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On boating and the pleasures of ear training


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I bet you never thought you'd see the words "pleasure" and "ear training" mentioned in the same sentence. Pleasure and boats seem so much more compatible. People tend to grimace at the very thought of ear training, as if they'd just discovered half a worm in their apple. When I was a student at McGill, "Ear Training and Sight Singing" was translated by anxious students into "Ear Straining and Sight Screaming." Not a bad description. I clearly recall the humiliation of fruitlessly mooing my way through atonal sight singing under the frowning supervision of my teacher.

But is all this fear and loathing really necessary?

I think not. It's all in the way you listen to music and play around with it. After all, it's called playing piano, so why not play? Why not simply mess about with sounds and enjoy the fruit of your discoveries?

Let's take intervals. A single tone doesn't say much. But when you add another tone, either melodically or harmonically, we get a kernel of meaning. It's the relationship between tones that gives meaning to sound. As Einstein said, it's all relative. When we string a bunch of intervals together, we get melody, much like language. When we pile them up, we get harmony.

For example, a major third taken by itself, say C to E, has a cheerful sound. It can make you smile. A minor third has a melancholy sound, a tinge of sadness. Mixing major and minor thirds leads to an interesting phenomenon. If you add a minor third to a major third, say, adding a G over the C and E, you get a richer merry sound. If you add a minor third below, an A, you get a richer woebegone sound. If you add the A above, it's still sad, but has a different quality to it. Any new tone you add to the C and E will give the sound a different character, a different meaning. Go on, try it and listen! I dare you.

Each interval has its own distinctive sound. To my ears, a fifth sounds open and has a sense of space. A fourth is much more determined. Sixths are similar to thirds. Seconds pinch and sevenths sting. While students often hear them as unpleasant sounds, I gleefully point out that Mozart's music, which everyone considers beautiful, is actually chock full of these little pinpricks. The tritone is (bwahahaha) the devil's interval, believed by denizens of the Dark Ages to incite listeners to go forth and sin.

How you balance the sounds, their relative loudness, will also change the meaning. For example, you will find that by playing the middle note softer in a triad, you get a more harmonious sound. Minor seconds, if both notes are played at the same level, can sound harsh. But if one of the tones is played very softly, the sound can be delicate and exquisite.

It's never just a question of getting the notes right. Making music involves understanding and enjoying the meaning of the sounds you make. When that happens, your playing springs to life.

Then there's rhythm, which gives life and energy to music. It imparts flow and direction, and causes listeners and players alike to want to dance. There is meaning inherent in different rhythms, and it is our job as musicians to understand and enjoy that meaning. I mean, if you're going to do it anyway, why not enjoy it? To do otherwise is insanity. And if you don't hear it, you don't enjoy it.

Rhythm is held together by the pulse, or beat. We can have beats that express all sorts of things–calm, excitement, a lilt, a solemn march. The possibilities are endless. Just watch a good conductor (e.g. Carlos Kleiber conducting Beethoven) to see the variety. And then, of course, what happens between the beats is extremely important. Quarter note beats with constant sixteenth notes will give the music a strong sense of motion. Half notes with the same beat will calm things down. Dotted rhythms impart a different sense of life than do swing time in jazz. For an example of a composer who absolutely delighted in dotted rhythms, listen to Schumann. Generally speaking, faster is more energetic, and slower is more calm.

Actually playing correct rhythm is not usually difficult, assuming you have a good sense of pulse. Everything happens in multiples of two or three. But this is merely the outer clothing of rhythm. If you listen, and the performance is rhythmic, you can feel it in your body as an irresistible urge to dance. Listen and let the music flow in and move you. There is far more to rhythm than the simple wooden counting of eighth notes and quarter notes. The ebb and flow of musical rhythm is actually the ebb and flow of life.

By listening like an artist, you hear all the eddies and currents in the music, just as a sailor can read the flow of a river. Once you become sensitive enough, what you hear tells you how to play the music, how to shape it, how to make it expressive of what you feel, how to have an understanding of what the composer is trying to say. Like the pleasant little things that make a holiday special and relaxing, it is these little things embedded in music that make playing an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Rather than doing ear training as a necessary but painful adjunct to passing an exam, rather than straining the ears and screaming with frustration, why not treat it as a playful game of discovery? That way, ear training is like spending delightful timeless time fooling around in a rowboat at the lake, and as Kenneth Grahame writes in The Wind in the Willows, "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing–absolutely nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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