradually to zero, at which point, though we still feel physically that we are arpeggiating, all the notes of the chord begin at the same instant.
At this point there is no longer a distinction between a simultaneous chord and an arpeggio of notes of a chord. It is a physiological feeling in the body that the lowest note is played first and that our energy then shifts rightwards. The listener hears the notes start simultaneously, but notices a richness to the sound.
The player has now been able to make ‘simultaneous in time’ identical with ‘sequential in space’. The simultaneous chord retains the imprint of the note by note arpeggio. In the calculus analogy, it like the straight line that connects two separated points on curve, which line, as those two points made to approach each other, changes its slant until, when the points converge, and the line looks like the tangent to the curve at that point.
Part of the retained ‘sequential’ physical experience is that each individual finger will feel totally in control physically of its note and each note sounds with an individual intent. The bonus is that this is not the result of trying to coordinate the actions of different fingers. For the feeling of the arpeggio remains, so that the body still feels a rotational change from one note to the next in the chord. The more notes in the chord the more this rotation seeks its origin and energy from the shoulders and the arms. In terms of our consciousness, something magical happens, it is as if the single instant at which all the notes start sounding has been expanded into lived duration.
We turned our attention next specifically to the contrasting section (when it switched from sharps to flats) where utmost anguish is suddenly replaced with great calm, as removed as possible from the original mood.
I made an analogy with a garden hose with a sprayer at its end that is held in the person’s hand, which sprayer contains a lever that makes the spray get stronger and stronger. There is usually a strong spring in the lever that progressively resists squeezing the handle further, so that if one wants a steady and strong flow. and squeezes it for too long, the hand may grow tired and need to relax, even if just for a moment, before returning the water to the same pressure. Without those moments of easing off the steadiness of the stream would not remain as continuous.
I wanted to have Irving feel this in relation to the keys going up and down. The goal in this section is to act like the keys always stay down, but with every eighth note the hand needs to release and retake the keys. The release of the keys has barely begun when a force from the arms and hands returns the keys to the depressed state. It’s almost like when having to play the same note over and over, legato, without any use of the pedal. We learn to strike a balance between there being just one continuous sounding note and the notes separating too far apart.
Looking around for a piano-key-like object, I seized on a pencil (it was the best I could find). I said: this is a piano key, and, not only is it a piano key it is “Every-key”, in reference to “Everyman” (the 15th century English morality play). I held one end of the pencil fixed, made the length of the pencil horizontal, and then manipulated the other end of it up and down. It is like, I said, we are manipulating the same key over and over, imagining the piano keyboard as having just one and not eighty-keys, and that all we were doing was, when playing, was raising that same lever up and down. And that made all the different pitches and rhythms.
Another way I described it was that part of the magic control that we have over time, when it came time to make the next chord sound, the keys were already down – even, already sounding.
Happy Thanksgiving and thank you to all, and especially to Sawyer Fuller, our web master. Save me a piece of dark meat!
In the Flow of Time, the Effect Turns Into the Cause
How constantly do we need to be aware of what we are hearing while playing.
I find that I have a tendency for the following to occur when I am trying to pay attention to what I’m playing. For instance if I am playing a string of four sixteenth notes, I seem to be able to pay close attention to how I connect note 1 to note 2 but then, without realizing it, I don’t become attentive again until I’m connecting note 3 to note 4. It seems like my awareness, like my one of my nerves, needs a short period of rest before “firing” again.
If were speaking in the language of cause and effect it would be as if knew that note 1 acted like the cause of note 2, and I knew that note 3 was like the cause of note 4, but note 3 somehow passed by without having an intentional cause. We are so used to thinking of things in groups of two that we missed making the connection between note 2 and note 3. So the latter connection just sort of happened on its own.
Another way of putting this is that at times I fail to recognize that something can be, at the same moment, the effect of one cause, and the cause of the next effect. In the magic solvent of time one note can change from being an effect to being a cause.
The note that has displaced the note immediately past itself becomes eclipsed by the next note in the next moment. The recent past has already gone, and the present is but a flicker of consciousness holding off the future.
