The Internet is Amazing
Purely from a musician’s perspective, you’ve access to resources and opportunities as never before. If you need to know what gear Lou Reed used in The Velvet Underground—bizarrely, a question I recently needed answering—a quick Google search, and there you are.
But all this easy knowledge comes at a price, one that the latest generation of musicians is seemingly unaware. I'll give you an example of what I mean.
During a recent lesson, one of my students mentioned Adele’s song Hello, and wondered if I could play it. I hadn’t really heard it at this point, so I played the official video on YouTube, and started figuring out the chords.
This surprised my student: “Oh, I thought you’d just look it up?”
And therein lies the problem: it never occurred to him that you could figure out the song. With the Internet, there's little need for him to bother.
Wi-Fi Doesn't Solve Everything
Relying solely on the Internet presents a number of issues. For example, you can not be sure that what you’re watching, or reading, is accurate. The only way you can do that is to have a developed ear in the first place.
You'll have problems if you can’t get to a desktop and you have no mobile coverage. Your time is not well spent wandering the streets, cold and alone, smartphone aloft, searching for that one bar of signal to YouTube How to play the intro to ‘La Bamba'.
Alternatively, you could stay warm and just figure it out•as I once did at a gig.
Then there’s the big one, something the Internet simply can’t help you with: when you have an idea for an original piece of music. You can't look up that.
Recognising sounds, phrases and intervals by ear is a hugely important part of being a musician. Besides impressing non-musicians with your apparently magic ability to play music you’ve just heard (I’ve done this at parties—never fails), you also come to associate what you’re hearing with how you’ll play it, which further strengthens your skills.
What You Can Do
Like everything whenever you’re learning a new skill, short cuts are rare. However, if you’re prepared to put the work in, here are a few suggestions.
Listen to Music
I’m not talking about the background noise you put on when browsing Facebook, this is about putting on an enclosed, decent set of headphones, and REALLY CONCENTRATING. Play a song you’re familiar with, and try analysing the sounds.
Which leads us onto…
It's All in Your Head
You can mentally turn elements of music up and down in your head. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, and here’s why.
You’re in a noisy room, with all those different conversations all blurred together, when you briefly hear your name as if someone has shouted it.
They haven't, but, alongside hello, it’s a word you’ve heard consistently since you were born, so it seems much louder. You can use this to train your ears; if you want to hear, say, a guitar part, really focus on listening to it—with practice, the other parts will seem quieter by comparison.
As well as requiring no additional equipment or set-up—good news for cathedral organists—the voice is the most accurate, sensitive, and portable instrument you’ll ever own.
If you’re trying to work out whether one note is higher or lower than its predecessor, try singing it—you can feel it going up or down. You’ll then associate this physical feedback with what you can hear.
Learn to Love Film and Television Themes
Recognising intervals—the distance between notes—helps you to figure out melodies. If you’ve perfect pitch, this should be easy, but for the rest of us—including myself—you can train your ear to do this.
The trick is to associate intervals with songs or themes you already know.
I favour film and television themes. or example, you’ll find a diminished fifth between the second and third note of The Simpsons theme: The Simp-SONS.
If you're looking for an octave, try Somewhere Over The Rainbow from The Wizard Of Oz: Some-WHERE.
Yours will be personal to you; it’s whatever works.
It's Not What You Play, It's the Way That You Play It
Finding the pitch is just part of the puzzle—now you need to listen for how it was played.
I’m a guitarist, so I know a note can be produced in a number of different ways. For example, a slurred note—a hammer-on or a pull-off—will typically have less attack than a picked note. Similarly, a bend—whether up or down—will not sound the same as a picked note.
It’s important to learn to tell the difference, particularly if you have to reproduce what you’re listening to.
Take a song you love and dissect it. By studying the way it was made, you build up a database of sounds.
Not only will this improve your playing, but you’ll begin to recognise more and more sounds, so this is really worthwhile.
The Dark Art of Transcription
As a tutor, this is a skill I’ve had to acquire. It’s often a slog, but trying to write out a song note-for-note involves listening intently, often over and over, which’ll improve your ear accordingly.
I’m not in any way anti-technology or progress. YouTube, for example, is a godsend for learning, and I make full use of it.
I’m worried, however, they’re becoming a crutch, creating Wi-Fi-dependent musicians who rely on Google to solve their problems.
So, try doing the following:
- Really listen to music
- Learn to hear clearly
- Try singing
- Watch more films and TV
- Learn how different sounds are made
- Get into the works of the greats
- Learn to write music
- Amaze friends and family