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?