In order to learn a piece of music, students must first mapify it, and then tonalize it. These are brand new words for two essential listening skills, which usually get taken for granted. Why? Simply because our language has no words to describe nonverbal skills. So I’ve made up a couple of words for us to use! After all, these skills are at the heart of learning and playing music, and need to be easier to pin down.
Because students have no words to describe the actions of our ears in learning music, students have a hard time thinking about what their ears do, and therefore their brains usually dismiss the ears as tangential to the process, or take them for granted. Sometimes, I’ve noticed students doing all they can to avoid what they might consider “learning by ear” — they will simply state they cannot do it, and will cling more tightly than ever to their book, sheet music, and verbal thinking strategies.
Verbal thinking strategies focus on what a student can put into words. In music, this start with written notes or instructions. Often a student will try mightily to play sequences of notes in the right order, and will stop to fix it when a note is wrong. For them, trying harder usually means applying their brains ever more diligently to the ideas they’re able to think about — notes, finger numbers, markings, keys, time signatures — trying to get it all right.
But that is not where music can be found. Without sound, music is an intellectual exercise. And without timing, there is only sound — and no music at all. We teachers need to focus our students on respect for listening. We need a way for students to apply their thinking and practicing to an appreciation of their ears.
So I’ve made up a couple of words for teachers and students to use in describing the work of the ears. It’s so frustrating that our ears just sit there and receive sound — they don’t even move or do something we can watch! But think about it: a bare-bones beginner can tell right from wrong after only the second time of hearing a sequence of four notes. How? Because their ears have quickly mapped out the correct sound profile of that sequence. They don’t generally have a clue about how they, who may never have played music before, could possibly do this so quickly. There are no words for it.
Okay, let’s see try two new words to describe the work of our ears in learning music. The first is mapify. To mapify is to allow your ears to map out the timing and profile of a segment of music.
Teach your students to mapify a phrase of music. To mapify, they will need to hear which notes land on the beats, and hear the music enough to take in a general profile of how the music travels as it rises and falls on its journey from beat to beat. But they must permit this profile to be blurry, i.e. to accept mistakes — as long as the beat notes are played in time. With a small number of repetitions, their ears will learn the timing, the beat notes, and the profile of that segment of music.
Now comes the next task, with its own word: Tonalize. To tonalize is to clean up that general profile, so that the ears can hear clear notes, and hear the exact route from one beat note to the next. (By the way, the connection of this word to Suzuki’s made-up word “tonalization” is a coincidence but not an unwelcome one, as Suzuki’s word involves the making of a clear tone quality.)
With these two words in mind — mapify and tonalize — maybe this scenario is much less likely to play out: the student who works to get the right notes, and, having got them right once, stops and look at you as if the music’s been learned! If this student is asked to “mapify” the music, they will have to ask something of their ears, not just their brains: Did I allow my ears enough time to mapify this part of the music? Are my ears hearing all the beat notes? Are they comfortable with the timing of the notes that fall on the beats? Did I give my ears a consistent sense of the profile of this music, the ups and downs, even if some of the notes are fuzzy? Just one time correctly through the notes cannot possibly satisfy these questions!
Then the student will need to tonalize the music, to play the selected phrase or segment of music enough times through to give the ears a clear sense of the correct notes, and allow time to seek good quality of sound. But the map must be kept intact — they must make sure the ears keep hearing the timing and the pulse that breathes life into the music from one beat note to the next. Here is where that desire to get the notes right, and to hear a good sound, can be thoroughly indulged, as long as it’s in the context of hearing “mapified” music.
By naming these two aural steps, perhaps we can give students the tools to verbalize these crucial nonverbal tasks that undertaken by our ears each time we practice or play through music. With these two words handy, our students can help their ears learn, and can engage their brains with sound. If we don’t supply a way to verbalize a skill, we can’t blame a student for focusing on what is quantifiable, such as studying notes with the eyes, or applying the brain to thinking only about finger numbers or note letters or written notations and rules — while they take for granted the nonverbal learning skills that are the real heart of playing music.
Next time, I will suggest some new words for the physical motions of our hands, which usually suffer the same fate as our ears. Our hands also need a little real attention to their own needs, and not just to serving the brain’s often all-too-limited vocabulary for playing music.