SoundCatcher: Workshop Introduction
INTRO: ROOTS MUSIC
INTRO: ROOTS MUSIC
Record stores classify music as classical, rock, alternative or folk. But in this workshop we ask a question that spans the genres: whether a piece of music is rooted in its tune or its chord patterns. If the tune is fundamental, then chords may change from performance to performance, if they’re played at all. In pieces built on a specific chord pattern, that sequence repeats and seldom changes, though the melody may be varied or transformed through improvisation. Some improvised melodies are memorable in their own right, like Greensleeves.
Generally speaking, songs are tune-centered and dances are chord-centered, but many exceptions occur. Some world music pieces are rhythm-centered. But whatever the root of a piece might be, that element becomes fixed in people’s memories, like Mona Lisa’s smile. Funny, though, in both the early and traditional music worlds, we find performers adding or subtracting twiddles to the melody of a tune-centered piece, or substituting chords in the harmony of a chord-centered one.
What if we changed Mona Lisa’s background landscape to New Jersey? Made her robe a different color or style? Stuck a hat on her head? She would continue to be Mona Lisa; she’d keep her identity. The smile is the hook, isn’t it? If the lady started frowning she’d lose us. The melody of a tune-centered piece, or the harmony of a chord-centered piece can vary as long as the hook remains. Identifying that hook can help you remember a piece.
I. HOW WE LEARN
When a musician reads music, there are four steps between the page and the fingers—seeing the notes, hearing them in your head/aka making sense of them, translating them into finger movements and playing them. That includes both right and left-brain activities.
When a musician plays by ear there are three steps, hearing the notes, translating them into movement, and playing them. That’s only left-brain.
Since there’s one fewer step when playing by ear, and it doesn’t require coordinating both sides of the brain, playing by ear should be easier than playing from music. And it is, once you learn how to listen. To play by ear you need to listen actively, not just passively.
An example of active listening: When I began to drive my car today the brakes made a strange, clunky sound. I was hoping it would stop after a few minutes, and indeed, after about 10 minutes the sound got softer and finally went away. The kind of listening I did during those 10 minutes was active listening, listening with a purpose.
II. ACTIVE LISTENING
Gathering information through active listening works best when you have questions to ask, clues to find the answers to, structures to create, like the frame of a house. Then you can fill in the details as you go. These details create an aural, 3 dimensional map/graph that gives you the information to help you remember the tune.
When you gather information by reading you look for clues in the text. When you gather information through active listening, you listen for clues in the music by 1) noticing what sticks out (finding the hook) and 2) going through a mental checklist. Because you’re no longer reading 2-dimensional text, your clues may also be 3-dimensional—besides notes and rhythms you can use gesture, shape, tone color, balance, anything that helps you remember the tune. You can also organize your clues as if you’re taking notes. It’s up to you.
III. MUSIC HAS DEPTH: images and learning practices
Some useful images when organizing your clues.
Howard Gardner says that people learn in a lot of different ways, not just verbally but mathematically, visually, kinetically, spatially, intuitively, etc. Take a second and think about the process by which you usually remember something. A list? A rhyme? Seeing it on the page? That will help you learn music by ear.
Moving to music is a great way to help remember it--experience the music in your body—tap, clap, sing. The melody is high or low/fast or slow. If you think of written music as a graph, a combination of duration (left to right) and pitch (up and down). How does that translate to movement for you?
Learning by ear requires a personal combination of these approaches, your own mix.
IV. MENTAL CHECKLIST
The basic elements of music are Harmony, Melody and Rhythm. If we surround them with two questions [How does the music Start? How does it Grow and develop?] we get SHMRG (pronounced ‘Shmurg’). SHMRG can spark your mental checklist.
Other items on your mental checklist might be:
V. HOW TO SUCCEED
Give your internal critic a vacation-we’re establishing a ‘no blame’ zone.
VI. PRACTICAL ADVICE
Since you have no written music (and please don’t write the tunes down in your room) you’ll learn by listening to the tape, and singing and playing along. The more times you do this each day, the faster you’ll learn. Just listening isn’t enough; active listening requires making music along with the tape. Don’t be afraid to sing with the tape—singing fixes the tune in your brain, and once you can sing it, you can play it.
When learning music by ear, you may find it useful to act like a traditional musician. When most music is ear music, people don’t slow the tune down and learn it in small sections. They play as much of the full tune as they can, up to speed, incessantly, adding what then can each time--a cumulative effect. That way the tune gets in your fingers/voice. Some people need to write the first 2-3 notes of a tune down in a kind of alphabet tablature. C D F for example. That’s ok-you’re using notation as a memory jogger, it’s good for that.