How Good Is Your Ear? (Part 2)

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.

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32 thoughts on “How Good Is Your Ear? (Part 2)

  1. Kyle Gann

    Very convincingly argued from a certain standpoint, Mark, but I disagree on a deep level. I too have a really good ear – tested out of “advanced aural analysis” at Oberlin, took it anyway and aced it. At the end of any rehearsal of my music I can rattle off the pitches I suspect might be typos, and remember them all and where they are – even deviations less than a half-step in a microtonal piece. In grad school I disciplined myself to register the shifts between hexachords in 12-tone music of a certain type, and I practiced keeping track of the modulations in a tonal symphony, so I could always tell what key it was in at the moment. And at some point I realized I had become a mega-left-brain listening machine, constantly analyzing and sifting data, and wasn’t enjoying music anymore. I just quit, not without considerable effort. I started listening more viscerally again, and more for affective qualities. My music got better after that, too. Brains differ, especially in the extent to which left and right hemispheres intermingle, and I’m sure there’s no one-size-fits-all optimum listening paradigm, but I think I saved myself as a musician by rejecting a habit of listening very similar to what you describe here.

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  2. barakperelman

    There is a valid point here, and it has to do with integrity, in the Schoenbergian sense. How honest is a composer who not only pretends to know how the music they compose sounds (in terms of exact tones), but cannot identify a single tone ? How valid is their music ? Is their music even valid ?

    I thought about this and continue to think about this, and really spend quite a bit of time questioning the validity of my own work, for the simple fact that I do not have perfect pitch.

    But at the end of the day, after all thinking and questioning of music and composition have been exhausted there remains only the work that has been composed and nothing else.

    Once a composer dies, does it matter if they had amazing hearing or if they were tone deaf ???? Once a composer is dead, they cannot hear anything, their hearing is no longer part of the creative process.

    It seems to me that great art and music has/had nothing to do with technique or ability. But the imagination, to create something that lives in the imagination, that makes us THINK for ourselves, and allows us to experience worlds beyond what we know.

    At the end of the day, I am not ashamed that I cannot tell you what C sounds like, and I dont care. I am not concerned with what others think, with what is considered “Right”, and really what I think does not make a difference. At the end of the day, its all bullsh*t anyway, and all that remains, all that matters is the completed work whether on recording or paper, so that its always there.

    Some of the greatest composers of new music of the last hundred years could not hear a triangle from a square, but they were brilliant because their work was and will always be interesting, unlocking new doors, and giving life to peoples imagination, which in turn, gives us meaning.

    It does not matter what anybody thinks, a good composer, a good artist, will continue to work, against the grain, and produce and produce.

    This is not an argument, because it is the only fact, the only objective truth that answers all questions regarding integrity and composition.
    Let the composition speak for itself.

    People are idiots. They think they know everything, but they really dont know anything. Music and art gives us the chance, as creators, to create an objective reality, and make us think again. If not for an audience, then at least for ourselves. That is our duty. Composing has abosolutely nothing to do with hearing, but doing everything and anything possible to create something new.

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  3. Kyle Gann

    And if I may build on that and continue, this argument is marked by an underlying, though unexplicit, ontological assumption about what it means to compose. It’s revealed in the last paragraph:

    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…. [T]he 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.

    I don’t know how deliberate this is, Mark, or how far you’ve thought it through, but it sounds as though you’re going to come back next week and resume Milton Babbitt’s attack on Morton Feldman’s early pieces that use graph paper: squares for indeterminate high, low, and middle notes. Why is a composer’s imagination less liberated if he or she refuses to make all those decisions him- or herself? Is In C less of a piece, or Terry Riley less of a composer, because he abrogated the decisions about how many times to repeat each phrase? Was For Philip Guston less of a piece, or Feldman less of a composer, because he left it up to the performers how fast, relative to each other, to play through their material? Despite your nod to limited improvisation, the assumptions privilege a certain conception of music that is very common, especially in academia, but far from universal: music as a static set of tone relationships determined by the composer in as much detail as possible. I can’t really tell that you mean to be saying that composers who make music within this paradigm are better than those who don’t, but it’s rather an easy conclusion to draw.

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  4. Trevor

    I asked for a guitar for Christmas when I was 18 because I found it embarrassing that I was the only person in the family who couldn’t strum a couple of chords on the thing. Prior to that, I had never learned to play any instrument, nor had I had any particular interest in music. When I was 20 I heard Stravinsky for the first time, and decided to start composing. The problem was that since I had had such an amusical upbringing, I had a terrible ear, specifically for pitches.

