Hearing Music And Knowing What You Heard

Is what you hear in music the same as what I hear? It is much easier to test this than it is to test if the same color of blue looks exactly the same to both of us. A song is playing. It is a famous group. We both hear the same words and the same music. We may feel differently about what we hear but we both hear the same song, essentially. The words are the same and the music is the same, no matter how many times we hear the song. It is a recording and it is all set or fixed, unalterable.

If the articulation of the singer is good enough, we will hear the same identical words. We both might be able to sing the same melodic line that we hear. In your language, you can write down what you hear but can you write down the notes with the correct pitches, rhythms, and the correct duration of each note? Can you hear embellishments and also pitches being bent? Would you know how to notate that all on manuscript paper or in a music manuscript software program, such as Encore?

You may listen to a song linearly in sequential time. Do you also notice the structure of the song? You have to take it in its entirety to discover the structure and the form of the song. There are several song forms and not a right or wrong way to write a song.

Looking deeper into the song, we notice instruments we can hear. What are they? For the sake of discussion, we can call a singer or singers instruments. Do we hear drums, a bass, a guitar, keyboards an/or other instruments? Guitars, keyboards and basses can play linear (melodic lines) or chords, although chords are usually played less frequently using a bass. Harmonic intervals may be played on bass at times, such as thirds or fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, or octaves but three note chords may sound muddy on the low notes of a bass.

The chords of the song are usually played by guitars, keyboards, and/or strings. How many chords are in the song and what are those chords? How are those chords voiced, meaning how are the chord notes spread out? Is it close or open voicing? Can you hear that? Could you correctly write down what you hear? Could you play it on a keyboard or a guitar from just hearing it? If I hear a chord, such as a Cmajor9 voiced a certain way, I might describe it as a G6 in the right hand, playing 2 G’s and in the left hand there could be 2 C’s, an octave apart lower on the keyboard. Could it be what looks like an Em7 in the right hand and the same C’s in the left hand? Can you hear the difference and know immediately without having to think about or analyze it? From years of experience, some people can. We all hear the same thing, but do we also know precisely what was heard? You absolutely do not have to hear these things to appreciate music. You may want to be able to when arranging, composing, or orchestrating a piece.

If you have the job of transcribing music, you absolutely must hear and also analyze the music to accurately write it down. Your job will be much faster if you just “get it”, instead of having to think about it. Knowledge and experience can lead to rapid perfect transcription of music. Having great relative pitch helps. Having perfect pitch also helps but contained within perfect pitch, there is the function of relative pitch. Perfect pitch may or may not be taught. I was born with that or maybe it developed along the way. I’m not sure which. It has been put to the test, it was noticed by my college music theory teacher, Dr. Paul Whear, who is a famous composer of the 20th century. We did a lot of melodic and harmonic dictation in class, which I found to be very easy but it was because of having perfect pitch.

The placement test for music theory class was to write out The Star Spangled Banner. I got it all right. There were no musical instruments in the testing room. We were each given a pencil and a sheet of manuscript paper. That is what got me into Dr. Whear’s class. It was the beginning of “hearing”.

There is some unexpected good news, too. You can listen to music and appreciate it and not be compelled to analyze it. By learning more, you do not have to worry about diminishing your enjoyment in listening. Analysis of music can be “turned on or off”, at least in my experience.

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