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What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 2 — Ear Training

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

This post is part of a series. Since the posts build upon one another successively, I suggest you start with the first post in the series.

Right, so last time, I drew a parallel between my view of music in the modern industrialized world, and the way “foodies” think of food in that same setting: namely, as something that has been essentially debased for expediency of production by large corporations, in the name of profit.

But I’m sure those who aren’t feeling deeply insulted by this still have some sort of question in their minds about what it is I mean when I say “music” in the sense that “foodies” say “food” but implicitly don’t really include processed, sugar-laden, canned junk among the things they’re talking about.

I would say that this may be the wrong question to ask. After all, I’ve been finding more and more recently that the apparent, obvious question isn’t at all the one that needs to get asked. It’s not, “Why do I keep burning the oatmeal?” but rather, “Why am I always so distracted while I’m making breakfast?”

What I’d suggest is more useful in this case is to talk about what happens when I listen to “music,” and how I perceive it to differ from how people who listen to popular music do so… or indeed, how I do so when I am listening to popular music.

Except I will stop using “I” in this explanation, because this is not unique to me. I am not special and outstanding in this regard: pretty much everyone I know who appreciates what I mean when I say music has some variation of this experience when they listen to it. Indeed, the explicit training one gets when studying music involves learning the skills to do some of this… a process that is called “ear training”–and yes, we really call it that.

While not everyone who values “music” gets that formal training in the setting I did, I suspect they all approach that kind of music in approximately this way, perhaps even training their own ears, because the structure of music itself is designed to make particular sorts of demands on anyone who wishes to listen and comprehend it.

(Much like how, if you want to understand language, you need to have a grasp of the grammar and the vocabulary being used; if you don’t know the grammar or the vocabulary, I’m afraid you’re not listening to it the way people who understand it do; you might get something out of the music of the language, or the facial expressions of the speaker, but you’re not listening to it in any useful sense.)

Which is the bottom line, by the way, if you’re taking notes. Music has a vocabulary (and an etymology), has a grammar, has connotations and a history and requires certain skills if you’re going to listen to and appreciate it. You can try, but you won’t get much farther than someone who wants to read a book in a language he or she doesn’t know.

This is because music that is designed to be listened to is different from all other music–music to be danced to, music to fill the silence, music to serve as background. People may try use music designed to be listened to for other purposes–people cranking Vivaldi through subway speaker systems, for example–but music that is designed to be listened to is characteristically different from all those other musics, and all those other musics end up, on some level, being roughly similar, and roughly interchangeable.

Caveat: I’m talking about Western music. (And its direct offshoots in other cultures. Kpop is, in all relevant particulars, Western music. Structually, aesthetically, it is American pop music sung in another language, with a few cosmetic modifications. Likewise, the compositions of Toru Takemitsu may have been written in Japan, but they’re basically Western “avant garde” classical music–whatever the hell that is being called now, it’s music designed to be listened to, and only to be listened to.)

In other words, let’s not talk about Balinese kecak, or Indian classical music, or West African griot traditions–and for that matter, let’s leave aside Afrobeat and other African popular musics, which I don’t know all that much about, though their hybridity seems characteristically different to me than the hybridity in “Western” popular music.


When I listen to music, I am listening to a lot of things that I believe most people listening to pop music don’t really listen to… for reasons I’ll get into a bit later. The following should give you some idea as to what I listen to. It’s an excerpt from an email I wrote to a commenter here who asked me, by email, for some tips about listening to jazz, and how one might better appreciate it.

Here’s part of my response, constructed–as is the only way I could explain it–in terms of how one learns to play jazz music. A note, the person is a musician:

Well, the thing is that jazz is essentially about multichannel linear harmonic/melodic invention. So, like, you start with a harmonic structure [and a set melody that accompanies it, which is called the “head”]. What can you do with it? You can play melodies that fit it.

Note: the “head” is the recognizable melody that jazz musicians use to start and end the tune. For example, in this one:

… most people will recognize the melody of a famous Disney tune. Then comes a bunch of stuff in the middle, and then the recognizable tune. That recognizable stuff is called the head, though the melody is less important than the harmonic structure, which (basically) most jazz musicians repeat, perhaps with slight (or not so slight) variations, and which they use as a basis for their improvisations. If you like, you can sing along the main melody over and over and you’ll see, it fits perfectly, because the original harmonic pattern is maintained and looped over and over. (And indeed, you’ll notice occasionally that tones in the melody get played in the improvisation, when the improviser paraphrases the melody, or just because the tone is solidly within the harmonic structure.)

Back to my emailed advice:

Then you get better, and you start adding in color notes — dissonances that fit against the harmony in interesting ways. (The most rudimentary is the flat 5 in blues; a Bb in the passage E-G-A-Bb-G-A-G is the classic case.)

In the Miles Davis track I embedded above, all of the soloists play “color” notes; they kind of sound off, not quite for the harmony, but in a good way. This is somewhat tricky to do passably, and it’s hard to do it as outstandingly as they do in this particular track.

Then you get better, and play melodies that imply alternate harmonies stacked on top of the harmonies in the original structure. Then you start doing interesting things rhythmically–first you drag or accelerate the swing rhythm–which in itself is essentially stacking triplets onto quarter notes, or going into double-time or half-time; many amazing musicians stop there, but some go further, doing insane, hard-to-notate things with rhythm–running 17 evenly spaced notes on three beats of a 4/4 measure, for example.)