    But saying I have a “terrible ear” isn’t really descriptive of anything. My old choir director used to remark about how I never could correct the pitch in the bass section if it was off, but he could still look at my face to determine whether we were on the right note, because I couldn’t help but cringe if we weren’t.

    I’ll always notice an improper timbre, or bad rhythm, or a problematic harmony. However, I never have any idea just how that harmony is wrong; I can only recognize the color of it. There are a variety of pieces that I can identify chords from – the opening harmony of the Symphony of Psalms, or Chopin’s Prelude no. 20, for instance – but I can’t name the pitches at all. Change the inversion or the spacing or the register, much less the transposition, and that association is gone (although instrumentation doesn’t seem to affect it). I might be completely baffled by whether an interval is a major or minor 6th, or even a seventh (sometimes I’m just way, way off), but I will be able to tell you whether its equal tempered or just-tuned or what-have-you.

    Point to all of this is, there just simply is not a single path one has to follow on the road to creating music. The perhaps unusual development of my ear is what it is; its certainly led me down different roads than if I was a 6 year old wunderkind. For whatever reason, there’s just not much of a connection between the pitch center of my brain and the analytical and language-based part of it. I won’t deny that my music has been molded by that, but I’ll argue to the end that its quality isn’t affected by being molded by that. Just makes it have a different focus.

    What I worry about, Mark, is what your dead-set opinions on the matter would mean to any young students you have, or not so young. If I had asked for a composition lesson as a 20 year old, able to do nothing more than play a couple of Radiohead songs on guitar and having an ear that couldn’t distinguish between common intervals, would you have told me to go home? That I was wasting my time? That I needed to listen to more Beethoven, and not potato-chips music like Radiohead? What if I still couldn’t distinguish between closely related intervals after a year or two of lessons? If you haven’t thought to yourself yet, “it would depend on what the music you’re writing sounds like”, I find that strange.

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  5. palong31

    ear
    I have known many many composers, and I’ve worked for perhaps 100 composers as a copyist. I’ve known people who could hear a trash can falling down stairs and notate it, and I’ve known people who struggled mightily to get through Ear Training I. In all that time, I’ve never sensed much of a correlation between golden ears and rich, affecting and imaginative pieces. There is no particular skill-set or background that leads to great music. Some people just manage to write it, and most others don’t.

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  6. coreydargel

    There are many living composers and musicians who have moved beyond the very limited definition of a “good ear” put forward in this post. I would never ever call into question the ears of composers like Uri Caine, John Oswald, Joanna Newsom, Pauline Oliveros, or Cristian Marclay, but I would say that they have honed some very important aural skills other than the ones mentioned in this post.

    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.

    Fortunately we don’t have to limit the relationship between playwrights, directors, actors, and audiences to a wholly traditional, status quo viewpoint. There are immensely brilliant productions by The Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service, 33 Fainting Spells, Goat Island, and countless other performance groups who turn that viewpoint upside down, and with no less artistic integrity than those who are religiously devoted to copyright laws.

    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…

    Don’t worry! We haven’t forgotten! But surely you’re not implying that newer technologies make for less-skilled composers. Differently skilled, maybe. But the times they are a-changin’, and a shifted balance of skills may be appropriate for a-changin’ times. There are magnificently intricate musical puzzles that can be solved quickly with technology. The results can be listened to by composers and internalized or learned by rote. For example, a singer could learn to sing in various tuning systems much more quickly by listening to, and singing along with, a realization of his/her part on a computer, rather than trying to figure it out some other way.

    To those composers who use MIDI and drum machines: Keep using them! Realizing your scores via MIDI is not inherently better or worse than hearing them in your head. If you haven’t already, you will eventually figure out how to make your MIDI devices do things no one ever thought they would do! And then you might learn how to hear those kinds of things in your head, something that Dennis Russell Davies will never be able to do.

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  7. philmusic

    I have a hard time with the generalization that a certain skill level will lead to a certain type of compositional style.

    Skills be damned–its the music that counts!


    Phil Fried

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  8. rtanaka

    but it sounds as though you’re going to come back next week and resume Milton Babbitt’s attack on Morton Feldman’s early pieces that use graph paper: squares for indeterminate high, low, and middle notes.

