Guide to Ear Training:
Robert T. Kelley
Note: This guide is an idealization of one technique of musical interpretation. As with any issue of performance practice, use of these principles must be tempered by a careful attention to the effect of one's interpretation on the sound of the music. Exaggeration of a "hearing" of a piece can lead to a mannered performance. It is important for performers to make liberal use of the critical ears of their colleagues, teachers, and friends before committing themselves to a particular way of playing a piece of music.
Quick Navigation of this Document:
- The Philosophical Basis for this Approach
- Detailed Outline of the Technique
- Background Research
- Score Study/Analysis
- Stylistic Categorization
- Learning the Music and Refining the Interpretation
- Listening Skills: When is the interpretation "right"?
- Finding the Poetry in the Music
The Philosophical Basis for this Approach
Any musical endeavor must begin with a basic knowledge of the composer and his/her world. The performer must also first have an "objective interpretation" upon which one then superimposes one's "subjective hearing" of the work. Once the task of learning and refining a piece is completed, the objective and subjective parts will not be entirely separable. It is essential, however, that the indications in the score be followed as part of the "objective" performance, and that rhythmic clarity is maintained through any superposition of interpretive elements (such as rubato). The procedure given here may seem pedantic, but it represents the most thorough approach to interpretation that one might need to follow. In many cases, entire steps in the process can be omitted, and decisions can be made based on one's experience with music over the years. Nevertheless, interpretive decisions must be made and must be decided carefully, even if certain aspects of the interpretation change from performance to performance. This guide is an unusual hybrid between a method for studying a piece and a questionnaire about the piece and one's playing. The questions are not just rhetorical. These are the questions every performer needs to be able to answer for any piece he/she is performing.
Detailed Outline of the Technique
- Research the composer
- Make certain you have an idea about the world the composer lived in, and what kinds of ideas made up the composer's aesthetic.
- How does this work fit into the composer's output? Into the music of the time it was written? Into the genre?
- For what audience was the work written? Was it chamber music? Concert music? Church music? Pedagogical music? How does today's audience differ from the audience that first heard this piece?
- Research the piece
- Find an authoritative edition of the score. What did the composer mark in the score, and what is editorial? Do you want to follow the editor's suggestions blindly? What does he/she know that you don't?
- Find analytical articles and books about the piece and study them.
- Label your score according to the analyses given (even if they disagree with each other or you disagree with them).
- What seems to be important about the piece in terms of its unique structural features?
- Listen to one or two recordings of the piece.
- Do you like the way the piece sounds?
- Most importantly, is this the right piece for you to be playing right now?
- Which performer seems to capture the essence of your background research the best?
- If you ever have trouble making interpretive decisions or coming up with interpretive ideas later in the study of the piece, do a more careful listening of several recordings. Either synthesize or react against the ideas you hear there.
- Do a motivic/thematic analysis of the piece
- What are the important themes and motives in the piece?
- Label all of their occurrences in the score.
- Do a thorough harmonic analysis of the piece.
- Are there any unusual chromatic pitches, chords, or key areas in the piece?
- How can you explain their presence?
- What might a performer do to show the significance of these excursions?
- Analyze the phrase structure of the piece? Is it:
- Symmetrical and periodic?
- Asymmetrical and motivic (sequential and fragmentary)?
- Asymmetrical and rhapsodic (long phrases with extended and unusual cadences)?
- Continuous and motor rhythmic (moto perpetuo)?
- How do you play these styles differently?
- Do a form analysis of the piece
- What is the form of the piece?
- Mark the large formal sections in the score
- Make sure the major divisions are evident in your performance.
- How do you create a sense of a break between two sections without distorting the rhythm?
- Technical/Compositional Analysis
- Are there any special compositional devices used in the piece?
- How can these be made intelligible to the audience in a performance?
- Label the emotional or referential characteristics of every different section of the piece. Does it sound like a march? dance? song? elegy? battle? hymn? happy? sad? angry? frustrated? pained? jubilant? Use your imagination.
- General Style
- What is the style of the piece as a whole?
- Is it High/Learned, Low/Popular, Ecclesiastical/Church, Serious or Comical, Tragic or Heroic?
- Make sure the entire piece is unified in its stylistic message, even if the style changes every few measures.
Learning the Music and Refining the Interpretation
- Make sure the most basic interpretive issues are decided before you learn the notes. You can always change your mind about interpretations later, but learning the music as an object, and then superimposing some interpretive ideas is far more difficult than learning the music with its gestures and style as part of the technique.
- Once the piece is memorized, record yourself and listen to your performance with the score. Keep all of your interpretive decisions in mind when you listen.
- Can you hear what you tried to do?
- Is it too exaggerated?
- Are there too many different ideas all working against each other, making the effect unclear?
- Are there not enough ideas so that the music sounds flat and uninteresting?
- How do you solve these problems?
- Repeat the process of listening and refining many times, and ask other people to listen to you and give you suggestions.
