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All Ears

March 7th, 2013

Cooking With Sound

I finished another piano piece yesterday and stuck it on Youtube. Here it is. Love those free photos.

I had about half of that when I got up yesterday morning, and I was having problems because the harmony is weird, but I knuckled down and got it done. I had a music lesson scheduled for today, and I did not want to show up empty-handed.

My teacher says this is written in G harmonic minor. I’ll take his word for it.

I think I would go to my lessons just for the conversation, even if I didn’t learn anything. My teacher is an extremely interesting guy, and we have a lot in common. He has a math degree, and his dad was either a physicist or an engineer. I forget which. He’s a conservative Christian. He has an “interesting” family, as I do. He spent years doing transcriptions for music publishers. If you see a “recorded version” book of some rock musician’s tunes, there’s a good chance my teacher wrote it.

He’s always telling me not to underestimate myself. That’s good to hear. I don’t have any real training, and I don’t have enough character to study theory with any kind of intensity, so I don’t know much about the technical side of music. It’s easy to feel like I’m not going to write anything worthwhile. But he keeps telling me the ear is what matters.

Evidently, a lot of tedious musical training is intended to give untalented or inexperienced people something many people already have: the ability to know what’s good when they hear it. I didn’t realize that. I thought everyone could tell what was good or bad, or what was discordant. My teacher says that is not the case. Today he told me it was a waste of time for me to study certain things, because they teach things I already have.

I studied under a classical pianist for three or four years, and while it was a great experience, I did not learn what I needed to learn. I learned a little bit of sight-reading, and I mastered (sort of) several tunes, but I never got to the point where I felt at home inside written music. I didn’t develop the ability to transcribe.

I got a lot of terrible advice. I talked to my teacher about it today. People told me that if I played scales, everything would start to make sense. I learned all the scales. I got to where I could play any major scale with my right hand while playing any other with my left, and I got absolutely nothing out of it. He says he’s not surprised. He studied guitar scales until he could rip them off at 10 notes per second, and he didn’t get anything out of it either. He says the main reason to learn scales is to learn sets of notes that sound good together. Some people are not born with this feel for harmony.

He says he gets in a lot of arguments with people who push the theoretical approach. They assume he’s against it because he doesn’t know anything about it, but then if they start quizzing him, God help them. He knows everything, backwards and forwards.

Today he told me he has taught a lot of people who got degrees in music and were still unable to write or do the other things they wanted to do. Apparently, many music instructors teach ABOUT music without teaching people how to make it or feel it.

This makes complete sense to me. Music existed before theory existed, just as the physical world moved and changed before physics existed. Notation and theory are very clumsy compared to music itself. It takes a great deal of knowledge to notate what people like Ella Fitzgerald have done instinctively.

Like I told him at my lesson, I can sit down and hear a SYMPHONY in my head right now. That’s not a problem. What I need is the ability to write it down.

Here’s what he told me today:

Sounded great, my friend and using harmonic minor and hearing it so well is something I hope you do not take for granted. You are cashing in on some great influences to hear something that isn’t easy to hear and most people struggle with it for a very long time before their ear can even come close to what you can already do. NICE!

If I were plodding along with a method or a course, I would not be writing music yet, and I would have no idea that I had any potential. It’s wonderful to get a little confirmation from a real expert.

I have two challenges to overcome, as far as I can see. First, I need to man up and master timing. Sometimes I avoid writing complex passages I can hear in my mind, because it’s too hard to do the notation. I think it would be smart to study drums, although I’m afraid I’d kill myself after a week. I really do not like drums. But drummers can–well SHOULD BE ABLE TO–play any written rhythm you put in front of them, so presumably, a person who studies drums will have timing by the throat. Second thing: I need to get intervals under control. If you know how intervals sound, and you know how to write rhythms, you can write music on the fly.

Right now I tend to write things with fairly simple timing, and I try to be somewhat repetitive. That’s because it’s self-indulgent to write one original measure after another. Nobody wants to hear that. If you hear a nice musical idea, you want to hear it one or two more times before the piece ends. If every passage is a fresh variation, the audience gets cheated. I try to keep things simple because I’m trying to write popular music, not Chopin, but sooner or later I’ll want to do something a little more liberating.

It’s good to have a teacher who believes in me. I love what I’m doing, but I don’t have his competence, so I’m not as good a judge of my ability. When I hear good things from a source that can’t be assailed credibly, it gives me motivation to do more work. I’m supposed to be doing written interval and key exercises. I actually did a little this week. He gives me great advice all the time, and I do about 10% of what he tells me to do, so eventually, I would like to start doing more.

It will be interesting to see where this goes. I have six tunes registered with the LOC right now. A year from now, it should be at least thirty, and they will be more complex.

God will give you the desires of your heart. He didn’t create you to be a cubicle slave, unless that’s your thing. He is not a bad boss. Trust in him, get to know the Spirit, spend time in prayer, and good things will happen. Give it a shot. You’ll be surprised.

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4 Responses to “All Ears”

  1. Ruth H Says:

    I guess it was those harmonics that I really liked yesterday. Some people have an ear for music, some don’t. Training could probably help but genetics has a key part. It runs in my family, I can pick out anything on the piano. Some of my sibs can, some cant. All my children can. But their dad and his mother who was a trained classical pianist was astonished that my daughter could at age 2. My mother in law could not. She died when the kids were young and I always have thought how pleased she would be with all of them. One of them has her piano.
    Learn your chords was what a jazz musician told my son many years ago. He told him, I can’t teach you anything you don’t already have, but LEARN the chords. He did.
    But you have to hear the music you are making in your head, you can do that. Keep it up.

  2. Steve H. Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement. Sometimes when my teacher starts talking theory I have to go to my happy place until he says something I understand, but I’m getting results, so that’s okay.

  3. Juan Paxety Says:

    Sing from written music. Play the first note to get the pitch, then sing a phrase, then play it to see how close you came. The practice will help greatly in getting the music from your head to paper.

  4. Steve H. Says:

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll see what I can do. I have a lot of advice and very little character, so I have to pick and choose.