    Funny story — before he passed away I listened to Lucky Mosko talk about Feldman’s early works utilizing those highs, lows, and middles. During rehearsal Feldman complained what the performer was doing, and they were confused because they were following his instructions fairly clearly. Basically Feldman supposedly said, “play the RIGHT notes”, or something along those lines. It was Lucky’s understanding that Feldman really “knew his pitches”…after that, he supposedly made sure that every pitch taht he wrote was very specific.

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  9. robteehan

    Why is a composer’s imagination less liberated if he or she refuses to make all those decisions him- or herself?

    Well, if we can agree that a piece of music cannot be judged on the basis of its style of notation, can we not still judge the effectiveness of that notation?

    One of my former teachers had studied with Boulanger, who, he said, liked to point out that “your piece is not finished until you can account for every note you’ve written” (or something like that). I have to agree: as a performer I find it vexing to encounter a technically impossible part which sounds better when I fake it than when I try to hit all the notes. So why doesn’t the composer just find a way to notate: “make a frantic, flourishing run that uses this pitch range and sounds something like this squiggle”? That would save me a lot of woodshedding, and the composer a lot of disgruntlement; in situations like this, I can’t help but feel like the notes were chosen haphazardly, and the lack of concern from the composer when I fail to accurately play 25% of his pitches doesn’t help his cause.

    But what about Feldman v. Babbitt? Well, I would argue that a composer who cannot sing, play, hum, whistle, recognize wrongly-played notes of, or otherwise demonstrate accountability for the pitches he has written, may be guilty of poor ear-training (a misdemeanor at worst in my book) but, more importantly, also of poor notation, because he has conceptualized an indeterminate piece and notated a determinate one. A composer who chooses to write graphic scores (or scores on graph paper) is not demonstrating poor ear-training or poor notation – he’s simply writing a style of music that does not hinge on determinacy (NOT accuracy) of pitch. But if a composer writes using traditional notation, then performers tend to assume that he chooses each individual pitch for a reason (why wouldn’t he, when so many other styles of notation can effectively express indeterminate pitch?). Therefore, successful performance of the piece hinges, or SHOULD hinge, on the accurate delivery of the music that has been notated. THIS might be what gives the performers the sense that the composer doesn’t know what he’s doing – why write all those damn notes if he doesn’t really care what pitches you play?

    There is no particular skill-set or background that leads to great music. Some people just manage to write it, and most others don’t.

    Amen to that – and furthermore, some composers hear apples and notate oranges, and wonder why the musicians deliver fruit salad.

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  10. William Osborne

    I wonder if at least some people with perfect pitch make music differently. Most people hear pitches relative to each other – the push of leading tones, the stasis of the tonic, the moderation of the median, etc. These melodic and harmonic impulses shape how people inflect music, and in ways that can increase its expressive qualities.

    Especially in ear-training classes, it seems that some with perfect pitch tend to hear simple pitch without developing the usual sense of melodic and harmonic relationships. (Or at least not to the same degree as people with relative pitch.) As a result, their music-making seems to have a static quality. This stasis even seems to carry over to atonal music, because many performers with relative pitch still play the intervals as if they had some sort of tonal meaning. To fully appreciate the meanings of pitches, it might be necessary to hear them as less than absolute, and as entities whose meanings are derived by their function.

    I think this might relate to the nature of music as embodied knowledge. Its psychological basis often derives from its metaphorical relationships to corporeal movement. In its most fundamental aspect, it is a question of tension and release. A better understanding of music’s relationship to embodied knowledge and corporeality might also help us better understand seemingly disembodied genres like computer music and sound art.

    William Osborne

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  11. David McMullin

    This thread brings up a lot of interesting ideas. Yes, a “great ear” is an invaluable tool, but I don’t think there’s any necessary correlation between having a great ear and having a great musical imagination. To be a great all-around musician would require a great ear, ability to compose, improvise, and perform on several instruments in many styles, a thorough knowledge of repertory, history, theory, philosophy, and many other things that few can truly claim. But when assessing a composer as composer, there’s only one thing that matters: how his or her music sounds.

    To discredit composers who don’t have great ears also seems to presuppose that the compositional process is a simple one of taking dictation from the muse: you hear music in your head and you write it down. I think for most composers (including those with great ears) there’s more to it than that. Often what I initially “hear” is just an overall impression, a taste of the effect I want my composition to have. Then I have to think about the tools and techniques I can use to try to create that effect. My “ear” guides the process, and is necessary to ensure that the choices I make yield the intended results, or else at least that they yield unintended results that I like. The process of trying and sometimes failing to build back toward that initial impression can lead to new discoveries, and often the idea of the piece changes dramatically as it slowly comes into focus.

