Playing from music and playing by ear

Classical musicians play from music. The only classical musicians who don't play from music tend to be soloists. Most Jazz musicians, many folk musicians and the majority of Pop function band musicians play by ear. Why is this?

The immediate practical reason is that typical function covers band will play a relatively small number of songs. Probably enough to perform for a few hours. Conversely a String Quartet or orchestral player will play many hours of music. I worked the numbers out for myself a few years ago. I calculated that if I played 8 hours a day for a month, 7 days a week for a month, I still wouldn't get through all the repertoire I've played as a String Quartet player and as an orchestra and barn dance band musician.

Pop music is also very different to classical music. Pop songs, at least the good ones that last and last, are in some ways like a TV ads. They are short, very much to the point, and beautifully crafted. The music tends to have a limited number of variations, and may well be repeated a number of times if the song as verses. Conversely a piece of classical music is long and complicated. Its structure develops, there are many repeats of themes that tend to come with modifications each time. This makes it rather difficult to learn. Although soloists do learn whole concertos, they will spend vast amounts of time learning the music, and in terms of hours of performance will have probably a similar length of performance ability without music to the typical function band.

So what about jazz musicians. Some of the jazz bands on our site have over 800 pieces of music in their repertoire. How on Earth do they remember all this. Well, they're not remembering it in the same way. What they have to remember is the main theme. Some band remember this, but most will have a pad which has the basic outline of the theme. The skill of jazz musician is to improvise on that theme so they can extend something that might last for just a few seconds into 5 or 10 minutes of music.

So finally there is the folk musician. Many who regard themselves as ‘ true folkies’ can't read music. They are fine musicians, but couldn't read a tune from dots to save their life. The same applies to some function and party band musicians, although this genre tends to include a broad range of musicians from classically trained dot followers to the play by ear people. Returning to the folk musicians particularly those who play in ceilidh and barn dance bands, tend to have a limited repertoire, probably a few hours of repetitive music but certainly not days or months worth of music.

There is also a difference between the nationalities. Irish Ceilidh Bands tend to play without music, deriving historically from music and dancing in the home or pub. Scottish Ceilidh Bands often play with music, as the background of the music is much more classical.

It isn't always appreciated that a lot of Scottish 'traditional folk' is really from the Victorian era, with great names, like the fiddle player Scott Skinner appearing regularly at the London Paladium in the 1800's. Even pieces like 'The Sword Dance' which many think goes back into the dim annals of history, were composed by Scott Skinner. Many of his arrangements of the older Scottish tunes have variations that are remarkably reminiscent of the Kreutzer violin studies, indicating that Mr Skinner was a classically trained violinist. (Rudolphe  Kreutzer was a French violinist and composer, who lived 1766 - 1831, and is known today for his violin studies, a core training aid for any professional violinist. Scott Skinner's dates are 1843 to 1927, describing himself as a Scottish Dancing Master, violinist and fiddler. I have a book of his, with a picture of him looking bearded and important on the front cover, with the 'modest' words "Talent does what it can, Genius does what it must." And certainly his compositions are performed most effectively when played with a large degree of arrogance!

English Barn Dance bands tend to be in between. A Morris or very traditional band will tend to play simple and repetitive tunes and are almost always played by ear. At the other extreme are Playford Country Dances, where often the music is notated for what is effectively a small orchestra.

So there are these two distinct camps, those who primarily read music and those who primarily play by ear. Some people can do both, and I admire them, I can't. I think it depends to an extent on the way a person has been taught and the neural pathways that have been built up in their brains as the result of their method of learning.

Playing a musical instrument doesn't come naturally to anyone. It is a strange process, which has not been developed by the evolutionary processes that shape much of our existence, but is an invented process. Learning to play an instrument starts off with slow and deliberate conscious effort. You have to learn the layout of the instrument, what buttons to press, where to blow, how to scrape the bow across the strings, where on the strings to place your fingers to achieve certain sounds. This is a slow and painful process. (In the case of learning a violin, which is a very unnatural instrument to play, a pupil has to learn to go into contortions with their arms and hands to get into a position where they can play the notes. I remember this being painful for at least the first five or six years of learning.)

As with anything we practice, whether it is as a toddler learning how to walk, learning to change gear and drive a car, the first attempts are slow and cumbersome, there are many falls and mistakes, but gradually little by little the automatic or subconscious part of the brain begins to learn the process, the physical moves, and the links between sensory signals and physical motions.

