Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

A couple of weeks ago, the family that I caregive for had friends over and I treated them to live piano music. Into the mini-concert, one of the women asked a question that I’m all too familiar with: "I notice that you’re not playing with any sheet music, so… do you just memorize all of that?". And even though this is one of the most common and time-worn questions asked, this time it just… rung different. Something just… switched. All I could think to say was, "You know what. After having played a piece for so long, I can’t really say it’s ‘memorized’ anymore… I’m sorry, I don’t really know how to explain it." I’ve meditated on this conversation since, and I think I finally have a grip on my shifting understanding of what it means to play music "by ear".

As I was telling her, after you’ve played a piece for so long, you can’t really call it "memorized". It’s more like you simply just know it. I guess it would be like the difference between learning the definition of a vocabulary word, and then being able to use that word properly in an original thought in many different contexts. After getting so intimate with a piece, you tend to stop playing it the way you learned it. You improvise, you rearrange, you embellish or minimalize, you lengthen or shorten, you play it or work it, etc. etc. etc. At that point, you’re not even playing from memory. You’re playing from your understanding of the direction of the music; Or, your desire of that direction. I believe that this is what it really means to play music by ear.

I’ve talked with hundreds of musicians, over 2 decades now, about the concepts of playing by ear and improvising; And no matter how much more I felt like I had learned and came to understand, by the time the next conversation came around I would always find myself stumped, again, at some point, in explaining what these things mean. Now I think that maybe I can finally begin closing the case on this mystery. How have you come to understand what it means to "play by ear", and to "improvise"? How would you explain these things to someone who isn’t versed in music? How would you explain these things to another musician who carried these questions?

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Do you memorize words? Thoughts? Flavors? I think it’s the same with tunes.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

I tend to think of "playing by ear" as meaning that you are playing what you hear in your head. Improvising is when you compose a tune in real time.
Just about everybody can play their voice (i.e., sing) by ear. In fact, I suspect the vast majority of people can sing by ear better than they can sing from a score. When I’m having a Pavarotti moment in the shower I don’t need a score and I don’t need to be told the starting note. Indeed, I can sing the tune, if within range, starting on any note.
Playing an instrument by ear is, I think, like being able to sing through your instrument.

As Michael suggests, sometimes you don’t make a conscious effort to learn a tune or piece of music, you just find you can play it because it’s well enough embedded in your brain. And sometimes you know a piece so well that it becomes a single entity rather than a structured piece so that your sense of place within the piece can be lost, if that makes any sense. I’ve had songs like that where, stopping for one reason or another, I’ve had to ask listeners where I am in terms of the structure (third verse or whatever). When you really know a piece you’re not thinking about anything else but the sound.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Do you memorize a loved one’s face? Do you memorize your way from the bedroom to the kitchen? In a neurobiological sense I guess we do, as Alzheimer’s research has shown us. But in informal conversations about learning music, poetry, recipes, lock combinations, whatever, "memorized" is often just shorthand for "barely memorized." We know how something is *supposed* to go. It’s the first, most tenuous grip we might have on a tune. The next level of mastery is to have the tune internalized, where you have a sense of where it *can* go. Often without consciously thinking about it, the autopilot effect.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

That’s a good observation, Jerone. I, too, have struggled to explain it to people sometimes. I very much dislike the term "memorize" for music, as I’ve stated before. To me "memorization" is the process of forcing information into your brain, often without context. Like memorizing the first 10 US Presidents, or the first 20 digits of Pi… I think of memorization as something we do when the information on its own doesn’t really interest us, so we don’t engage with it, we just shove it into memory.

But with music, I think of it as "internalizing", which comes out of love of the music, and familiarity with the tunes. If you think of each tune like a story, each time you tell the story you might embellish it differently without losing the thread of the story simply because you have internalized it. So our goal as musicians should be to become eloquent storytellers with our music.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

I am also a dancer and its fairly normal/expected in my style that a performance is improvised (no choreography) and normal to improvise to music that is also being improvised, so there’s no way to be familiar with the "song" before performing.

There’s a beautiful place in learning/understanding music where you learn it well enough that it really is like it’s own language, where sounds and movements have their own internalized meaning and you go from regurgitating to expressing. Words don’t serve it well, but I think this is sort of what you mean.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Great post and comments

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Internalize… Internalize… Internal… Internal… Inside… Presence… Material…
Hmm…

You know, when it comes to tunes, we talk a lot about the importance of internalizing the music. I think I’ve even made a post or two about that very subject over the years. But I’ve never sat down and really ruminated on it. Hmph…

I appreciate the distinctions made for what we mean by "memorize". I think of the grocery list, or the names of a group of people you’ll be working with temporarily on the job. A simple commitment to memory. Nothing more, nothing less. But then, when it comes to music, any memorizing necessary is the first step. Superficial even. When I think of how I approach even the most difficult music, it begins with already knowing the music in the mind. Being able to recall that music at will in the ear. Looking at it this way, I can begin to conceptualize the great chasm between simply having memorized a tune, and then knowing a tune so well that you’ve made it your own.

