GUITAR 101: Listening, Part 2: The Forgotten “Secret”

The point is this: If you think you’re “tone deaf” or “can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” you’re wrong. If you had no sense of pitch and no sense of rhythm, you wouldn’t even be able to speak English!

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In the May/June issue I wrote about listening, and I’ll continue with that topic. Not only is listening the key to good conversation, it’s the key to learning to “speak music.” So many times, I just want to say “Stop playing, just listen. Or stop talking, driving, multi-tasking, facebooking, or whatever.” I say that to myself (facebooking, anyway). Like I said, we have too much input. I was watching Lonesome Dove on TV the other night, and right in the middle of a cattle drive, William Shatner’s head pops up at the bottom of the screen…and his head is moving. The TV won’t even let you watch one thing at a time any more! And the soundtrack does not match William Shatner’s head either! What’s next? Let’s try two un-related pieces of music play at the same time

And all this simultaneous, non-coherent input applies to sound, also. If you’re “listening” to music while you’re eating, talking, working, etc., you’re just hearing music. Sometimes hearing music can relax you, excite you, or make you cry. But listening to music requires directing your attention. So, like I was saying, you learn how to direct your attention in a certain way, a deeper way, and you begin to notice things you didn’t notice before. Just stop right now and listen. Right now. Now, I’m hearing rain, my computer humming, the ceiling fan, and one or two crickets. A dog barking. The ceiling fan is at least two frequencies, a higher one and a lower one. Maybe a third. Yeah. Try to really listen to whatever you’re hearing now. Pluck a guitar string and you may hear harmonics and overtones you never heard before.

Something as simple as that, if practiced diligently, can lead to more awareness of any sound in your environment, and more enjoyment of music. You actually learn how to listen at a deeper level. A hunter can tell by the sounds of his dogs baying in the distance not only which dog it is, but how excited he is, which tells him how close he is to the huntee. I have an old friend who pronounces the work “exactly” as “ed-sactly” (with a “d” sound) instead of “eggs-sactly.” As far as I can tell, it is the only word in the English language he mispronounces. Studying accents helps you learn to pay attention to subtle sounds. For instance, anyone who grew in the South knows, there are several different regional accents.

Some languages are called “tonal” languages. In Chinese dialects, for instance, the same word can mean three different things depending on whether the pitch goes up or down or stays the same. You could intend to say “Nice day” and what you’re actually saying is “Corpulent Grandmother, please hand me that SUV,” depending on the pitch. You can refine and improve your sense of pitch to learn to speak a tonal language, and you must refine your senses of pitch and rhythm to speak music.

Listening to the sounds of human speech can help you learn to hear subtle differences in pitch that you never noticed before. Guitarist Coco Montoya does this thing with his guitar mimicking the sound of an argument between a man and a woman. You can recognize some of the words by the pitch and accent. Musicians have been doing this for hundreds of years. OK, try this: Say the word “power.” Not only is the emphasis on the first syllable, but the pitch, on the “pow” is higher than the pitch on the “er.” It has to be. If it wasn’t, you’d sound like a robot. (That is, an older robot. The new ones can even do that.)

The point is this: If you think you’re “tone deaf” or “can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” you’re wrong. If you had no sense of pitch and no sense of rhythm, you wouldn’t even be able to speak English! So you can’t use that excuse anymore.

Did you have a teacher in elementary school (or whatever they call it now) instruct you how to use a higher pitch on the first syllable of power? Me neither. You learned by listening, and trying to recreate the sound you heard. It is the way everybody learns their native language all over this planet, since time immemorial. The way musicians have learned to play for the last 35,000 years, until the last 300 years or so, when the current system of music notation became the standard. People are still learning to “speak music” the old “natural” way all over the world. There’s no such thing as “reading music.” You read notation, not music. Notation is a map, not the real territory. You need to go there, not just read the map.

I watched a great show on NPT the other day. Béla Fleck, the great jazz/country/world music banjo was in Africa playing along with several African musicians without any written music. He instantly identified the rhythms and tones as something familiar and began to improvise beautifully. Someone who speaks music can do that. My parents can do that. There are millions of people in the world who possess no formal training who can do that. And you can learn to do it too. You listen to music, direct your attention to it, try to recreate the sounds you’re hearing, get help from a teacher, keep listening, keep trying-the same way you heard “Mama” and “Dada,” tried to say it, and one day you said it. You can speak music. Listening is the key.



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