When learning to walk, a toddler is learning the geometry of their legs and feet, what muscles achieved what functions in movement, and how to co-ordinate information from their balance sensors, muscular and joint sensors, and visual sensors ( eyes) to achieve the correct muscle responses to enable stable walking. With practice, the subconscious or automatic part of the brain begins to build neural networks that hardwire the whole walking action.

Now we are adults, when we walk we don't think about how to do it. Indeed if we do think about walking, it becomes cumbersome. Think of this example. If I put a plank of wood on the ground and asked you to walk along it, you would look at me rather strangely, but walk the length of the plank with no trouble. However if I put that same plank on scaffolding 5 floors high on a building, so that you could see all the way down to the ground and asked you to do the same thing, unless you were a builder or a rock climber, you would look at me askance and if you dare to do it at all, you would probably wobble your way across the plank, ending up on the other side sweating with fear and gasping for breath.

What is the difference? The difference is that when the plank is on the Ground, you are not worried and you are allowing your automatic or subconscious part of your brain to control your muscles to walk, automatically taking information from your balance and other sensors. However, when you are up on the scaffolding you are scared. We humans tend to think that the Conscious part of our mind is the real important part of my mind that has control of us. (This is actually the reverse of reality. It is the automatic subconscious part of our mind that really controls our whole being, with the conscious part being a relatively small, logical judgement kind of facility tacked on top.)

So what is going on in your mind is somewhat analogous to what is happening in a computer. The computing that goes on in your laptop within the operating system and in the invisible, if you like ‘subconscious’ parts of a program, happen very fast. The bits that you are aware of, i.e. what is shown on the screen, which can be considered as analogous to the Conscious part of a person's mind, is very slow and hardware intensive.

So it is with walking across the plank. If you let your subconscious mind do the walking, and don't interfere with it, it is using the subconscious neural wetware to run its ‘programs’. (The brain doesn't have programs as such because neural networks are effectively hard-wired systems that include the equivalent of software. Neural networks can be implemented electronic hardware or programs to simulate neural networks with an ordinary computers. The equivalent is wetware which is implemented in biological neurons.)

The subconscious wetware is extremely fast in operation, and control the muscles relative to sensory inputs are sufficiently fast that you walk steadily.

When you're frightened and interfering with your conscious mind, the whole process is slowed down. You wobble from side to side simply because your muscles are not reacting to your balance sensor inputs sufficiently fast to give proper stability. On top of this, the fear reaction causes physiological changes, which tense muscles, increase heart and respiration rate. It is doing things that might be appropriate if you're running from a tiger In The Wild, but is not very appropriate for the precise job of balancing on the plank.

(If you are a builder or a mountain climber, you have learnt not to worry about walking on the plank. In effect you would let the subconscious part of your mind do the job of walking for you just as if you were walking along a pavement. This is why a builder of climer can walk safely in areas that most of us would be dangerous in.)

So, going back to learning to walk. When you learn to walk you are programming your automatic subconscious part of your brain to do the job of walking without your conscious thought. The process builds up connections in the neural networks of your brain, which do the job of walking efficiently.

Interestingly, some animals are born with this knowledge already programmed into their brains. This means they can run from danger within hours of being born. In other words the neural networks are already genetically in place. This is not the case with humans, probably because our evolutionary advantage has been that of flexibility, so that we can cope with changing environments and situations better than most animals. The downside of this is that humans have a long learning, and have very few inbuilt hardwire capabilities compared with animals who can fly run and walk or swim from birth.

Let us now go back the question of learning to play a musical instrument. Darwinian evolution has not equipped us to automatically be able to play a violin or a trumpet or electric guitar. Some mothers may thing their little darlings are geniuses from birth and pop out of the woomb with a silver flute in their mouth, but this is just motherly fantasy. The reality is we learn to play musical instruments in much the same way as we learn to walk.

Indeed it is a similar process in some ways to learning to speak, though there are apperently certain built language capabilities that are perhaps more fundamental than the capabilities of physical motion actions like walking or playing a musical instrument.

You may have heard of Suzuki, that is the violin teacher Suzuki. I'm not the manufacturer of motorbikes. There is a Suzuki method of violin teaching. The first sentence in his book says something to the effect of, “All Japanese children can speak Japanese, therefore in Japanese children can play the violin.” Isn't that a wonderful logical Japanese type statement. What he is saying is that playing a musical instrument is just the same sort of learning process as many other processes that we go through and take for granted. This teaching method is known for the spectacular performances given by very young children, entirely without music. But more on this in another of my ramblings, yet to be written..............