    As my ear has improved, this process of give and take has gone more smoothly, but I doubt it will ever become a simple question of hear-recognize-notate. And if it does, I’m not sure the results will be better or more original.

    The topic of communicating with performers, both through scores and in rehearsals, is certainly a ripe one for discussion. For now I’ll just mention this: what a composer needs to know to create a piece, and what a player needs to know to prepare it for performance, are not entirely the same thing. Yes, both have to know what it is supposed to sound like, but other than that, their relationships to the piece may be quite different.

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  12. rtanaka

    Among music educators, I think the consensus seems to be that relative pitch is more important than perfect pitch. And the idea of the “absolute” is kind of a illusion anyway, since 1) standards of tuning have changed over the years, 2) tuning standards are different according to geographical location, and 3) tuning, even in tonal music, is relative to the performer next to you. Good performers bend their 3rds and 7ths to better fit the overtone series, and will accommodate each other even if someone else is out of tune. My horn professor (recently retired Danny Katzen from the BSO) had told me, “in tuning, you’re always wrong.”

    I agree with a lot with Mark said, but the reality is that the notes on score only provide an approximation of what’s there. There is a tendency for performances to every-so-slightly become flat during the course of the performance because the warmth from playing causes the instrument to expand. Perfect pitch definitely isn’t a handicap, but I think it helps to be aware of these nuances because what’s on paper is never what’s actually heard — not only “mistakes”, but there’s a lot of unwritten rules that you probably won’t hear if you’re trying to apply theoretical constructs into something all the time.

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  13. pgblu

    I just wanted to say that perfect pitch and a sensation of tendency tones are by no means mutually exclusive, nor am I convinced that they stand in any significant reverse correlation with one another (do I have the grammar right on that?)

    My second point (also somewhat removed from the main thrust of this discussion) is that actual pitch (e.g. A440) is obviously a product of a very small cultural domain (Western concert music of the last two centuries, and even within that tradition by no means universal), but so are such issues as tonal tendencies. There is nothing natural about these tendencies except insofar as they “feel natural”, being reinforced by habits and practices. Teachers of musicianship and ear training often overlook the possibility that listening habits developed on a diet of Beethoven Bach and Brahms are not 1:1 with those developed under the influence of bebop, say, and yet BB&B still are the strongest influence on much of our aural skills curricula. (How often do I hear a teaching assistant or other aural skills trainer ask “Don’t you hear how this tone ‘wants’ to go here?”) Far be it for me, though, to suggest what can be done about that.

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  14. Elaine Fine

    There is so much more to music than pitch. How a piece feels when it is being played is just as important for me as what the pitches are, how they are combined, and how long they last. Once I get the notes right in a piece, the real work begins. Pitches sound and feel different on different instruments and at different dynamic levels. Articulation also changes everything. Electronic mock-ups give an idea of how something sounds, but they can’t do anything to help you understand what it feels like to play something. Awkward intervals are much easier for a computer to play in tune than they are for an oboe player or a cellist. Holding the music literally in my hands and physically deciding where the phrases go or, in the case of instruments I don’t play, visualizing the physicality of playing is, for me, what makes the process of writing music the most satisfying.

    Maybe I don’t have absolute pitch, but I believe that as a composer I can have “absolute phrasing” if I work hard enough on a piece to get it to feel they way I want it to.

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  15. William Osborne

    Can we really say that there is nothing natural about tonal tendencies? Has a scientifically rigorous, cross-cultural study been conducted to answer the question? Would it be possible to even construct such a study?

    I forget the source, but years ago I read that ancient Chinese music theorists (a couple thousand years ago) also described something like “leading tones”, “rest tones”, and “mediators.” They were obviously not influenced by European culture. Maybe we should leave the question about the cultural universality of tonal tendencies open until we know for sure. Or has a study been completed that offers an answer? I would like to know – though I am not invested in either side of the debate.

    I think a study about tonal tendencies would also relate to the things Elaine says above about the embodied nature of musical knowledge and expression. It’s not easy for most composers to find performers who will play a piece more than once or twice. Does the disembodied world of electronic/computer music offer an alternative? Would it require a new approach to music? Those questions are far more relevant to me than issues surrounding accomplishment in hearing pitch. Why are there no computer music bloggers here? It is such a vast field, but largely ignored on NMB, perhaps because NYC is not a big place for computer music. (And yes, I know that is off-topic.)