And yet, it goes even further. Improvising in it’s own right is a complex convergence. It’s one thing to memorize a chord progression, or even to memorize the melody that goes over. It’s another to know the bass line, the harmonic voicings, the chord inversions and variations, the passing notes, and the narrative structure. Even still, having all of those things, it doesn’t become yours until it’s physically present in your bones and muscles, allowing you to command the flow at will.

I think about things like karaoke, or the difference between listening language practice and speaking language practice. With karaoke, you think you can perform a song without a flaw until you realize you’ve never read through the lyrics. Or even worse, you’ve never sung the song word for word. Only parts and bits and pieces of it depending on when the spirit of song would strike you. And now, here you are, fumbling through a song because it was never internalized. As for language learning in general; If I am not mistaken, the parts of the brain that deal with speaking and listening separate at some point. So you can learn a word or phrase, and practice it mentally, and do your spaced-repetition flashcard practice, and all that good stuff. But when it’s time to "use your words" and talk, you’re stumped and stuttering, and may forget the words all together; Because you’ve never actually used your mouth to speak them.

So I guess with all of that being sorted out, I think I could argue that when the music is truly internalized, it really is "in there". Present in the body, materially. Because there have been times when music has been mentally forgotten*. I couldn’t remember the melody. I couldn’t remember the chords. I couldn’t remember the bass line. But then the body would remember, and the body would recall. It would take a few or a dozen times. It may even be a bit rusty. But eventually the notes would fall back under the fingers. So even though the music was lost to memory, it was still present enough in the body to be recalled. It just needed to be re-established.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Just an idea:

The German language traditionally uses the term "interpreter" (der Interpret) to refer to an artist rendering a previously composed work. For an aspiring performer, learning to play an instrument is step one. Learning to technically perform a particular piece well by reference is step two. Memorizing a piece is step three. Interpreting, step four, is the "art" required of an artist. I guess virtuosity is the final step.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

You can ´become one´ with all sorts of random information. Music isn´t exactly ´random´ but it certainly is information. Repetition is part of it. As a ´postie´ I had to know all sorts of things, and readily call them to mind.
I ´knew´ all sorts of things about people (forgotten as soon as I ended tour 🙂 ) On a route of 900 family addresses, I might have to know your wife´s maiden name, your cousin from Paducah just staying for a month or two, but getting mail at your address, the dead-beat who used to live at your address and you are tired of getting his mail… .You name it.

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Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

I don’t think of it as memorising a piece in the way that a concert harpsichordist might memorise a piece of Bach. Contrapuntal lines running in opposite direction in both hands, etc etc. Woah!

I think we are memorising the tune, but not the actions needed to play the tune. I can’t play a tune I can’t sing, hum, diddle or at least hear in my mind’s ear.

But getting the tune IN is only half the process. How do I get it OUT onto the whistle or flute? Not hard, because I have played the same notes on the whistle or flute for 50 odd years, so I know my way around pretty well by now. I can even visualise me playing a given tune on a flute I’m not holding. Rolls, cuts and all.

In this, I think we are lucky (or is it smart?) that our music assumes particular keys. So we get really familiar with the shapes of the most common keys. If someone asked me to play the Bucks of Oranmore in Bb on the keyed D flute, I’d be shot. I could of course play it easily in that key on the F flute in Bb, because they are the shapes I’ve come to expect.

Looked at as a two-step process (IN and OUT), learning to play tunes on an instrument is like learning to sing or diddle the tunes. You’re just using your fingers instead of your mouth.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

My understanding is that there are different anatomical structures in the human brain responsible for different aspects music recall and playing: prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, cerebellum and superior temporal gyrus. Google them.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

"You’re playing from your understanding of the direction of the music; Or, your desire of that direction. I believe that this is what it really means to play music by ear."
Yes.

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Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

"Great post and comments"… Yes indeed. Nothing I could add.

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Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

In my usual "broken record" manner I’ll just say that most have alluded to, or outright said, that memory is transient. What we memorize eventually, and generally pretty quickly, we forget. What we internalize, learn, know, all those words have been used, stays with us a lot longer, maybe a lifetime ( or at least a close approximation). Still there is a second part to the issue and this was also brought up by others. We also have to have (again) what I call intimacy with the instrument that lets us play what we hear, or read) without recalling the position of our fingers, lips, breathing, and all the other things that bring out the sound we’re reproducing. And those two things together is what I believe leads to seamless playing and improvisation.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Interesting question Jerone and lots of good things said already.

