Understanding Any Piece of Music by Ear


in Composition, Methods, Performance

Most people assume that only a musical genius could listen to a piece of music and instantly know how to play it in any key. But what I will try to show you in this article is that this “genius” is available to all of us.

In fact, it's nothing more than the ability to clarify sensations that every one of us already perceives every time we listen to music. To show you what I mean, let's look for a moment at how composers actually communicate with listeners.

Every composer uses sounds for one reason only. Each sound makes the audience feel a particular sensation, and the composer wants to lead the audience through these sensations in a particular way. For example if a piece of music is written in a minor tonality with lots of dark and sad chords, the audience can feel this. The audience can feel the difference between major and minor.

Audience Perception

Similarly, the audience also perceives perfectly the sensations of tension and release in the music they hear. The way Western harmony works is that at every moment during a piece of music, the listener feels a certain attraction toward a particular note. This note is called the tonal center. But it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Just think of it as a gravitational center that exerts a force of attraction on you.

Essentially your subconscious mind longs to relieve its tension by returning to this tonal center. Every sound you hear that is not this tonal center produces a kind of tension in your mind. Some of these sounds are more tense than others, but each one produces a very specific sensation in your mind and body.

Subconscious Feeling

In addition to these feelings, at any given instant during a musical performance the audience is also subconsciously aware of exactly seven notes that make up the music’s tonality at this moment. This is perhaps the most “hidden” of your subconscious abilities because you kind of have to go digging around in your mind a bit in order to discover that you are in fact imagining exactly seven notes.

But what all this amounts to is that if you want to understand music, the very first role model you should strive to emulate in your musical career is a surprising one: the audience.

The audience already perceives essentially everything there is to know about any particular piece of music. And if you think about it, this makes perfect sense. In fact it couldn’t be any other way. Why would composers put sounds in their compositions if the audiences weren’t capable of perceiving them?

Understanding begins with listening

The mistake we make as musicians is in thinking that “understanding music” is a project that should take us off in some different direction from the experience of the audience. Our teachers convince us to abandon our role as listeners and focus our attention on theories and formulas. But the path to understanding music starts with the very same experience that the casual listeners in the audience are already enjoying.

We musicians don’t need to go off and join some strange cult in order to learn the secrets of music. If we want to understand music more deeply than the people sitting around us in the audience, we just need to listen more closely. Our experience is not different from theirs. It is only deeper. Our road to musical understanding begins with recognizing and clarifying the very same sensations that everybody else in the audience is already feeling. By becoming aware of these natural processes that already occur in your mind and body when you listen to music, you can discover the secret of those musical geniuses who immediately know how to play any piece of music that they hear.

Coming soon from David: Learn how to instantly feel the tonality in any piece of music…

David Reed is the creator of the “Improvise for Real” teaching method, which empowers students to discover harmony for themselves by experiencing it directly. Instead of memorizing rules and formulas, students of Improvise for Real learn to enter and explore the world of harmony on their own, and enjoy the thrill of creating their own original music with all of the beautiful sounds that they discover. If you would like to learn how to use this consciousness as a basis for a complete approach to improvisation and composition, you can learn more at www.ImproviseForReal.com

Arthur November 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Joseph O’conner explains the mental strategy the musical geniuses use to memorize and compose music…See cpt 9, pg 188 “Music Strategy”

Your assesment in this blog is very close to what they do…


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