Often I have found that ‘learning by ear’ (or ‘orally’) is associated with learning traditional (or folk) music - and ‘learning by notation’ first is the classical way. In fact, the value of ‘learning by ear’ for young classical musicians was well established in the 1940s by Shinichi Suzuki.
Both classical, traditional - and indeed any type of music - can be taught orally. But, over the centuries, as classical music has evolved in complexity, particularly in polyphonic contexts with ensemble and orchestral pieces as well as multy-voiced music on one instrument, the challenge to a classical musician’s memory increases to nigh on impossibility! But, having direction from the printed page takes all the torment out of the process. I do, however, like to remind my students that every time they go to a concert to hear a truly great musician, they will not usually find the soloists working from the texts or scores – no-matter how complex the ensemble or music genre!
So, this article is not about the debate between traditional (or folk, or jazz) - and classical music … but between the two oral/aural methods of learning: which are 1. by Rote or 2. by Reason.
Rote learning is about the imitation of the source – involving the repetition by the ‘student’ of what the ‘teacher’ has played.
This is the most common way that harp players are taught ‘by ear’ in Ireland - and the results are quick and effective if the standard of the new piece was appropriately pitched to the ability of the students. Thus, a great piece of already-arranged music can be taught and performed to perfection in a very short time. The memory might be challenged (as our young people are not so accustomed to committing music or knowledge to memory as we 60-somethings are!); but everybody at a workshop now has a modern mobile phone that will record – or even video – a new piece so the memory can be consolidated later – and the recording filed for distant future referral! This method is linear – starting at the beginning with all the notes in place – and is not particularly demanding of the teacher – as there are few or no ‘variables’ offered in the learning of the piece. The teacher’s skill is in the ‘breaking and building’ of the melody, then the bass, and then the co-ordination of the two until there is fluency in performance. Warning: There is a very wide variance in the quality of teachers and the music they teach at these events. Sometimes you’re lucky, and oftimes not – even if you have a ‘good time’!
The second method is ‘by Reason’. This is the long-term training option that teaches the student the ‘language’ of music. This involves ‘what to do with the music’ and teaches how to ‘do it for themselves’. As a child learns language, it starts from the most elemental – and through steady and consistent shaping and cajoling, the learner becomes conversant. As the musician evolves, they progress from the first building blocks of melody where the ‘big notes’ (the most accented audible notes) lead through the next ‘in-between notes’ toward the finest detail between those notes again. Practically, musicians experiment with the ‘filling of the spaces’, the ‘punctuation of the pulse’, and listen to what their friends come up as ‘exciting variations’ within the communal experience of the ‘session’ where, from small to great numbers of participants play together bouncing creatively off each other – exciting their own creative impulses and raising the energy of everyone in the vicinity. The pace is consistent – never slowed to accommodate beginners (!) so the music never loses its energy or recognisability. Just, the less skilled players play less notes, adding to their performance as their skills grow. In this way, the method is organic and like conversation, it is constantly flexible with improvised flourishes and variations as the energy dictates.
But as there are easy improvised conversations, there is also the ‘prepared’ performance for stage recital – so Shakespeare will have his equal in beautifully crafted and prepared formal performance repertoire …
Isn’t it healthy to be able to converse in music as well as words? To learn by reason obviously affords a more meaningful experience as players are creative and collaborative, flexible and adaptable, intuitive and able to make music spontaneously with any melody. To learn by rote offers expediency for acquiring already arranged music quickly, but not necessarily with any understanding of it, and fixed pieces would, like classical music, be expected to be attributed to the composer (or arranger). To play your own music is what all musicians should be allowed to aspire to – and this method has been around for millennia!
If any teachers or performers out there would like me to present a workshop on ‘oral musicianship’, ‘making music intuitively’, or ‘getting creative in a ‘session’’, I will be more than delighted to demonstrate!