I have a good ear. While a liberal arts undergrad during the Watergate era, cross-enrolled at Eastman, I sailed through the ear training classes. Couldn’t understand why others were having any difficulty. What was the big deal? How could all these conservatory-enrolled flutists and violinists tune up if they couldn’t even hear the pitches? I have no trouble identifying tonalities, modes, individual notes, intervals. If up to four atonally disjunct notes are sounded simultaneously on the piano, I can almost always identify them blindfolded; five or more such notes, my ear starts missing. About ten years ago while rehearsing a chamber work of mine, I picked out a number of erroneous high pitches the harpist struck; the harpist, who had been a principal for the Baltimore Symphony, told me my ear was better than many of the conductors she’d played under there. While flattered, I was mostly perplexed: how could any conductor of the Baltimore Symphony not be able to recognize such transparent pitch mistakes?
Having a keen sense of pitch affords some fringe benefits: if I’m bored at a live performance I will occupy my mind either by mentally writing out a vocal or instrumental line of the live work in real time as I hear it, or identifying the highest and lowest pitches in an aria or instrumental solo. (The latter, of course, is a test both of pitch and of memory.) I usually get it right. Did that Schumann Andante for four horns really ascend to a high concert A? Yes, bingo. Keen pitch means I can correct a piano student’s wrong note(s) in a lesson from a remote corner of the room without either checking the score or eyeing the piano keyboard. It means I can instantaneously ascertain the correctness of my sight-reading at the piano without even peripherally looking down at my fingers as I play (which ability in turn improves my sight reading, which is already quite good). But “perfect pitch” also means that while walking down the street I compulsively mentally graph the pitches of automobile horns and sirens. It means that I get vertigo if during one of my church organist gigs I choose to transpose a hymn by flipping the electric transposing switch at the organ console; I can’t tolerate my fingers playing D flat major and hearing E flat major for more than short passages without feeling I’m going to throw up. (I thus prefer sight transposing hymns the old-fashioned ways, either clef reading or by interval.)
Then there’s “reverse ear”: at live concerts I always find myself mentally visualizing the orchestral score as I listen, and I try to correctly guess what instrumental combination is creating momentary orchestration effects too quick for the naked eye to identify. Was that a ratchet playing with a flutter-tonguing flute, Mr. Bolcom? Yes, it was. (That was too easy.) At the Rutgers Winds, was that quasi-pizzicato effect in the percussion the temple blocks? No, it was a marimba struck by hard mallets, said the conductor afterward (whoops, I goofed). But I don’t feel so bad when I note that Percy Grainger, who composed for orchestra by writing out each instrumental part first (!), and disdained composers who worked at the piano, nevertheless wrote Arnold Bax in 1948 that he couldn’t figure out some of the orchestral effects in Bax’s score to the film Oliver Twist. (By 1948 Grainger had had 50 years of experience orchestrating for every conceivable ensemble.)
Yet I have deficits, too. I know my pitch is not “perfect” because I make mistakes sometimes, especially when I’m tired or distracted. I am not as instantaneous a rhythmic reader as a pitch reader. Curiously, I can’t play the piano by ear. And, as I have gotten older, I’ve noticed that more frequently than before my “absolute” pitch is a semitone low—possibly because I’ve lost some high frequencies in my physiological hearing and my “ear brain” has adjusted downward accordingly? Furthermore, if I’m able to sight-sing Advanced Music Reading by William Thomson so accurately cover to cover (well, almost—some melodies are challenges), then why can’t I hear an orchestral score in my head as I scan it, like our very best-eared conductors and composers? Thus I only say I have a good ear, not a great one, because I know what some musicians can do. You could veritably plop your derrière on the keys of a piano and Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson will identify every single note flawlessly. I can, and do, compose away from the piano at times, but if I really trusted my ear, why do I invariably end up at the piano checking out so much of my composing material? For this last reason alone, I actually think I have a lousy ear, even if by some measures it’s “good.” Put my ear against Charles Wuorinen’s, or Pierre Boulez, or James Levine, or Esa Pekka-Salonen, or Dennis Russell Davies, and I’m a moron. Could I stand in a garden with a sheaf of music paper and stenograph birdsong accurately, like Messiaen? Not in a million years.
What about you? Can you always identify exactly what octave a pitch is in? (That’s easy to miss with glockenspiel notes, for example.) Could you call out the chord changes of a song as it’s played? (It’s easy to do this with a rock tune, harder with a Tin Pan Alley number.) Can you hear the harmony in your mental ear as you read chords silently? Can you sight-sing at correct pitch while you’re part of a live ensemble with other musicians’ playing other lines (this is harder to do than sight-singing alone in a practice room)? Can you “take down” records? Many have transcribed jazz piano solos of Art Tatum and Bill Evans, but could you do what Gunther Schuller did: take down entire jazz band arrangements from old 78s, reconstructing all the instrumental parts? When a church congregation starts to intone a cappella an unscheduled hymn or chant, could you catch the key by ear and come in on pitch, as I can as an organist?
Whether or not you can, such tests of ear have nothing at all to do with getting A’s in classroom exercises or theory. Rather they describe ways composers’ ears are tested every day in actual rehearsal and performance, where you and your ear fly by the seat of the pants. If you’re a playwright you damn well know if an actor has altered your words in rehearsal. The Dramatists Guild contract prohibits alteration without the playwright’s approval; lawsuits have been threatened and productions closed. Don’t tell me composing is different from playwrighting here, because I’ve done both. I have acceded to performers’ requests to rewrite difficult parts but only insofar as the rewrite conforms to my ear’s design; when a chord or pitch suddenly loses its intended meaning, I know immediately and will not OK it. If a composer can’t hear when his own brainchild’s DNA is being genetically re-engineered right in front of him, his hold on his creative design may well be questioned. Would a chef who put coriander into the stew be unable to taste it? Would a novelist who writes a specific word be unable to define its meaning? Would a painter who sploshed red paint with a spatula be unable to tell you the color of his canvas? If a composer’s design is to randomize results, so be it, but non-composers can also “write” music to get randomized results. I myself am writing a piece now for an April NYC premiere that requires considerable non-notated improvisation by the singer against the other instruments. I don’t feel that absolves me from focusing my ear on the total design of the ensemble writing.
You don’t need to do solfège to write for airplane propeller, but nonetheless Ballet Mécanique‘s George Antheil writes in Bad Boy of Music that he could read orchestral scores like a book and so could all composers. Lest we forget, every single composer prior to 1880 composed everything with the resources of his ear. With no recording, much less sequencers, MIDI, drum machines, or pushbutton transposition, aural memory had to be more tenacious.
Composing is about making billions of minute decisions. If you don’t care what the performer plays you’re abrogating some of that decision-making. Nobody is going to catch every wrong pitch, and a good ear is not synonymous with a good creative gift. William Butler Yeats was a poor speller, but he still won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But the better a composer’s ear for outer music, the better he will be able to hear into his inner ear, his mind’s ear. The stronger that ear, the more liberated the musical imagination. That’s how Beethoven could compose after deafness. His ear—outer, and then inner—was spectacular.