    William Osborne

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  16. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Manfred Clynes has done cross-cultural studies of pitch tendencies, identifying (IIRC) seven such melodic shapes.

    Dennis

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  17. William Osborne

    Wow! I didn’t know about Clynes’ work. I just looked at his website. Lots of very interesting articles I will need to study. I didn’t see anything about tonal pitch tendencies. Would you know off hand the title of the article(s)?

    This passage from Wiki about Clynes’ work might be of interest to this thread: “He was the first to discover, in studying voice recognition in 1975 that a speaker’s identity, though unimpeded by changes in speed (tempo), was masked by transposition of as little as a semitone in pitch. This seemed to indicate that perfect pitch was involved far more universally than thought possible.”

    It’s interesting how a halftone change in a person’s voice would be clearly notable, but not a halftone change in the transposition of most music. Why’s that?

    William Osborne

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  18. philmusic

    Said Lilly St. Cyr

    As she tossed back a beer

    “no need to shed tears

    I can vouch for your ears”

    Though pitch discrimination

    And its cheep imitation

    Casts a pall over the nation

    Please, be of good cheer

    Which one of us is blest

    To know who’s ears are best

    Shall I propose a test?

    Then who would adhere?

    I don’t mean to nudge

    But so few bloggers budge

    And no one would fudge

    What they say around here.

    Said Lilly St. Cyr

    “You are all so sincere

    “no need to shed tears

    I will vouch for your ears”

    Phil Fried

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  19. rtanaka

    What seems to be common among many musical cultures that use pitch is the idea of a “pitch center”. It can come in the form of a drone, or in modal constructions, what we might call the “tonic”. Western classical music (and only classical) has decided to use the V-I relationship of the fifth to highlight this hierarchy, but you can actually use anything.

    So say if I generate some random sample of notes in rapid succession:

    AAABCBAAACGECBAAAACBAGABABDCBA

    Because there’s an obvious emphasis placed on the A, the “tonic” will probably sound as if it were that note just because of its sheer emphasis. Also, if you notice, A’s are usually preceded by Bs, which sets up a recurring pattern for it to be its “dominant”, so to speak. I can’t say for sure for everybody, but I think that most people would hear the B “wanting” to resolve back to the A, just because of how the pitches are emphasized.

    There’s actually no reason why the V needs to go to a I, but it is just heard as so by classical music fans just because of the frequency of its use. (It helps to keep this in mind when writing at least, though.) It’s largely up to the composer to create these “tendencies”, I think, and then decide what to do with the audience’s expectation once you have their attention. The usual being, prolonging the resolution, or in some cases, leading the audience somewhere unexpected.

    I love deceptive cadences, especially…I sort of think of it as setting up a punch line for a joke — say, “three guys walk into a bar” jokes: introduction of subject, reinforcement of previous pattern, then give something unexpected at the end. It’s hard to be “surprising” if you don’t have some sort of previous pattern to react to, however.

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  20. Trevor

    It is such a vast field, but largely ignored on NMB, perhaps because NYC is not a big place for computer music.

    NYC actually has a sizeable computer music community, although it might not get the press of other new music communities here. In fact, three of our bloggers are computer music composers, either occasionally or exclusively (Randy, myself, and Japan-based Carl Stone).

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  21. William Osborne

    Yes, NYC is not too bad for computer music – but not so great either, it seems to me. Columbia certainly has a rich history in the field, and some current names that are very big, especially Tristan Murail. It might also be noted that Murail is a sort of brand name import, and not a product of the city’s own culture. NYU has a very good program too. It’s too bad you can’t get one of their faculty, like Morton Subotnik or Elizabeth Hoffman to do a blog. (Forget Juilliard, Mannes, and the Manhattan School.) Perhaps SUNY Buffalo is the best place in the Northeast.

    Most of the best schools, and the greatest concentration of activity seems to be on the West Coast. UCSD (including Miller Puckett who wrote MAX,) CCRMA at Stanford (perhaps the best computer music school in the world,) Mills, CNMAT at UC Berkley, David Cope at UC Santa Cruz, and the great program at the U of Washington are just of few of the places. They dominate the scene in many respects. I think computer music is one area where the Northeastern musical establishment has fallen behind. I wonder why, since it more or less invented electronic music.

    So if four of you here create computer music, how about a few more blogs on some of the issues surrounding the field. I thought that was going to be Carl’s focus, but he has been rather quiet on the topic, and even in general.