I know that one may object to this and say that all the notes are already present because they are all there in front of us printed in the score. But for the listener, who has things revealed to them one moment at a time, the next note is still partially or totally hidden in the future, although if we complacently wait a moment the mystery of the future will subside into the common daylight of the present.
Music exists through time, almost by being time, in a way that no other art is able to do. There is always something happening in space going in the other arts. Music, however, is very close to being in identity with the nature of the flow of time itself.
The current note, itself the most unstable event in the ongoing flow of time, because it will not last, is yet the scene of an alchemical transformation of what has already just passed to what is just about to happen.
If we think that the next moment in time happens because the prior moment has happened, then the current note in the piece starts out its brief, but important life, as an effect of the past but undergoes a transformation under the performer’s hands into the cause of the next note which, very soon, will no longer to be in the future. Each note links past and future through the ephemeral present. It is through the artist’s consciousness this alchemy is made to happen.
How this applies to our attention while playing a series of notes:
As performing artists we cannot let our energy down even for an instant. We cannot “take it easy” during any one of the notes that fly through the sudden illumination of the present. Otherwise we let the state of our energy slump, as if the goal had been reached, and we do not have to think of anything further, at least not for a while, at least for a note? If there really is any “resting on our laurels” for having caused the current note, it can only last for a quiver of time.
It is hard for us to catch in our consciousness that exact instant* when the current note ceases being the result of something and is now the cause of something else. That moment is there, though, if we seek it. A flash in our awareness that the transformation is taking place. A single note, like in the TV commercial is saying “do you hear me now, do you here me now”.
All which lives in time is bound to the advent of change. Every outcome becomes an initialization, every goal becomes a starting point**. A resting point becomes restless.***
* I recall from High School Chemistry about how an atom of one element, if unstable enough, can spontaneously change into an atom of the next element in the periodic table. This happens because a neutron in the nucleus of the atom becomes a proton (plus an electron and a neutrino)***. Since the proton count is the basis of labeling where an atom resides on the periodic table the new proton bumps the atom up to the next position on the periodic table. What we do not know is when one particular atom will go through this process of “beta decay”, but we can detect it as it happens.
** This is a clumsy attempt on my part to diagram what is being talked about:
Less good diagram:
notes: 1 2 3 4 …
cause effect cause effect
notes: 1 2 3 4 …
cause effect ….
*** Perhaps it is like two hemispheres of a spinning top. The two halves may be colored differently, but ordinarily the top is spinning too fast for us to detect one color changing into another (but even in this case, is there not a chance that we see a color, the color that results from the merging of the other two colors).
A Well Shaped Phrase
Irving and I were working on the right hand in the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto.
Botticelli’s paintings are praised for the sensuous lines which outline and reveal his shapes. These shapes are more than simply visual, they can also be felt tangibly in imagined sensations of touch*.
The beauty of the shape of a musical a phrase can also have to do with the care the musician takes to communicate the outline each phrase. There are many criteria for how to shape a phrase.
One way, though not always applicable, is on the basis of when the pitches are ascending and when they are descending. More especially the places where the direction changes, for they are the places in the phrase where its outline is most sinuous.**
I remember in first year Calculus, that to draw a curve, it is sufficient to know only the points where the curve changes direction from rising to falling or falling to rising. It is easy to connect those points with a smooth curve. The pianist should similar trace the undulations of their phrases.
For the queasy of stomach (like me), the moments on a roller coaster ride that are most jarring are these sinuous points when up and down flip, and when left and right reverse. They are the moments that stand out in my memory of the ride.
I am not one to apply metaphors from one art to another but sometimes, when I’m playing I feel like sound is a viscous substance that I can, like a sculptor, mold into a shape (through time). Or another analogy that works for me is to take a sculpture that barely rises off a background surface and have it round itself into three dimensions. Or, sometimes I will feel myself holding a somewhat stiff, yet flexible, rod in my hands and imagine it being bent into an arc.
*I learned this when reading books on the Italian Renaissance by art critic/aesthetician/historian Bernard Berenson.
** In first year calculus I learned how to sketch a curve on a graph given only information about where the curve changed from ascending to descending or changed from bending one way to the other.