The Natural

The Natural

I have a friend who has always amazed me—nay, disgusted me with his highly developed musical ear. He doesn’t have perfect pitch, nor is he especially crafty at theory, harmony, etc; he just has this incredible facility at hearing notes, rhythms, and timbre. No doubt he has acquired his formidable ear through lots of hard work and practice, but in hearing he is always a model of naturalness and ease.

Not so for me; while I do have a pretty decent ear, the process by which I cultivated my hearing was a lot different than that of my talented friend. Although I’m sure that my “raw skill” at accurately perceiving musical elements may have improved somewhat, most of my improvements probably resulted from combining my admittedly modest “raw hearing skills” with a growing understanding of musical style and its underpinnings.

For example, when I’ve had problems discerning between Italian and German augmented sixth chords in a busy texture, the knowledge that one of those chords has a difficult time moving directly to V without some enharmonic trickery or parallel fifths has certainly been helpful; oftentimes the “missing” aural information can be derived from other clues, be they a big honking V chord, a chromatically moving inner voice, or a familiar octave leap in the bass. So while my friend can just plain hear most of what happens in a musical passage, I hear a good deal but must piece the rest together with my mind, like a jigsaw puzzle.

I have been thinking a lot about these different ways of hearing lately, especially as they relate to the issue of natural ability, aptitude, or what have you. Interpreted in one sense, my well-eared friend is leaps and bounds beyond me when it comes to hearing; his speed and accuracy far surpass my own, and although he has worked hard to hone his ability he has done so in a “pure” sense, without need to indulge in the kind of after-the-fact intellectual puzzling that is so often necessary in my own efforts. But on the other hand, is my own process really just some kind of crutch to make up for inferior data collection? Or is it part of that larger hearing process rather than something that modifies it?

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12 thoughts on “The Natural

  1. robin109

    Not a crutch at all! In terms of the tonal period, your understanding of function helps your ear. That is exactly how I teach ear-training. You hear the “norms of operation” and that my friend is a good thing!

  2. barakperelman

    There seems to be a great concern with the physical phenomenon of sound as music and the way we hear.

    Is it not the case that so many great composers were tone deaf ? I do not want to name names, but some of my favorite composers would not know a G from a D#, would not know what key or modulation is, would probably not ever really care about intonation. My favorite composers, who are great composers, all have one thing in common. They all have a vivid imagination which they could materialize in some form of notation or recording.

    I have a hard time understanding why sound and perception is so important, when it is ideas and emotions that make me think, memories are of no particular sound but meaning. What is important is the creation and not the acoustical phenomenon so much, which is always open to interpretation (a great thing). Questions of ideas and experiences, philosophy, this is what is interesting, at least to me, much more than physical phenomenons or public success or virtuosity or questions of perception.

    Music is at its greatest when its about thinking, when it questions and creates meaning, and is new. New sound is meaningless, there is nothing new in great works in terms of sound, but in terms of what the composers are saying.

    If what a composer says is really in terms of tonality, in terms of rules of harmony and theory, and this is a great composer, of course this is very interesting and beautiful; however, this is one of infinite ways of composing, not better than any other arduous path…

  3. philmusic

    Understanding musical nomenclature is not the same as understanding musical art.

    Phil Fried,

  4. pgblu

    I have never heard of a great composer who was tone deaf but would like to find out more about it. How exactly is such a thing possible?

  5. A.C. Douglas

    Pgblu wrote:

    I have never heard of a great composer who was tone deaf but would like to find out more about it. How exactly is such a thing possible?

    It’s not. No composer, great or otherwise, could possibly be “tone deaf.” I’m pretty sure that what Barakperelman meant to say was, “Is it not the case that so many great composers lacked perfect pitch?,” to which the answer is, Yes, some great composers did lack that gift, most notably (and most amazingly) among them, Richard Wagner. Bernstein lacked the gift as well.

    Dan Visconti: Could you elaborate a bit on what you meant by saying your gifted friend “…doesn’t have perfect pitch… he just has this incredible facility at hearing notes….”?



  6. danvisconti

    Hi ACD – to elaborate, I meant that given one or two listens to (say) the introduction to a Haydn symphony, my friend would have no problem hearing enough of it to notate a good stab at recreating the full score. Neither of us has perfect pitch, but given the option I’d prefer to opt for what my friend has, instead: an uncanny ability to process and organize incoming aural information.

  7. A.C. Douglas

    Hi, Dan.

    If your friend doesn’t have perfect pitch, how could he possibly notate what he’s heard in order to re-create the score? That’s what’s confusing me.

    Or am I just being dense, and missing something obvious?


  8. philmusic

    You don’t have to have perfect pitch to be able to identify a chord progression by sound alone.

    You can play by ear and not have perfect pitch either.

    In some cases its in fact easier to play by ear than to read the charts.

    Phil Fried,

  9. A.C. Douglas

    Philmusic wrote: You don’t have to have perfect pitch to be able to identify a chord progression by sound alone.

    Quite right. But you do need perfect pitch to be able to notate the actual heard notes that make up that heard progression.


  10. danvisconti

    Sorry to have been so unclear; yes, he would certainly need one of the starting pitches to be able to notate a dictation; without knowing this information it’s a lot more cumbersome to describe or notate, but I don’t think knowing or reckoning the names of the pitches in any way figures into his hearing process–it’s just one form of “output”.

  11. philmusic

    “…But you do need perfect pitch to be able to notate the actual heard notes that make up that heard progression…”

    I must disagree here.

    In fact with a handy piano to refer too, and a handy playback on the recording, not to mention a means to notate, it is possible to find all the notes the keys etc.

    I believe its called pitch matching and it only takes time.

    Phil Fried,

  12. Troy Ramos

    Perhaps this is obvious and/or stupid, but does the correct starting pitch really matter?.

    Isn’t the important thing, in this case, that the subsequent notes in relation to the starting pitch (in the talented person’s transcription) mirror the relationship between the starting pitch and subsequent notes in the original score?.

    Let’s say the actual starting pitch is C, but the person notating it starts on F. As long as it ends up being an accurate transposition it’s basically the same thing…just transposed.

    Right? No?


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