    I hope we haven’t strayed here. Back to pitch perception. Our computer music colleagues devote so much of their studies to musical perception they often have some interesting things to say about topics like these.

    William Osborne

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  22. pgblu

    I’m not invested in one or the other side of the debate either, really. But I do know that the more I listen to bebop, the weaker my sense of the tendency tones I associate with classicism, i.e., the more likely I am to hear a 2nd scale degree over the tonic as a stable ninth. That’s all I was saying. And if a student doesn’t know the term tonic other than that it is a place of relative stability, I could imagine them thinking that this ninth is tonic because it is so stable. In that context the question “Don’t you hear how this tone wants to go here?” will sound absurd or even incomprehensible.

    My observation is not backed up by science, sorry to have given that impression — this is purely empirical and subject to further elaboration. I’m sure that if I subject myself to a steady diet of Stockhausen from now until his centennial, it will also weaken my sense of the primacy of tonic… whether it will dissolve that sense utterly we can only guess, and I’m not about to try that out.

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  23. MarkNGrant

    There is the usual abundance of thoughtful, even brilliant responses in this thread, though it appears I remain the only one with a feeling of moral outrage that a “composer” could be clueless about not just a stray pitch (we all belong in that category) but about his whole sonic kit and kaboodle. I also would like respectfully to ask that respondents retighten their spectacles and more carefully read my original posts, both parts 1 and 2, to disabuse any notion that I was in any way equating a “good ear” with a “great muse.” (Sample MNG quotes: “In the last analysis, the only thing that counts in composing music is what is on the score page, not the composer’s sense of pitch….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.” Etc.)

    And at some point I realized I had become a mega-left-brain listening machine, constantly analyzing and sifting data, and wasn’t enjoying music anymore. I just quit, not without considerable effort. I started listening more viscerally again, and more for affective qualities.

    Kyle, each of us is different, neurally and otherwise. You can hear the fine gradations of microtones much better than I. For my part, sensitivity to pitch etc. in no way impedes my affective responses, either to creating my own music or to listening to others’. In fact, I couldn’t compose at all without a powerful affective/visceral, almost whole-body engagement. And I agree whole-heartedly with your left-brain/right-brain analysis, but for my part it would never occur to me that one blocked the other. To the contrary, the one helps me manage the traffic better for the other. I not only don’t experience an adversarial dichotomy between them, I can’t conceive of such a dichotomy. You do? So be it. Amen. That’s what makes horse races. Neither of us are right or wrong, just different.

    Composing has absolutely nothing to do with hearing but doing everything and anything possible to create something new.

    Barak, I wholly agree with you: the bottom line measure of a composer is always the printed score page, not his ear, as I said clearly in both of my original posts, and as I requoted myself above (else Glazounov, or perhaps Kenneth Gaburo, was history’s greatest composer). The notes don’t know and don’t care whether their composer had a good or a bad ear. My point was that “creating something new” has something to do with the kind of discriminative hearing we call a musician’s ear and thus one can’t swing the pendulum reductio ad absurdum all the way to the other extreme to say that composing has “absolutely nothing to do with hearing.” Of course it does.

    ….the assumptions privilege a certain conception of music that is very common, especially in academia, but far from universal: music as a static set of tone relationships determined by the composer in as much detail as possible. I can’t really tell that you mean to be saying that composers who make music within this paradigm are better than those who don’t, but it’s rather an easy conclusion to draw.

    Kyle, I don’t know Mr. Babbitt, though I too have heard all the stories about his insistence on every note in the design having a designated meaning, as allegedly Nadia Boulanger did, too, as one of the threadposters reminds us. For my part, I certainly don’t think every note in a piece, either of mine or by someone else, requires such justification.

    We all know you as an articulate, eloquent champion for music created in what you describe here as other “paradigms.” But is it necessary to set up such a manichean, antinomian clash between one paradigm and another? It almost sounds as though you’re challenging me to a duel. Morton Feldman is already a canonical composer; he gets far more space in Alex Ross’s book than Babbitt. Can one speak of the western art music literature– a tradition created over several centuries by thousands of individual composers representing many countries, continents, and cultures– as a mere “conception of music in academia” simply because some academic historians may have given your alternate canon the cold shoulder? Is that fair and balanced? I’m not “privileging” anything. I think one can respect Morton Feldman and still look with awe upon Wagner, and not because of “ontological assumptions” about composing, whatever they are. I do think that calling the infinite permutatability of musical tonalities a “static set of tone relationships” is a curious phraseology.

