Nature’s way of learning music



If you’ve read the last couple of posts on “how musical is a beginner“, they may make you realise at a conscious level how well equipped nature has made us all for interacting with music. The underlying capabilities are something we don’t think about at all, such as latching on to rhythm, remembering melodies, hearing notes relative to each other, moving our body in time to the rhythm even if the music stops for a bit. We can hear when something is slightly out of tune.

For the above, the sense that is most involved is your hearing. That along with touch and taste are the very first senses that a newborn baby utilises. Primarily, hearing and responding to sound is our initial experience of the world … recognising the mother’s voice or song. Sight develops a bit later. As regards music, the ability to understand musical sounds (language) develops gradually. Recognition and memory of melody develops. Dancing, clapping, in time, develops … all in our early years. Relative pitch capability develops … when the melody all moves up or down by the same amount in pitch, we recognise the same melody, and maybe not even register that it has changed in pitch. When notes in the melody are changed in pitch relative to what they used to be, we recognise this .. .we know a change has occurred. We can hear how music ebbs and flows with energy, created by the melody and chords present. We anticipate what is coming up (maybe wrongly) Our emotions are pulled along by this.

But as a non-musician, we don’t know note names … these are artificial, abstract concepts. We don’t know how to name the sounds we hear. We don’t know this collection of notes is a chord, and that it is a “dominant 7” chord. We don’t know how to create these sounds on instruments. But we can feel its effect.

The last skills we (may) develop are reading and writing. As relates to interacting with music (as a listener), these are unnecessary.

And there are certain features of our brain, to do with memory, which means that we don’t deal well with randomness … our brains are always on the look out for structure. For example, what’s easier to remember: 719883520416 or 111222333444? In the context of music, this means that random notes, or randomly put together chords, aren’t going to connect well with listeners, and they aren’t going to remember it.

The brain is a huge consumer of energy … it does its best to reduce this by paying attention to sudden changes in the environment. Little attention is spent on what’s familiar. Attention goes to differences that stand out. Trying to make sense of randomness in the environment is hard work, and if this doesn’t have any danger associated with it, gets filtered out by the brain.

Again, this relates to music … here are a few ways to make a sound stand out. A note that follows silence. The last note before silence again. A note that’s in a different register to the others around it. A loud note. A sudden drop or increase in volume. A change in sound (such as a pick-up change on guitar). A longer note. These all give clues as to the approach to take when using a clashing, tense sounding note, or chord. Make it stand out all the more, as above? Or do the opposite to smuggle it in, so the listener is sort of aware of it as a bit of ear candy?


Traditional approach to teaching music

Now think about the traditional approach to formally teach music. The first couple of things we are taught are note names and music notation. The first thing. How does that compare to the sense nature gave us to interact with music from near-birth? The formal approach is completely in reverse order.

My school’s music education was a farce. My first lesson, aged 12(?) involved us being handed sheet music, with lyrics, and being told “sing that” … only problem being none of us had been taught to read music. I had a vague notion that where the dots went up, so should my voice. (I think we invented punk music then). My second lesson involved being given a couple of pages of music for an orchestra, and being told to listen and follow the music on the notation. Sadly, at that point, I was put off classical music for decades, and committed to all things rock, blues and folk. (I do listen to classical now, and many other genres).

Consequently, it has never made any sense to me that we are expected to learn another language (music notation) so we learn the language we want (music), if we just want to enjoy playing as a hobby, or have no need, even professionally, to read music.

A natural approach?

Why not fully utilise the skills and senses we’ve developed from early on, instead, …sound, sight, touch,naming … but allow for the fact that the first three of these can effectively be merged ? Musical sounds are comprised of intervals … an interval is comprised of just two notes, some relative distance apart … which we perceive in semitones (and also at a much finer granularity). Each different interval (there are only twelve used in Western music withn an octave) that fretted stringed instruments and piano and wind and brass instruments can produce (ignoring bending strings very slightly or overblowing).

Following nature, we’d learn the sounds of these intervals (each has its own unqiue sound), and associate that viusally with our instrument (as in guitar say) and hand shapes, and finger motions, required to create these. We use these to guide our way around our instrument … even with no knowledge of note names (a melody can always be stated as located at various intervals from some known, but un-named location on-instrument… and then gradually add knowledge of where notes are located.

This is what natural learning is for guitar (piano and so on). And the bare bones of theory are intervals and how they are put together, Theory books spend a few pages on intervals, maybe, and then these are discarded in favour of notation.

Don’t get me wrong … music notation is amazingly powerful for capturing every little nuance for how a piece is to performed, based on which the performer adds his or her interpretation. Nothing else written down comes close. And I have huge respect for musicians that excel with notation. Yet I have friends that can play Charlie Parker solos note-perfect from notation, immediately, but can’t can’t improvise a single note when there’s no notation. That seems inherently wrong to me. But I love improvising, on the fly. My friends above are very happy with their skills. For me it is precisely all this detail in the notation that hides the wood (some concept) for the trees, which is what needs being made clear when first encountering some new concept.

Guitar tab, on the other hand, is all about location on-instrument, and often the nuances of how it should be played, physically (such as picking, hamer-ons, bends and so on). But this often ends up with music being played parrot fashion, with no understanding of note choice. For many folk, this is all they need to fulfill their enjoyment playimg guitar. For many others, this ultimately leads to frustration, as problems set in when they can’t improvise how they’d like to.

Does this natural approach work?

To get people started, but based on knowledge that can be explained this way, it absolutely works, and very quickly. The danger being the knowledge will quicky outstrip the mechanical abilities, unless focused technique practice accompanies this (which it should).

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