GUITAR 101: Listening

At least half of learning to play and sing is learning to listen. Music is a language you can learn to speak the same way you learn your native tongue, or any other language.

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At least half of learning to play and sing is learning to listen. Music is a language you can learn to speak the same way you learn your native tongue, or any other language. The quickest way to learn a verbal language is immersion. You hear it and try to speak it constantly. Without knowing it, that’s the way I learned to speak the language of music. Fortunately for me, both my parents played musical instruments and sang every day. My mother played piano, and my father played guitar and harmonica. They sang together frequently. We also listened to the radio and played records in the evenings. We were immersed in music, and my brother and I learned to sing harmonies at an early age. We learned this completely by ear, without any instruction whatsoever. Neither of my parents ever learned to read music, even though my mother was the pianist and organist in several churches. If you had asked us how we learned to do that, we’d say we “played by ear.” What we could have said was “I listened.”

Listening is receptive. It used to be a natural thing to do many years ago. Remember listening to The White Album by The Beatles with headphones on and your eyes closed? Listening to your mother’s voice as she sang you to sleep? What was the first song you remember hearing? Remember the sound of tires on a gravel road? How many people have actually listened to a bluebird sing? Remember those noisy Model A Fords ? Nah, me neither. Now there is so much information coming at you from everywhere. Input, input, input. Not much opportunity to really focus on just one thing. Just having your eyes open provides an enormous amount of data. What I’m saying is, in our culture we have forgotten how to listen.

The earliest musical instruments that I know of are bone flutes. How did those prehistoric people learn how to play them? Method books? There are bone flutes that date from around 35,000 years ago. Of course, drums are older than that, however the flute players didn’t hang around with drummers. See, nothing has changed in 35,000 years! What about the human voice? Singing is as old as mankind, I would imagine.

Our Western culture didn’t invent music. We didn’t invent the major scale. The pentatonic scale was used in Asia tens of thousands of years ago. Music is mentioned in the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and lots of other things that weren’t written yesterday. Why am I going on about this? Well, here’s my point: Music, like singing and dancing, is a completely natural thing to do. People have always done it. Today, we think those things are only done by professionals who have had formal training. Baloney!


Ear training is the name the music schools have for learning to listen. I think this is the most important course you’ll ever take. Unless you’re in med school. You can take one of these courses, or buy a book, or pick up a DVD, or whatever. They’re not hard to find. But they’re not essential to hearing and “speaking” music. For instance, on weekends my parents’ home was filled with regular people who had little formal education, didn’t speak English “properly,” and couldn’t afford to eat at a nice restaurant. But they could speak music. The joy that being able to speak this language fluently provides is completely immeasurable. Somebody would say “Your Cheatin’ Heart in G,”and off they’d go. Or if Buddy only knew it in C, they’d play it in C for him. They mostly played country music, and they could play any country song in G, C, D or E. None of them could read or write music, but they could sure as heck play! There are millions of people all over the world that have this ability. You don’t have to be a genius. The rewards of knowing how to “speak music” can’t be described. It’s like knowing all of the languages in the world and being able to converse with anybody, anywhere, anytime ! It’s great!!

Take a CD or MP3 or a vinyl record and play it. Listen to it, and try to figure out just one note of the melody. Can’t do it? Then you’ve got to spend more time listening. Ask a friend to sing a note, or play a note on an instrument and you try to match that pitch with your voice or an instrument. You don’t have to know if it’s a C. You just listen and match the sound. Think you can’t do it? You can. Somebody told you that you were tone-deaf? Wrong. It’s just a skill you have that’s undeveloped until now. Keep doing it. A lot. Don’t give up. Have them play a Major chord. Then a Minor chord. Learn to hear the difference. Let me know how it’s going


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