    Composing is always about making decisions because not making a decision is also a decision, a decision by default. Delegating the decision to the player is also a central command decision, if we’re still talking about a “composition” and not a jam session. Occasionally I’ve been asked by a performer if he/she could alter a written passage in a piece of mine in a way that went beyond eliminating the technically unplayable. Sometimes I recognize a better realization of my original intention in the suggestion and agree to the change. But more often I’m actually vaguely offended by the question’s even being asked. I heard what I heard in my ear clearly enough, thank you. I’m the composer, you’re not; please just play what’s written– what I heard in my head. It takes me a lot of mental labor to make those decisions, and they shouldn’t be casually dismantled for the performer’s whim. I find it startling that a composer could lack sufficient inner grasp of his own materials to not be offended if they are executed cavalierly. The notion that my so thinking is an “ontological assumption” is probably true. But if I didn’t create that way, I wouldn’t be the composer that I am. I would be “notes buckshot.” Is this what you mean by a “privileged conception”? A strong-willed individual voice is a privileged conception?

    What I worry about, Mark, is what your dead-set opinions on the matter would mean to any young students you have, or not so young. If I had asked for a composition lesson as a 20 year old, able to do nothing more than play a couple of Radiohead songs on guitar and having an ear that couldn’t distinguish between common intervals, would you have told me to go home? That I was wasting my time? That I needed to listen to more Beethoven, and not potato-chips music like Radiohead? What if I still couldn’t distinguish between closely related intervals after a year or two of lessons?

    Trevor, I would frame your question exactly the other way around: I would be happy to work with such a young student, except if such a 20-year old student had “dead-set opinions” about, say, Beethoven. Then I would refer him to another composition teacher. I would personally find such a close-minded attitude insufferable. If a student has problems distinguishing simple intervals like a major and minor sixth, he might still become a musician, but it is unlikely he could become, say, the composer of a symphony or opera. Is it rude to say that? Have I offended somebody with an unguarded display of common sense here? If I were a teacher of theoretical physics and a 20-year-old who got a 450 on his math SAT sought my help to turn him into an astrophysicist, I certainly wouldn’t tell him to stick around the house and have some cookies.

    Well, I would argue that a composer who cannot sing, play, hum, whistle, recognize wrongly-played notes of, or otherwise demonstrate accountability for the pitches he has written, may be guilty of poor ear-training (a misdemeanor at worst in my book) but, more importantly, also of poor notation, because he has conceptualized an indeterminate piece and notated a determinate one….

    Bravo, Rob Teenan. Brilliantly expressed throughout. Wish I had written your post.

    To discredit composers who don’t have great ears also seems to presuppose that the compositional process is a simple one of taking dictation from the muse: you hear music in your head and you write it down.

    I certainly did not mean my remarks to be taken this way. You can have a great ear and endlessly, torturously revise (Beethoven) or a great ear and virtually dictate from your muse (Mozart, Schubert). It doesn’t presuppose one or the other. I have certainly heard contemporary music that sounded as if it had been dictated, not composed: fatuous and half-baked.

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  24. Colin Holter

    I guess I just resent the idea that it’s my responsibility to “prove” myself to the performers. If I were in an orchestra rehearsal, and somebody played a wrong note just to test me, I’d be furious, frankly. It’s a waste of time, and besides, getting the third horn player’s imprimatur on my musicianship is simply not part of my job description.

    One of the things that I find most attractive about complex music in the vein of Erber, Redgate, Dench, etc. is the idea of the “good faith effort”–the player trusts that I will write a good piece, a piece for whose finest details I can vouch with confidence; I, on the other hand, trust that the player will give the piece his or her very best, including getting the notes right. As an interpersonal dynamic, it’s much more gemütlich than my policing their playing and handing out citations. I mean, I have to do that sometimes, but I’m seldom in rehearsal situations where pointing out individual wrong notes is the best use of our time together.

    I’m sure it’s great to have “a good ear” (mine is probably at the absolute minimum level of discernment necessary to be a serious musician), but when it comes to working with players on the ground, it’s part of a much larger, messier, and more complicated social situation–of course, I’m not saying anything you all don’t already know.

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  25. Kyle Gann

    But is it necessary to set up such a Manichaean, antinomian clash between one paradigm and another?…. Morton Feldman is already a canonical composer; he gets far more space in Alex Ross’s book than Babbitt.

