Verbalizing the Work of the Ears, part 2

Last month I discussed the difficulty of having a lack of words to describe the work of the ears, leading students and sometimes even teachers to take the work of the ears for granted in favor of things we can verbalize and think about more easily, such as notes on a page or named procedures such as bowing styles.  Next time I do want to get to a similar discussion with regards to the hands and their crucial but nonverbal role in learning music.
But I’d like to follow up first on my last post and talk about how it’s worked for me in teaching this month, and ideas I’ve noticed and used along the way.

Music theory tries to put the experience of the ears into words — we even talk about ear training.  But in learning music, we don’t generally have words for how the ears map out the profile and timing of a piece of music, and are quickly able to hold us accountable for whether we play it correctly or not.  (Of course, if we play it wrong enough times, our ears get used to a different way of hearing the music, and mislead us.)

I discussed two steps in the process of using our ears, which we must respect if we expect to learn a piece of music and not just grind away at trying to memorize how it’s written.  Both steps are nonverbal, so I made up words for them so we have a way to discuss and think about them.

For the first step I made up the word “mapify” although in actually teaching students this month I’ve found myself simply talking about “mapping out” the music with our ears, rather than use a strange new word.

I’ve been pointing out to students how babies learn to speak:  they first imitate pitch and tone of voice, and then their second step is to hone in on the correct sounds to make the correct words.  During this process children will often fix upon an alternate pronunciation of a word for a while before sorting it out.  One of our kids, for example, used the word “pisketti” for a long time, instead of “spaghetti.”

Another example of this process is when you speak quickly, getting the important words out, but possibly mumbling or misspeaking some of the less important words.  This may get across what you mean, though not as clearly as a trained actor might!  One thing you certainly never think about as you speak is how to spell each word you say!  And yet music students do this all the time, trying to get each note right as they play it, instead of making sure the musical meaning of the phrase is communicated by landing on the correct beat notes on time, and following the profile of the melody even if not everything is perfect in the way of intonation and tone.

Let’s look at another art for yet another example.  When drawing a face, a good artist maps out the whole head and face, marking out the relationship of key points on the face to the overall outline.  An beginning artist might instead focus on getting details right first — drawing an eye well and then moving on to the next eye.  The good artist’s process results in a general map which is refined into a readable face, with details filled in as time permits.  The amateur’s drawing might contain a well-drawn eye or mouth but overall it will look grotesque, with mismatched eyes, mouths, and odd dimensions of the face.

When you learn a phrase of music, a good musician will do the same thing, and so will a student if they allow themselves, or if you allow your student to do so.  First the ears “map out” the territory, the profile of where the pitches go, and what the timing is, so that the correct pitches fall on the correct beats.  The notes in-between are less important and can be blurry while laying the foundation for hearing the melody.  If the beat notes are uncertain, however, whether in pitch or in timing, the foundation never gets laid, or is too shaky to hold up or be retained by the player down the road.tonalize

The second step is for the ears to clarify the map laid out by the ears, and to work — within the original map of timing and profile — to refine the pitches and tone and expression, to suit the player or the teacher.  For this step I made the word “tonalize” which works pretty well, I’ve found.  Or you can simplify discuss the second step as one of “clarifying” the route the ears mapped out in the first step.

I have seen some excellent results from bringing up this discussion to my students.  It gives them a verbal reason to be patient with themselves, to not expect to get everything right away, and most importantly, to deliberately get their timing down so that their ears can hear the correct phrasing of the music, which the ears will retain quite well.  It makes clear that learning the music is a process with several steps, and encourages them to be less impatient with their minds and more patient with their ears, and as we’ll see next time, with their hands as well.

Your comments on these ideas are more than welcome!  (Unless you’re a spammer looking for hits on your website!!  Please, we’ve had enough of those!)


About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]