Listening Skills: When is the interpretation "right"?
- Listening ability is an acquired skill. Music study and analysis is ear training.
- Can you hear what you analyzed in the piece, even when you didn't try to bring it out?
- Can you hear things that might refute/refine what you analyzed in the score?
- You have to be able to hear what every voice is doing at any given time. The melody may often be the most important part of the music, but you must also listen for:
- Accompaniment patterns
- Are they well-shaped? too loud/quiet?
- Bass line
- Is it well-shaped? too loud/quiet?
- Is it shaped to show the harmonic goals in the music?
- Are all of the voices audible?
- Are the most important lines loudest?
- Are there too many "important lines" so that it sounds thick and muddled?
- Is the subject really the most important thing, or are the varying counterpoints to it what need to be heard?
- Does your articulation enhance the distinctiveness of the lines?
- Shape and dynamics
- Are your lines consistent or do notes stick out?
- It may be a problem with the piano. Can you compensate?
- Can you remember which notes have voicing problems throughout a performance?
- Can you control the loudest and quietest dynamic levels?
- Are your extremes too extreme? not extreme enough?
- Does the second note of a "sigh" figure match the dynamic of the decaying note or does it stick out too much?
- On piano articulation is entirely based on the dynamic of attack, the decay characteristic of the note, and (especially) the release of the note.
- You must be conscious of the release of every single note in the piece.
- Are your releases not crisp enough? too crisp?
- Do you ignore rests? in one hand? both hands? one voice?
- Do you want a legato touch? portato? staccato? somewhere in between?
- Do you want it to sound dry? full and rich? dark? bright? muddy?
- Is the pedal too muddy? too dry?
- Does the pedal ruin your articulation? obscure any important note releases or attacks?
- Can you make a legato without using the pedal instead?
- Is it too obvious when you put on or take off the soft pedal?
- Does the soft pedal sound bad? Can you fix it with how far down you press the pedal?
- Is the music too loud for soft pedal to sound good?
- Are you using the soft pedal to help you play quietly rather than to change the sound?
- Would a brighter sound be more appropriate even though it's quiet?
- Do you want a bright sound? dark sound?
- Are you bringing out the top, the middle, or the bottom most?
- How does your voicing change the sound?
- Do you want a change in tone? How do you accomplish the change you want?
- How prominent should the melody be? the accompaniment? the bass?
- Are you playing exactly evenly? Are there any "lumps" in the rhythm? Does it "swing" or lilt when it's supposed to be even?
- Do you cheat your rests? Make sure all silences are as long as marked or even just a fraction of a second too long. Also make sure your release defines the beginning of the rest. Do not let any sound bleed into the silence (except the resonance of your sound in the hall).
- Is the tempo too fast or too slow? Does it sound hurried? unhurried? labored? Should it?
- Is the piece the same tempo at the end as at the beginning or did you speed up and/or slow down in places? (This is very difficult to hear. Practice with a metronome. Record yourself and make sure you are really steady.)
- Does the rubato undermine the rhythmic clarity?
- Is there not enough rubato for the expressive quality of the piece?
- Did you ritard enough or does it sound breathless? Did you overdo any ritards?
- Are your loud passages faster than your quiet passages?
Finding the Poetry in the Music
- Music is poetic because of the ambiguity in it. It draws metaphors between different musical ideas. It also draws metaphors between musical ideas and extramusical ideas.
- Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet: "My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."
- Implicit metaphors/ambiguities are made in the poem from the conflicts between meter and actual text accentuation, and from association of disparate ideas through the devices of rhyme, alliteration, consonance, etc.
- Explicit metaphor is made in the poem between "lips" and "blushing pilgrims."
- Shakespeare didn't say "My lips are like two blushing pilgrims." He also didn't say "My lips are two blushing pilgrims." The equation between the two not-quite-equal images has already been made before Shakespeare formulates the statement about the two. This is how music makes metaphors: by association rather than expression of equality or similarity.
- Although "blushing pilgrims" stand for "lips", they both really stand for something else (because blushing pilgrims can't realistically be substituted for lips).
- This "something else" (the realm in which lips can be pilgrims?) is that which prose cannot capture (in only a few words), but poetry and music can.
- How is the piece you're playing poetic?
- Is the music you're playing absolute music? or are there extramusical associations?
- How does the music cause conflict or ambiguity between two ideas?
- Does the combination of motives, harmonies, themes, etc. create a musical "equation" between them?
- If musical ideas represent extramusical ones, why can't they really stand for non-musical things?
- What does the interaction of musical ideas mean about the interaction of the extramusical things that they represent? Is it realistically possible, or ambiguous?
- What do these associations between contrasting ideas actually stand for? (You need to decide this for yourself. Bernstein calls the meaning behind the ambiguity "Love/Death", but this is just one simplistic view. The meaning of the ambiguity in music will never be completely understood.)
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