    Thanks for your thoughtful answer, Mark. I don’t see that I set up any Manichaean clash, unless you mean to characterize some of my earlier writing that way. The Babbitt/Feldman issue was a specific incident: Babbitt accused Feldman (not by name, but by clear implication) of writing a piece with, logically speaking, only three pitches, since “high,” “medium,” and “low” were the three pitch categories. Actually the Babbitt attitude that the composer must be fully conscious of the implication of every note in a piece (rather than allowing certain things to come together subconsciously) is a position that I thought had become deeply unpopular, which is why it surprised me that you seemed to be lending it theoretical support. It does seem to me that most composers these days, from across the aesthetic spectrum, are more open than Babbitt is to being surprised by their own subconscious while composing. You greatly mistake me if you think I fear for Morton Feldman’s reputation, or Terry Riley’s.

    Personally, I like my music being interpreted. One of the Orkest de Volharding trumpeters changed a rhythm in my piano concerto to something he apparently liked better, and they added portamento to a lot of passages where I wouldn’t have thought of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed the results. Sarah Cahill refused to follow some of my dynamic markings in On Reading Emerson because she couldn’t feel them, and I loved what she came up with instead. Like the playwright who’s not married to every word in the printed text, I think various performances of my music gain from the sensibilities the performers bring to them. You take some kind of position that the composer is the master whose every detailed direction must be observed by the humble performer. That’s fine, for you, and you’re in good company. But it’s a little difficult to read your two articles without sensing a kind of authoritarian implication that the kind of composer you are is the most valid, or best, and that those of us who don’t live up to your high standards (through inability or perfectly rational choice) should slink away in shame. I may mistake your intention, but if so it strikes me that I am not alone.

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  26. MarkNGrant

    Actually the Babbitt attitude that the composer must be fully conscious of the implication of every note in a piece (rather than allowing certain things to come together subconsciously) is a position that I thought had become deeply unpopular, which is why it surprised me that you seemed to be lending it theoretical support.

    I neither said nor implied anything remotely endorsing Babbitt’s view. Here again are my words, from above: “For my part, I certainly don’t think every note in a piece, either of mine or by someone else, requires such justification.” Unconscious choice is as important as conscious choice for my own working methods.

    You take some kind of position that the composer is the master whose every detailed direction must be observed by the humble performer. That’s fine, for you….

    Whoa, whoa, Kyle, you’re misreading me, slow down. I personally don’t give a rat’s pittoot about theoretical underpinnings, Babbitt or otherwise. A Babbitt-like control is not my temperament. I fly by the seat of my pants in composing decisions. Throwing in a word like “authoritarian” is blowing a lot of smoke here, let’s clear the air. I hear sounds, notate them, and like to hear them realized as best as possible. That of course includes interpretations that veer from exact printed directions, all the time (and if you reread my responses above you’ll see I already made that plain). Live performance is where the soufflé rises, all sorts of performer enrichments come out in rehearsal. I for one would go crazy working with the fixity of tape media, without the give and take of rehearsing live performers, a violinist asking me if the phrase should be played with this kind of bowing or that kind of bowing, etc. But there’s a difference between a happy accident or rehearsal discovery and a performer willfully suggesting a change that amounts not to an interpretive decision but to a recomposing. It’s hardly “authoritarian” on my part to reply, to a singer who asked me if she can sing a short section without accompaniment, “no thank you, I want the vocal line doubled by the piano at the unison during that passage as I wrote it” because the passage has a different sound, and a different continuity with the accompaniment, with the vocal line doubled– the sound and continuity that I wanted and conceived. That’s authoritarian? Please.

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  27. Kyle Gann

    Further clarification
    The word authoritarian wasn’t intended to apply to your attitude toward performers, but to what some perceived, I think, as your assumption in the article that the composing/rehearsal process ought to be the same for all of us. But thanks for the clarification.

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  28. JKG

    Newer technologies…
    (as well as the much-touted doctrine of ‘inclusion’ pervading our educational system from K-12 through post-gradtuate school) not only make for less-talented composers – in quite a number of instances, they make for positively NON-talented ones. However, thanks to so much emphasis on collegiate standardized tests, no ‘composer’ need feel left out. The fact institutions of higher learning persist in left-brain craft for the sake of mere compositional novelty, pretty much guarantees a degree for those so inclined – regardless of their real skill level and oftentimes in spite of available technology.

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