So, I learned to play the violin from a teacher who taught me a few simple tunes like twinkle twinkle little star, then started to teach me simple music notation. He did this because he was an orchestral player, a predominantly classical player, and knew that if I was to progress to play the range of repertoire needed as a classical musician, I would need to read music as perfectly as I can read English language in a book.

The result was the formation of the neural networks in my brain that allow me now to play a violin at a speed that is beyond conscious dictation, react to errors in intonation faster than I could consciously achieve, and to read music without looking at the individual dots.

All these tasks have a specific linkage. The linkage is too look at musical notation, and from that create the sound of the music in my head, while simultaneously moving fingers hands and arms to achieve that notation on the instruments.

When playing a new piece of music, I will be actively looking at the music notation, though not consciously at individual dots. I'll be scanning the music and the information will be going from the eyes to the relevant neural networks That is faster than I can consciously think about it. This process only slows down when I mess things up and I can hear that the music is wrong. At that point you stop, look at the notes carefully, play through it very slowly so that the meaning can be absorbed by the brain through the Conscious pathways, then played faster, then play it again without any real conscious involvement. So the whole process starts by visual input from the musical notation. Once a piece of music is known reasonably well, one hardly look at the details of the notation, but it is a guide to the form of the music. Without it I find that I quite quickly go astray. Furthermore, and here is the problem for a musician trained like I have been, that process of visual input connecting to physical emotions, ie the playing of notes, needs to be intact. If that link in the chain is removed, the fingers no longer fly around to the right places, they both no longer moves to the right strings.

The neural networks have been built up to take a specific set of sensory inputs and translate those to a specific set of physical output, ie the physical playing of the instruments. The sensory inputs are eyes, ears, and memory of the piece of music. ( Although memory is not a sensory input in that it doesn't come from the sensor, from the point of view of the brain it doesn't really care where the data comes from. It is just as real if it comes from memory as if it comes from the ears of the eyes. This is indeed one of the reasons why hypnosis works, a subjects covered in another of my ramblings.)

So because the neural networks have been built up in this way, if somebody says play this piece of music by ear it can be very difficult. I've been personally very embarrassed at folk festivals, where I've been playing, and people hopefully regard me as a good musician, when a true folky comes up to me and says “ that was great, here's a new tune, let's play it together”. They play it to me once, and expect me to play it back to them, probably with variations. I just go blank, my only defence is that I can probably play 5 or 6 days of folk music, and they can't, but it doesn't help the embarrassment.

What about the learning process for the person who plays by ear and doesn't play my music. The learning process has been the same from the point of view of the brain, but the sensory inputs have been different. One of them has been missing ie the visual input of musical notation. The inputs are the ears and internal memory only. As with a person who becomes blind and finds their hearing becomes super acute, the person who has no visual input for their music finds that their ears and memory of what they have heard becomes super cute. They can hear the tune, play it from memory, probably improvise from the thoughts that come into their head as result of their memory. And play a much larger repertoire from memory than I ever could. However if one is looking for pure volume of music, there can never be a match to learning to play from music. Not reading music can also be a handicap to playing with other people. For simple tunes playing by ear is great, but for complex multi part music, like a String Quartet piece or orchestral piece, it would be hopeless.

But what about the jazz musician? Such people have a foot in both camps, or at least in the ideal World. They can play together in groups of three or four five or six piece jazz band even though there is not musical notation. Why is this when I've just said that you couldn't improvise a String Quartet piece. I think it's very much that there are very strict rules for jazz. Is regarded as free easy and improvised, but in reality there is a well learnt protocol that enables the group to work together in the ways that it does. When you get into a bigger band size, then the music will be notated, as for a jazz big band. There may be improvised solos in amongst it, but to get the whole team working together and achieving a satisfying result, it has to be codified.

This may sound as an excuse for my inability to play by ear. Well yes, in part it is, probably in very large part. But I believe there is a lot of truth in what I've written. Some people, and I am jealous of them, can do both very efficiently. They can play with music and they can play without music. It has to be the result of a learning process that embraced both ways of playing all through the building of the brain’s neural netwoks. I take my hat off to them and accept my limitations.

However, humans can continue to learn. They have long-term brain plasticity, where neurones with their axons and dendrite can be reconnected and reprogrammed in a way that cannot be done with many animals, for example sheep. So there is a chance for me. I would say a very slim chance, as the compunction is not as strong as it would need to be. But nevertheless, a chance.

So, next time you play your piano, trumpet of violin, think of all this going on inside your head. Or perhaps, you had better not, and just enjoy the music!