How good is your music listening ability? I read an article early this morning about the temporal vs. frequency non-linearities of music (more information on that to come in a future post) and a group of researchers determined, “that musicians and conductors did much better than average music listeners” in their tests. This got me thinking about whether there are different “listening” abilities that musicians bring to a listening session. Are they somehow better than the rest of humanity at hearing music? If there is a difference, is it learned or something they are born with?
I’m not talking about the “golden ear” claims that audiophiles like to talk about. I know that the ability to detect specific frequencies and hear musical details can be acquired by practice and testing. In fact, there is a new Phillips online ear-training program that has just been made available that can help inexperienced listeners. I’ll write on that as soon as I’ve gone through it. Musicians have something way beyond “golden ears”.
Perhaps you’ve known someone that has perfect pitch…the ability to hear practically any sound and identify it’s pitch. Or to see a written piece of music notation, open your mouth and sing a melody exactly on key. I’m pretty convinced that this is a special talent that an individual is born with…it’s not something that can be learned. I remember sitting in a graduate composition class as UCLA years ago and having Professor Reale play the opening chords of a Wagner opera at the piano (Tannhäuser). He asked those of us sitting in the room to write down a few of the chords. This is called music transcription and I was terrible at it as were most of the others in the class.
But there was one student that immediately set about scribbling down the pitches on his score paper. He nailed it. This was the same individual that upon hearing a chord…any chord…played at the piano could sit down and replicate the same chord. I was astounded. After many, many hours of practice, I got pretty good at “relative” pitch and could take down two-part music dictation or sight sing but the gifted guy in the comp course was at a level that I could only imagine.
I was fortunate enough to selected as the Cal Arts composition student representative in the Pierre Boulez master classes in the 80s, which were held at UCLA. Each of the southern California music programs picked one of their students and one of their works for these classes. I was studying with Mel Powell at the time and was thrilled to have my String Quartet performed as part of the Boulez program.
His musicianship is legendary. A story I heard involved a rehearsal of a very large orchestra work…I think it was piece by Maurice Ravel. Anyway, the orchestra is playing a tutti (everybody playing) section fortissimo (full volume). Maestro Boulez stops the ensemble and asks the pianist if the dampers for the middle d and e flat at functioning correctly? The pianist inspects the instrument and replies that yes; they were hung up causing these notes to ring too long. That Maestro Boulez could hear that miniscule detail amidst all of the sound is beyond my level of comprehension.
So when a skilled musician or conductor or singer listens to a reproduction of a piece, do they hear things that we mere mortals don’t? I think they do. Following years of piano and guitar lessons, and years of music literature and theory classes all the way to a Ph.D. in music composition…I know that I hear music differently than my untrained friends. Of course, it’s not that they enjoy music any less than I do. But I’m convinced that knowing more about the components that go into a piece of music affects what you hear…and can make the experience more intellectually and emotionally enjoyable.
Knowing what Elliot Carter or J.S. Bach or John Adams were doing when they assembled a bunch of notes means that I can switch my expectations to more closely match the creative approach and the sonic realities of very different methods of musical expression.
What do you think?