What I’m working on this week

AKA A fresh look at something familiar.

Learning to rely on your ear, if it’s not intrinsic for you, can be pretty terrifying. As a musician I have a good feel for phrasing, tempo, and style, but “playing by ear”, i.e. hearing a tune and repeating it back without seeing the music, has never been my strong suit. In college my two required years of music theory, which included a fair amount of melodic and rhythmic dictation, were a constant source of stress.

Of course, part of the problem was I never filled in a lot of the holes in my earlier music instruction and these classes were far more advanced than the basic theory I’d been given in high school. UW was generously equipped with a music learning lab where I could have gone to self-tutor, but did I ever go? Please. (Music students: don’t be a fool. Go study ear training)

Flash forward to grad school at UNT, and the concept of ‘tune jury’: Jan would select 12 tunes for each of us and we’d be required to learn them in all 12 keys, tested at random. I remember struggling vainly with “Over the Rainbow” in B Major, but ultimately having to test it in Eb, to my tremendous relief. Jan wanted us to follow our ear through these tunes, not thinking about key but about melody, but I was never quite able to do that. The best I could do was analyze the structure of each tune and quickly transpose it.

Over time I’ve sort of fooled myself into thinking that I play by ear this way. In reality, I’m playing by theory, thinking in scale degrees or patterns in order to maneuver different keys. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with that, but I decided this week to train myself a little differently.

I started singing each tune in solfege first.

Yeah, you’ll say, but isn’t that just scale degrees?

Technically, yes. But solfege was created for ease of singing, with one syllable for each pitch, so that vocalists could transverse their melodic terrain without having to stutter. It’s also easier to sing a song when you have lyrics, right? Because melody and story are linked in our brains. So solfege becomes a sort of consistent story, with each pitch serving as a character in play. That makes it easier to change key, and helps us hear the specific intervals that make up a tune.

Try it on a simple tune this week. Let’s say “Ode to Joy”-
OtJ starts on the third note of a major scale. That’s solfege “mi” (sing “Do,a Deer” to yourself if you can’t remember solfege). Below each line is what it would look like in the key of C.

Mi mi fa sol sol fa mi re do do re mi mi re re
E E F G G F E D C C D E E D E
Mi mi fa sol sol fa mi re do do re mi re do do
E E F G G F E D C C D E D C C
Re re mi do Re mi fa mi do Re mi fa mi re do re sol
D D E C D E F E C D E F E D C D G
Mi mi fa sol sol fa mi re do do re mi re do do
E E F G G F E D C C D E D C C

Can you sing it on solfege on C, play it on your instrument, and then transpose it (by singing it first and then playing)? Try it for a week in different keys (flats AND sharps, beloved band students of mine), and see what it does for your pitch recognition, intonation, and ability to play by ear.

Happy practicing!

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