Topic 4 in the series of 7 posts on the types of skills we draw upon as musicians is Pitch or Aural Intelligence.
The majority of trained players have had to endure series of ear training classes. I know I did.
As a student, amongst other horrors, I was challenged to notate a series of chords played by a professor. Although I became adept at it with practice, it slowly atrophied from relative lack of use over the years.
Realistically, I doubt many musicians maintain the aural skills developed in school. They certainly don’t maintain themselves, that’s for sure. I used to recognize quite a few chords in music I heard. Now I have only a vague sense of their function.
Beyond identification, some performers may have “perfect pitch” - meaning they hear pitches exactly as they are printed. In my case, I have limited pitch recognition ability which I blame on the clarinet being in Bb, A, C or Eb where the written note is not concert pitch.
That said, my ear is quite good in other respects. I can sit at the piano and, after playing one note and singing it, I can select another one - say a fifth higher - and sing that pitch without first playing the sound. This is known as “relative pitch” - meaning one is able to hear the relationship between the notes after one is identified.
Regardless of your basic skills, anyone can improve their recognition of chords or pitches, even if the goal of “perfect pitch” is not fully achieved. As with everything else, it takes some practice.
Singing is Naturally Expressive-
If you’re like me and have lots of good intentions but only 24 hours a day to live, I do have a suggestion related to developing aural skills which promises almost instant gratification.
Do you sing in the shower? I have to admit that I don’t! My point is that you don’t have to have a good singing voice to enjoy singing. And enjoyment is healthy expression.
What do I mean by “enjoy”? Certainly not “be good at”. I’m thinking more about being unconcerned as to how it sounds.
Fun and playfulness are vital to any musicians healthy development.
Try singing in the shower as a starter exercise. Perhaps you are a “hummer” or a “whistler”. For the purposes of this post, I suggest that actually singing a phrase, with articulations, benefits aural memory best.
Do you want to hear some really bad singing?
As an actual example, once again, let’s have a look at the first Rondo theme of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, third movement:
As I’ve mentioned singing previously and given that I’m feeling particularly brave this week, despite having a scratchy throat due to a cold, I will offer you an audio clip of my voice so you can hear phrasing and even articulation, as I butcher the pitches!
DT Sings Mozart!-
To assist my singing, I conduct the passage which also helps in shaping phrases. I’ll discuss conducting more fully in the post after next when I talk about about Rhythmic or Dance Intelligence.
After singing (or attempting to sing) ask yourself whether you can hear the passage in your mind as you read the music. When I attempt this, I hear very slowly, so that I can distinguish all the pitches carefully. I can feel also feel the clarinet pitch in my body and in my air, which adds more detail to your aural memory.
This musical example is quite easy. Some music is much more difficult to hear internally - tonally complex romantic music or contemporary atonal music being more of a challenge. However, although harder, it’s not impossible.
Further Fun with Aural Training-
Should you have access to a piano, try playing any interval and then try to sing it. The next step is to hear it in your mind without playing or singing first.
If you don’t have a piano, find any musical passage, play it, sing it and then try to hear it in your mind. You may occasionally test yourself by going back and forth between hearing, singing and playing.
All these little exercises help build neural connections between different parts of your brain and solidify your grasp on the music itself.
Sing phrases as best you can, perhaps while you conduct. Learn to hear and sing pitches, intervals, relationships of tones. Singing engages deep rooted musical instincts.
Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? You could do so at the Practice Café.