I’d take a driving analogy - memorising is "Take the A456 to Bogtown, turn left onto the B999 towards Pigsville, when you get to the Hairy Spider pub, take the next right and follow the single track road for two miles."

By heart - I drive with no need to think about the route, because I know where I’m going. I may vary my route.

Musically I haven’t had to use memorising very often, mainly for links in new songs in a pub band.

(

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Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

- continuing, with second thoughts (made while putting out the washing!)

I have sometimes needed to use memorisation on tunes of a pipe-march-ish style where you maybe have five parts, almost variations, so it’s "A part - E and goes up, B part - A and goes down, C part - snap on E ….etc"

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Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Good discussion and one I’ve been perplexed by for 50+ years. I started into music by ear, and several years later learned to read music. I still consider myself a very poor sight reader at best, and still rely on my ear more than sight. I remember my choir teacher in High School commenting on how fast I "memorized" the music, but never thought much about it. My wife and others I’ve played with have commented on it as well.
What makes one be able to hear something once or twice, and then be able to replicate it? I’ve often thought about it, but the words to describe the actions have never come to me in a way to process the steps that occur, what for me, is an unconscious action or reaction to whatever’s being stimulated in my head. At least not in any way that makes a heck of a lot of sense.

‘Tis a blessing, as well as a curse.

I was, and still am, severely ADHD. Ss a child, it was bad enough, they wanted to medicate me, but my mum, bless her, said "No, he’s going to have to learn to live with it." When I first got involved in music as an adolescent, it was the first thing I could focus my attention on for more than a few moments. I’ve often wondered how much the ADHD influenced my thought processes when it came to music, but I don’t know with any empirical data, that it was a prime factor in developing a talent.

I enjoyed reading everyone’s responses. It’s difficult to describe the inexplicable.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

This is a wonderful discussion and very pertinent to me right now. I have just taken on a piano student who is self-taught and plays by ear. He can read, a bit, and wants to improve in that area. In many ways, he is already an accomplished musician. His typical genre is classic pop (think Elton John/Bruce Hornsby) and I’m still in awe of his ability to figure out harmonies and arrangements. I love the comment by Donald K. that he is singing through his instrument. I, on the other hand, was trained to play from a score at a young age and am completely useless trying to play by ear; can barely play "Happy Birthday" without messing it up. I think this young man and I will learn from each other; I’m still working out how best to meet his musical goals. My enduring question is why are some musicians so gifted in this area and others not?

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Sligo Cousin:

It’s no secret that my own piano teachers struggled to teach me written music because learning by ear came so naturally to me. At the point that the music was demonstrated to me, the sheet music would be rendered merely a guide and a check.

This was one of the first mysteries that I confronted and I’ve discovered a lot of things about this phenomenon over to years. One of them being the lowest common denominators. In it’s simplest sense, learning music by ear is a factor of one of 3 things: Matching output to input, pattern recognition, and mental retention.

I accidentally hit the "post" button, so I’ll have to stop here and continue in a separate comment.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

To continue:

To correct myself, those 3 things boil down to one: Pitch recognition.

For me, being able to match things, "spot the difference", recognize patterns, and remember sounds aren’t just musical skills. They’re skills that show up in every area of my life. It would be safe to assume that it is in this way that my brain interprets the world. Through sound. This also means that these are things that i’m always using and practicing.

But to shift gears to something a bit more empirical; I took a GeneticDNA test a couple of years ago, and was absolutely shocked to learn that pitch recognition is a genetic trait, based on studies from 23andMe:

"Whether singing professionally or just in the shower, matching a musical pitch requires the intricate coordination of several tasks. Upon hearing a sound, the singer’s brain identifies the pitch and decides which vocal muscles are needed to produce a similar sound. Then, after singing the note, the brain identifies the new pitch, determines if it matches, and adjusts the vocal muscles if needed. The ability to match a musical pitch is a complex process with equally complex genetics. Research at 23andMe has identified over 500 genetic markers associated with this trait

For this analysis, more than 660,000 23andMe research participants of European descent contributed their genetic data and survey responses on the ability to match musical pitch.
We identified 529 genetic markers that were associated with the ability to match musical pitch. We used these markers together with non-genetic factors, specifically age and sex, to create a statistical model that predicts the chances of having the trait. The full statistical model has an AUC value of 0.58.
The statistical model predicts the chance of being able to match a musical pitch to be between 34% and 65%, depending on your genetics, age, and sex. The average 23andMe research participant has a 50% chance."

