Klezmer Style Guide

Why We Learn By Ear

© Joshua Horowitz

Many of the teachers of folk music prefer to teach by ear. The following is a short essay on the virtues of ear learning.

A few years ago I was teaching an accordion workshop by ear when one of the participants — a middle aged woman — told me she was frustrated trying to learn the little phrases I was teaching by ear. She said that this is not how she was brought up, that all classical music was taught by reading, and that ear learning was slow and cumbersome and took too much work. I asked the woman if she had ever memorized the classical music she had learned by reading and she said that she didn’t need to. Why take the trouble of memorizing when you have the music there all written out? The thing that struck me about her was that she seemed to actually learn by ear more easily than the other participants in the class who were more comfortable with the idea, and was actually quite flexible when it came to improvising. I sensed that her criticisms were based on the frustration of breaking a habit and mistrust in a system which seemed to her to be a lower form of learning.

Is learning by ear a lower way of learning? You would think that this question is silly, but in fact, musicians trained in reading music often consider ear learning as inferior. That judgment is unfounded. Almost all of the world’s cultures learn music by ear. It is a time honored and sophisticated way of learning. The Turko-Arabic Makam system, the Iranian Dastgah and the Indian Raga System have spawned some of the greatest and most complex music the planet exhibits — all traditionally learned by ear. Even the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly recognized the virtues of ear learning by observing peasant folk musicians, and re-introduced a system which is still taught today with great success.

Try this experiment: Take a book from the shelf and read it while watching the television. Can you fully hear what the television is playing and still understand what you are reading? If you are reading you are not fully listening.

But it is even misleading to assert that classical western music is actually even learned by reading. Yes, the music is written out and referred to, but if you have ever attended a master class by, say, Isaac Stern, you will notice that the students have to watch the teacher, listen and imitate the sound that is being played. The notated music is an aid, nothing more. In fact, the incomplete road map of a piece of music is itself nothing more than a summary of the basic elements of a piece of music.

But what actually happens when we learn by reading music? The port of entry to the ear is not the instrument itself, but rather the eye. The eye is not designed to process sound. In fact, when it is asked to do this, there is a momentary delay needed for the translation of visual information to reach the aural center of the brain. By the time the visual cue is translated into actual production of sound, it has gone through a filtering system via portions of the brain which are not involved in creative endeavors, an essential part of music.

How many of us have experienced learning a passage incorrectly from written music, which we then tried to correct later. You will notice that the incorrectly learned passage was almost indelibly imprinted upon your nervous system the very first time you played it and even after you played the correct form, the incorrect one would come back to haunt you again and again, never actually leaving. If you are a perfect reader, this may not be a problem, but most of us are not perfect readers. Certainly learning by ear does not cure the problem of wrong imprinting, but it does offer something which eye learning cannot offer for helping this problem: The imagined sound and the played sound are directly welded to each other, with no interference from a third source of information such as the eye. Corrections are easier.

Music is not a language, but it does share its elements. It has phonemes, morphemes, syntax and semantics which we call sounds, phrases, structure and meaning. Language is taught first and foremost by imitation, then later includes reading and writing. Music is also most effectively taught by imitation – direct imitation, with no middleman. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that the most deep-reaching and comprehensible learning method is conversation and not textbook exercises.

Consider also the element of body language which we all use when playing music. It is stressful and unnatural to look both at music and at your fellow musicians when performing. The eye must continually focus and refocus at lightening speed. Even peripheral viewing, which orchestra musicians are trained to do in order to follow conductors while reading, involves stressful eye adjustments, and the full connection to other musicians cannot be maintained for prolonged period of time. The quick changes that folk music requires is best achieved when there are no visual obstacles to fellow musicians.

Usually I split up the piece into tiny fragments of melody and do a “call and response” session; I sing, you sing, I sing, you sing. Then the instruments are taken up; I play, you copy, I play, you copy. But I often vary the phrase I am teaching so as to show the students the different ways of playing the phrase. After all, pretty much everyone wants to learn to do that mysterious thing called “improvising.” Improvising doesn’t mean playing whatever comes to mind. Improvising is simply making quick musical choices from an already learned musical vocabulary. That means that if you know, say, four ways to start or end a certain phrase, you can use any one of them during your performance. So, when teaching students how to improvise, if we use written music, their choices are limited to that which is on the page, which of course is no choice at all. Of course, learning to learn by ear may seem uncomfortable at first, but if you try it, you will see that the results are instantaneous and far-reaching.

* Used by kind permission.