Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Maybe I Know

If there's one thing I can do, it's play by ear. I've been good at that since I was a kid. For some reason, I can recall songs, chord progressions, melodies, embellishments, well enough to play them. Sometimes I might not have heard the song for years, but I can recall it.

Of course, if you introduce yourself to me, I'll forget your name in under a minute. Go figure.

Playing by ear has definite advantages for improv. You never know when it might be handy to recall a song, a particular song. In the same way pop culture references go over a treat in scenes, music from movies or songs or commercials or whatever can be great in a scene.

Song in the Style Of is one that really benefits from playing by ear (although it's not a pre-requisite).

Of course, there's a downside. When I was a kid, I took piano lessons, for a month or two anyway. I was encouraged to read music, but it was far easier to just parrot what the teacher just played, and forget reading the music. Why bother? Reading music is much harder, and less natural.

I'll tell you why. When you're playing by ear, you're copying what you heard, and you'll be able to do it to some level of accuracy. It might be easy to do a perfect copy of a simple song, but harder for a complex song. You're doing a close approximation when you play by ear, and that's it. But... If you'd spent the time reading the music and learning the song the way it was intended, you'd have learned the technique to be able to play that song. You're forced to make your fingers play that thing, forced to learn how to get your brain to make the fingers do what you want... expanded your set of tools and techniques.

By day I'm a technical manager at a large software company here in Brisbane. One of my favourite technical blogs to read is Stevey's Blog Rants. I was pleased to discover he has a related problem in his post Done, and Gets Things Smart:

Having a good memory is a serious impediment to understanding. It lets you cheat your way through life. I've never learned to read sheet music to anywhere near the level I can play (for both guitar and piano.) I have large-ish repertoires and, at least for guitar, good technique from lots of lessons, but since I could memorize the sheet music in one sitting, I never learned how to read it faster than about a measure a minute. (It's not a photographic memory - I have to work a little to commit it to memory. But it was a lot less work than learning to read the music.) And as a result, my repertoire is only a thousandth what it could be if I knew how to read.

My memory (and, you know, overall laziness) has made me musically illiterate.

I'm kinda lazy too, and being able to play by ear, why bother with learning the theory and the mechanics? Because it makes you better, you dolt. I'm at the point in my life where I'm good enough at what I do music-wise to be happy with it, and I can't see myself prioritising proper music reading skills above everything else. I kinda wish I'd been more diligent when I had the time though.

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