It is now officially December! Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Whatever your preference, ‘tis the season to be jolly and if you’re a musician, ‘tis the season to cringe. It’s always the same, if you are musically inclined, at every Christmas party they want you to play all the Christmas tunes so they can sing along. Beautiful music but the voices may not carry a tune. As a musician myself, I just have to wince and smile when they go too flat or sharp. But why is it so glaringly obvious to those of us who play an instrument and not to those who don't?
We can thank our old friend Ear Training for this special skill. Ear Training is more than just listening to music and recognizing the notes. It is “the process of learning to play your instrument by ear, how to write down music by ear (dictation), and how to identify mistakes in music and fix them by ear.” (Leon Harrol) By working on these skills, “we develop our inner Ear, the ability to accurately hear and identify musical elements in our head while reading, listening to, and thinking about music.” (Thomas Evdokimoff)
As you develop your ears through training, you become more aware of how notes fit together. Thus when you sing carols with your family and someone sings slightly off key it is more obvious to your trained ears than it will be to their ears. That being said, you must grin and bear it! You will be training while they are not and remember there are different levels of ability.
“Some musicians develop what is called perfect pitch: the ability to accurately hear and identify pitches by name instantaneously. However, perfect pitch also seems to develop naturally with players who start at the age of five or six. Those who start learning music later in life develop what’s known as relative pitch: our ability to discern the relative distance between notes, as well as the quality of different types of musical elements like scales and chords.” (Thomas) That being said, there will always be exceptions, you may start older and have perfect pitch or start young and never grasp the tones and that’s perfectly alright. Just remember everyone’s skills are not the same.
For myself, I began piano lessons in the 4th grade, around 9 years old. I didn’t have perfect ears but they were much better back then! I could tell you the quality of the chords: major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad. I could easily tell you interval distance: a fifth will remind you of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star while a sixth brings to mind My Bonnie lies over the Ocean. But I never had perfect pitch. An example: one of my university auditions had an ear training test as a component. I am a pianist so when the time came the judge went to the piano and played a single note. In all he played about 5 single notes and he wanted me to name them. It was very embarrassing to me and frustrating but there was nothing I could do about it. To be fair the audition was for a conservatory but I still made it into a very good university for my music studies so don’t be afraid to keep trying.
As I said previously, everyone’s skills are not the same but it still can be discouraging when faced with that fact. We’ve all seen people who can sit down and play an instrument without sheet music, just picking notes out of the air. It’s enviable for sure but it’s great for them. I cannot do that and that is okay too. My ear training has helped me in other ways. My skill lies in reading the music, listening to its ebb and flow, and then injecting emotion into what I have heard. I use my ears to correct mistakes as I practice, to remember where I'm going and what we should hear next. Don’t be frustrated at the skills of others and how their ears work. Keep working on your own ear training and it will develop with your strongest skills to enhance your work and performance.
Remember this holiday season that you have been training for hours, days, weeks, months on your ears and your ability to create music. Your family may only sing in the shower! They won’t hear the dissonance and cringe. To them it’s all beautiful music and that’s the best gift you can give.
What is ear training and why is it important? - Leon Harrell
The Importance of Ear Training for Musicians - Thomas Evdokimoff