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Hmmm, Jerone, I think I might take it a step further. I have excellent pitch matching skills (40 years teaching music and 57 playing piano) and can generally pull a pitch out of thin air although I wouldn’t say I have perfect pitch. But I still can’t play a tune by ear. (Singing is a different story, so much easier) Maybe the melody only, after several attempts, but if harmony is involved, forget it. It seems to me that people who can play harmonized music by ear have the ability to recognize those harmonies and instantly bring them to life. When I watch my student noodle around, he quickly differentiates between incorrect and correct harmonies and finds those notes amazingly fast. Memorization/retention kicks in as he practices the piece until the melody and harmony are embedded.

I wonder if ability to play by ear and ability to memorize are linked? Trad players seem to be skillful at both.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

Sligo Cousin:

Well, to my experience, psychologically the skill is two-fold. First, you have to have the ability to interpret the music. Second, you have to have the ability to know whether you are interpreting that music correctly or not. What happens is, someone could have the "ear" skill and lack the confidence and knowledge to be able to use it. An ear musician need only ever ask one question when aquiring a piece of music: Does it match? Yes, it is more complex to match harmonies, but harmonies have to follow the same universal rule that melodies do: "If it doesn’t match, it’s wrong.". Does what match? The vibrations.

Your goal is to determine if the output(performed) music matches the input(source) music. In other words, "Does the sound from your instrument match the sound coming from the stereo player". Now, and I think everyone may agree when I say this; But the distinction between harmonies and melodies is only a superficial one. However, the trick with hearing harmonies is identifying the "color" of the harmony.

You see, with melodies it’s just a matter of asking, "how high, how low, how much higher, how much lower…". With melodies, you’re following a line, a direction. With harmonies, the question is completely different, "what is the quality?". Open(without a third), major, minor, diminished, suspended, 7th, mixed, etc… All of these identities have their own quality within a chord, and that’s what you’re looking for when learning harmonies by ear.



As for the ability to memorize music and to learn it by ear; Well, an ear musician who can’t memorize music is an ear musician without a repertoire.

Memory is the essence of learning music by ear, because it is the memory that holds your personal aural encyclopedia. When learning a piece of music by ear, you’re not just referring to chords and melodies. You’re referring to chord progressions, scales and melody lines, harmonic and melodic structures within a style, commom patterns and motifs, exceptions and substitutes, and all kinds of information that you’ve aquired over the time you’ve spent learning.

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

"I drive with no need to think about the route, because I know where I’m going."

When I was doing several gigs a week, nearly always driving to places I’d never been, back in the days before the internet, I quickly discovered that

1) people in general give useless directions, and

2) the more often some-one drives to a place the more useless their directions are, thus

3) almost no-one can give accurate directions to their own Church, even less their own home, including

4) a surprising number of people give the wrong city for their Church, place of work, or home.

This last became even more apparent with the advent of the internet, when time after time Googling showed that the address given didn’t exist. A bit of further searching showed that the address existed in a neighbouring city, the place being more or less close to the border.

Sometimes I would helpfully suggest that in the future they might give people the correct city, which gave two types of responses

1) astonishment

2) replies like "yes, technically we’re in the city of ______ but it feels like you’re in _______ so that’s what everybody calls it."

Perhaps the strangest thing is how often people who organise annual festivals give incorrect information about the festival location on the festival website and Facebook page.

By "incorrect" I mean the name they give is a former name, or nickname, which doesn’t show up on Google and isn’t recognised by the Postal Service. Once again it’s "what everybody calls it" (the "everybody" being local oldtimers).

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

"The German language traditionally uses the term "interpreter" (der Interpret) to refer to an artist rendering a previously composed work."

That’s interesting! And much closer to the truth.

There’s a theme that’s appeared in this thread, implying that sightreading music and interpreting/arranging/restructuring the music, even improvising upon it, are mutually exclusive.

In the Baroque period it was taken for granted that musicians wouldn’t just play what was on the page. They were expected to add things, to interpret, to create a finished performance.

I read through tunes in O Neill’s in that way. I’m not playing the setting I’m reading but creating my own setting as I play. Whether I play over a tune a dozen times by sightreading it, or because I have it memorised, the process is the same: the more times I play it the more the setting becomes suited to how I play things, and I’m exploring alternate ways of playing some of the phrases.

(It’s a different matter if my purpose is to commit the tune to memory; in that case I do much better not having any sheet music in the first place.)

Re: Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.

I’ve heard that about Baroque music, and I think that’s beautiful.

I wouldn’t say that sightreading and interpreting/arranging/restructuring are mutually exclusive. I would say that they are however different skills, much in the way that learning melodies or harmonies by ear are different skills. I’ve also met ear musicians who couldn’t improvise or "compose on the spot", and I’ve played impromptu duets with sight readers who had to write out a chord chart to follow. There’s all kinds of overlap, crossover, and mixing.