When musicians say that someone has a ‘good ear’, they are not referring to the physical apparatus of hearing: a person can be profoundly deaf and still have an acutely ‘musical ear’. It is the ability to internalise sound that is important to a musician, to be able to imagine a sound when its physical waves are not present, in order to reproduce it in performance or to notate it. Many lay people, (and, perhaps, not a few musicians) think this ability is a rare gift, little short of a miracle. Why is it that many can share the same exposure to music, with some able to memorise it and play it by ear while others can’t? The magic ingredient is awareness. We are predisposed to let most of what we hear go ‘in one ear and out the other’: we hear but we don’t listen. If we didn’t listen selectively, the barrage of sounds around us would drive us crazy!
Those with a good ear for music have just developed their awareness of how certain musical elements feel to the listener. Singers often recognise the pitch of a note by remembering how they have previously placed it in their voice. Instrumentalists may not be able to notate a melody but have no trouble playing it by ear because they associate the rise and fall in pitch with certain positions and fingerings on their instruments. Some have developed greater awareness and recognise the ‘signature’ of musical elements without reference to a voice or an instrument. Jaques Dalcroze, who developed the famous system of eurhythmics, claimed it was impossible for us to hear a rhythm without tiny muscular responses occurring within the body. I guess we are generally insufficiently aware of our bodies to notice. For most of us, context is important and aural skills developed out of context make very little difference to our musicianship. So, pupils can get full marks in aural tests for grade examinations and still be unable to play anything without notation or to absorb the style of a piece of music in a genre that is new to them. The time spent ‘teaching to the test’ for these exams could be put to better use!
Some years ago, I published a little resource entitled “Rhythmic Reading Through Improvisation” It could equally well have been called “Rhythmic Awareness Through Improvisation”. It is based on the premise that most pupils find their own ideas far more interesting than those of teachers and composers of elementary pieces and will spend much longer focusing their attention on the characteristics of rhythmic phrases if they are being employed in their own improvisations and compositions. The same principle holds true for developing aural awareness of other musical elements: improvisation/composition provides an excellent context for musical learning. Tonic Sol-fa is another example of the benefits of context for aural training. It very quickly facilitates playing by ear in a way that interval identification tests, out of context, do not seem to do.
I revisited these ideas recently when I was introduced to the excellent ‘MusicalEar’ aural training software. This truly is the most musical approach that I’ve come across in a software package and it’s clearly a real labour of love! Training exercises are something most of us stick with because we know they will ‘do us good’ – a bit like taking a dose of medicine, but working the exercises in MusicalEar is thoroughly enjoyable and each is multifaceted. There are, of course, the basic elements of musicianship but also music in a variety of genres to explore, some with suggestions for students to try in their own compositions. It consistently links aural and notation skills. There is music to sight-sing with accompaniment, vocal backing groups and choir pieces to take part in. There is also a comprehensive section explaining the theoretical context of the elements studied and lots of ideas for further study. This is a great package for composers, performers and students working in any genre, by ear or from notation, to hone their skills. It will surely give teachers many ideas to develop with their own pupils. You can watch some videos on how it works here.