Most people assume that only a musical genius could listen to a piece of music and instantly know how to play it in any key. But what I will try to show you in this article is that this "genius" is available to all of us. In fact, it's nothing more than the ability to clarify sensations that every one of us already perceives every time we listen to music. To show you what I mean, let's look for a moment at how composers actually communicate with listeners.
Every composer uses sounds for one reason only. Each sound makes the audience feel a particular sensation, and the composer wants to lead the audience through these sensations in a particular way. For example if a piece of music is written in a minor tonality with lots of dark and sad chords, the audience can feel this. The audience can feel the difference between major and minor.
Similarly, the audience also perceives perfectly the sensations of tension and release in the music they hear. The way Western harmony works is that at every moment during a piece of music, the listener feels a certain attraction toward a particular note. This note is called the tonal center. But it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Just think of it as a gravitational center that exerts a force of attraction on you. Essentially your subconscious mind longs to relieve its tension by returning to this tonal center. Every sound you hear that is not this tonal center produces a kind of tension in your mind. Some of these sounds are more tense than others, but each one produces a very specific sensation in your mind and body.
In addition to these feelings, at any given instant during a musical performance the audience is also subconsciously aware of exactly seven notes that make up the music’s tonality at this moment. This is perhaps the most “hidden” of your subconscious abilities because you kind of have to go digging around in your mind a bit in order to discover that you are in fact imagining exactly seven notes.
But what all this amounts to is that if you want to understand music, the very first role model you should strive to emulate in your musical career is a surprising one: the audience. The audience already perceives essentially everything there is to know about any particular piece of music. And if you think about it, this makes perfect sense. In fact it couldn’t be any other way. Why would composers put sounds in their compositions if the audience weren’t capable of perceiving them?
Understanding begins with listening
The mistake we make as musicians is in thinking that “understanding music” is a project that should take us off in some different direction from the experience of the audience. Our teachers convince us to abandon our role as listeners and focus our attention on theories and formulas. But the path to understanding music starts with the very same experience that the casual listeners in the audience are already enjoying.
We musicians don’t need to go off and join some strange cult in order to learn the secrets of music. If we want to understand music more deeply than the people sitting around us in the audience, we just need to listen more closely. Our experience is not different from theirs. It is only deeper. Our road to musical understanding begins with recognizing and clarifying the very same sensations that everybody else in the audience is already feeling. By becoming aware of these natural processes that already occur in your mind and body when you listen to music, you can discover the secret of those musical geniuses who immediately know how to play any piece of music that they hear.
Learn how to instantly feel the tonality in any piece of music
You can begin this process right now. Here is a simple exercise that you can do anytime you listen to music. Try it first with very simple music like Christmas carols, folk songs, country music, children’s songs, etc. The exercise consists of trying to consciously feel the song’s tonality and the tonal center:
1. Listen to the song with your full attention for at least one full minute. Don’t think about anything else. Just relax and enjoy the song and really listen.
2. Shut off the music if you can, or move away from it physically so that you don’t hear it so loudly anymore. (Do this quickly because we don’t want to lose the sensation of the music in our mind.)
3. Sing a note that you can clearly remember from the song. It could be the last note you heard or it could be the sound of any particular word or phrase. But try to remember the sensation of one particular note and sing it to yourself.
4. Now try to imagine a note one step lower than this one. But don’t think about it too much! If you think too hard you will be able to imagine some other scale that has nothing to do with the music you just listened to. Just relax and move downward to whatever seems to be the next lower note you hear in your mind. Then move down another note, then another, etc.
5. Keep coming down until you reach what you feel to be the most “final” note of the whole bunch. This is the note that makes you feel a sensation of permanent relaxation. For example when the song ends, this note would be a good choice for the last note.
If you can get as far as step 4, and you are able to clearly imagine a whole series of notes after listening to a song, then what you have clarified for yourself is the song’s tonality. Essentially, you have abstracted from the song the seven notes from which the entire song is made. As you move down through your singing range you might actually sing a lot more than seven notes. But all you are really doing is simply repeating the seven notes of the tonality in different octaves. You may not realize that there are exactly seven notes but that doesn’t matter right now. The exciting thing about this exercise is simply discovering that the notes which make up the entire harmonic environment of a song become automatically separated, organized and stored in your subconscious mind whenever you listen to music.
This means that despite the bewildering jumble of sounds and sensations flooding in through your ears, somewhere in your mind there is a set of seven neat little boxes where you will find precisely the seven notes from which the entire song is made. This is an organizational feat that you could never pull off consciously. It would be impossible to consciously recognize and sort out the notes that make up all those chords and melodies. But even absolute beginners (including little children) can perfectly sing the seven notes that make up the tonality of any song, simply by relaxing and allowing themselves to imagine whatever notes “occur to them.” Take advantage of this internal process that is available to you. Look within yourself to clarify the notes that make up the tonality of every song you hear. You don’t have to name the notes or understand them in any way. Just hear them in your mind and sing them to yourself.
Feeling the tonal center
Step 5 of the exercise challenges you to decide for yourself which of the seven notes is the tonal center. This may or may not be clear to you. If you don’t feel any particular note as the tonal center, then just turn the music back on again. As you listen to the music, ask yourself the question, “Which of these notes or chords sounds like the ground floor of the song’s harmony, the place where everything is relaxed and final?” If you still don’t feel it, just keep listening. Almost every song ends by returning to the tonal center. So you can actually teach yourself what the tonal center feels like just by waiting until the end of every song and noticing that moment. The sensation you have in your body when you hear the last chord of a song is what the tonal center feels like.
Now you won’t always be successful in performing this exercise with any particular song. In fact in your first few attempts you might not even get past step 3 (imagining clearly one single note from the song). But if that’s as far as you get in the beginning, then just keep taking the exercise to step 3. The important thing is to be actively in search of these sensations within yourself. Remember that it is not about guessing how the music works. It’s about noticing what the music is already doing inside your body.
Once you are able to connect with the seven notes of a song’s tonality inside your own mind, you can even try improvising your own melodies with these notes. All you have to do is allow yourself to drift gently from one note to another while the music plays in the background. You will notice that some notes attract your ear more than others as the chords in the background change. You don’t need to understand the details of why this happens. You can just enjoy letting yourself flow with the music, moving around between the different notes that you can clearly hear in your mind. Many people who have never sung an improvised melody in their lives are astounded to discover that they can do it effortlessly, just as soon as they are able to hear these notes that seem to appear magically inside our own musical imagination.
How to play any piece of music by ear
How does this awareness enable us to instantly play any piece of music we hear? The answer lies in taking our contemplation of these seven sounds one step further: we learn to name them. This is actually very easy once you understand what these seven notes really are. These seven sounds that automatically appear in your mind whenever you hear a piece music are actually just the seven notes of the major scale. Learning to hear the major scale in the music all around you is the first step to learning to recognize both chords and melodies by ear. If this is an ability you would like to develop for yourself, the complete method is taught in the book Improvise for Real.
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