Then there’s tone: the things you do with pitch, with intonation and microtonality, with the way your instrument sounds… like, for example, overblowing on purpose on a flute, or using harmonics instead of fingering a note on a saxophone, to get a fuller sound, or opening a key you’re not supposed to, to get a more nasal tone on a given pitch. The use of vibrato, the use of growling, bending pitches… all of this comes into play.

Then there’s how some players play (and I now long to master it, though it’s fucking hard work) where you have this encyclopedic knowledge of riffs, licks, of melodic fragments that have been played by other musicians, and you can not just playy them back, but transpose them indefinitely into different harmonic structures, and even develop them as motifs as you improvise a kind of patchwork. An adept listener will catch phrases — like when a trumpet player grabs a bit of “Taps” (that bugle tune they play at military funerals) and then turn it upside down, play it backwards, transpose the pattern across a few harmonic changes, or up the scale, or whatever.

Which is to say that playing jazz is a bit like what they do in that stereotypical Chinese circus act where they spin plates on like four or five different poles, and mostly you marvel that they can keep the four or five plates spinning all at once. Or juggling like five or six different things — a butcher knife, a torch on fire, a tennis ball covered in glass shards, a cucumber, and a desktop computer.

I suppose the act of listening to jazz is like that — I mean, the most demanding jazz — but you could start with one of those elements. Listen to, say, how Miles Davis in “So What” (on Kind of Blue) makes his trumpet sound so much like a human voice — like a person singing. Listen to the spaces he leaves between motifs, and llisten for how he repeats himself, but makes little variations in the repetitions — moving the pattern up or down, extending it, inverting it. Kind of Blue really is a great starter album if you’re trying to start in on understanding jazz — the harmonies in the tunes are very, very static — “So What” only has two chords — so you can pick out when they are mapping new harmonies onto the static ones. It’s really stripped down jazz.

(Stripped down from what Charlie Parker had Davis doing a few years earlier.)

I don’t know how helpful what I’ve said is. It really amounts to saying that, well, in jazz, active listening is crucial, it’s a very different kind of llistening than from many other kinds of music (though much like how one listens to orchestral music, for example), and the above is basically a list of the components that musicians use when creating modern jazz (ie. “post-big band” let’s say, though that’s problematic shorthand).

On a more rudimentary level, don’t depend on the drummer to keep time: drummers ornament time. Bassists are the ones who keep time, both rhythmically and harmonically. (They indicate where we are in the tune’s overall, looping (repeating) harmonic structure. Pianists and guitarists, when they are “comping” (accompanying) behind a solo, mostly also ornament or punctuate time, mostly askew (ie. on off-rhythms), while providing harmonic cues, echoing crucial motifs from the solo and bouncing them back at the soloist, and also introducing new material a soloist may respond to or integrate into the improvisation.

Which is the real thing: modern jazz is actually not one musician juggling, but a group of them juggling and passing things back and forth between them: bassists will sometimes play with rhythm ornamentally, or follow a soloist into new, implied harmonic variations on the tune’s structure; drummers will sometimes play back “melodic” patterns using the timbral variations and tuning of certain drums or cymbals or even just the angle of sticks on the edge of a drum, or whatever.

I don’t know if this is any help at all. I’m kind of the opinion that appreciating jazz (or any creative music) takes a kind of work, a kind of study that is unpopular these days, especially at the start of the learning curve. But it’s not really like, “work,” you know?

Except of course that it is something like work. I mean, it’s not easy. There’s a learning curve, there has to be effort. It’s like learning to savor wines, something I’m not great at–I like a good wine, I know a bad one, but the in-betweens are a bit muddled for me, and I know that all that lies between me and knowing that territory better is a learning curve. (Living in Asia, where wine is often overpriced, has been a disincentive to climb that particular learning curve.) If it’s any consolation, it’s no easier becoming a jazz musician…

But as a listener, once you learn how to listen to music in this way… well, I can’t say there’s no going back. But I can say that you never see music the same way again.

(And one more caveat, since I’m talking extensively about jazz music: I’m talking about “traditional” modern jazz–the stuff that follows some fairly well-established rules of harmony and structure. Which is relatively easy compared to some of the stuff out there.

(There’s plenty of jazz music that goes a few steps further and abandons strict harmony, strict structure, or the idea that improvisations are solos, or that tunes need heads. There is jazz out there that not only plays tennis without a net, but without a court and the balls are translucent and there are five people on a side… and yet it’s still actual tennis, and you can watch it and talk about its merits or demerits.

(It’s difficult to listen to, of course… but for some of us–including me–it’s worth it. Sometimes, anyway: most people don’t listen to that kind of thing every day…)

Now that you know how I listen to the music I listen to, it’s time for me to talk my understanding of what people who listen to popular music are doing when they “listen” to their music. And yeah, you saw that right: “listen” is indeed in scare quotes… but perhaps not for the reasons you might imagine. While I think we can all agree that popular music’s audiences don’t have trained ears, what I’m going to talk about next  is the nature of popular music itself, since that hyperdetermines how we interact with it (just as the nature of “music” determines how we interact with it)…

The key to understanding that is understanding the concept of hybridity.

What is hybridity? I’ll explain that in my next post, which will be up tomorrow.

See you then. But for now… a little night music to send you on your way:



Series Navigation<< What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 1 — Background, Caveats, and an Analogy to ConsiderWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 3 — Hybridity >>
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