Hello all!

The blog is finally back up and running after far too many months. I’m planning on posting a list of all of the musical/life events that occured over the past two seasons (I miss the Texas winter and spring more and more as we slowly approach surface of the sun temperatures), but I figured a purely musical post would be appropriate to get the ball rolling again.

Anyways, on to the music:

This past Monday, Lindby’s bassist and my good friend, Kyle Claset,  gave his Theory Capstone Presentation. For those of you who haven’t delved too deeply into the world of Music Theory majors, a capstone is the equivalent of a senior recital.

Performance majors put on concerts to show their skills. Composition majors (like myself) have a bunch of different people perform their portfolio of works. Theory majors write epic papers (backed up by powerful powerpoint presentations) and argue a certain, specific point in a certain realm of the musical world.

As an example, Kyle tried to persuade his audience of professors and peers that a new type of sonata should be acknowledged and classified alongside the existing five types. The meat of his argument came from providing musical examples that fit into multiple categories and could not be constrained by one classification.

It was certainly a compelling argument and really got me thinking about the nature of compositon versus theory. Creation versus definition. Chaos versus order.

As a composer, I have a natural bias that would have me leaning towards the idea that compostion came before theory. The first mental image I conjure up is that of our ancient ancestors sitting around creating rhythms with primitive drums and perhaps singing in form or another.

However, if I look at it from Kyle’s point of view, I would have to admit that the very act of defining rhythm and providing even the most basic of structures would reside in the world of theory.

It’s very much in the vein of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Kyle and I have actually discussed how the ideas of composition and theory are essentially at war with each other. Composers create what they feel/think sounds good. Theorists try to make sense of it and define it. Of course, even though they’re at war with each other, one could never exist without the other.

And upon further thought, this conflict between the two arts actually helps both of them progress forward towards further innovation.  Composers always want to break new ground and come up with ideas that have never been tried. This partially stems from the fact that theory has defined and classified what has already been done. If a composer succeeds at this goal, then theorists suddenly have a plethera of new work ahead of them. It goes hand in hand, and one fire basically feeds the other.

It’s ying and yang. It’s life and death. It’s order and chaos. It’s the power and drive of opposites.

It’s theory and composition: the backbone of the musical world.

-Spurrier

Ear training: the bane of so many music majors existence.

Why though? Ear training, when properly learned and acquired, completely transforms the way music is heard, analyzed, and appreciated. One would believe that any musician would greedily and quickly absorb as much of this skill as possible.

It boils down to this one main problem: the methodology in which ear training is taught. Now, before I continue, I must point out that I am not aware of how every music department in the nation (let alone world) instructs and conveys ear training. I speak from my personal experience and the experiences that have been passed on to me through friends, colleagues, mentors, teachers, etc.

At UTA, our primary ear training activities boiled down to six tasks:

  1. Interval training – This means that our professor would play an interval (anything and everything between a half step and two octaves once we reached the most advanced level), and we would have to identify it using only our ears. Certain tricks were employed to make this easier (i.e. the first two notes of “Here Comes The Bride” dictate a perfect fourth while the first two notes of the three note NBC theme reveal a major sixth).
  2. Chord identification – Different triads and seventh chords would be played in different shapes and positions, and, again, our ears would have to provide an answer.
  3. Melodic dictation –  A single voice melody would be played multiple times, and we would have to dictate this melody onto staff paper using the interval training, from above, to help guide us through the process.
  4. Harmonic dictation – A series of four note chords would be played, and we would have to identify the types of chords (in relation to the given key signature) as well as the highest and lowest pitches of each chord (the human ear is naturally most drawn to high pitches followed by low pitches – any pitches in the middle are easy to lose and difficult to identify).
  5. Rhythmic dictation –  Our professor would tap out a rhythmic pattern on the lid of the piano while we would write it down.
  6. Sight singing – This required us to sing a short melody (just with our professor in his/her office – luckily not with the rest of the class) in solfege (Do Re Mi, etc.) with only the beginning pitch as a reference.

Now I have nothing against these six features of modern ear training. I do, however, have two suggestions.

First, hold the students to a higher standard. Ear training, by far, required the most effort on my part, but that effort only went as far as to achieve an A. I find myself wishing they would have forced us to go farther while we were still in the school, so the real world would be that much more open in terms of how we perceive it.

For those of you who have been (or are) in ear training, you are likely cursing the ideas in the previous paragraph. “Harder ear training?!? Never!” I understand your reservations. This is where part two of the modified equation begins.

Second, give us some context. Everything in ear training, at the moment, revolves around Do (the tonic or first note of a scale). This is all well and good in practice, but go to the real world and suddenly Do carries a lot less weight.

Here’s a short example: in class, Do to La (the first two notes in the NBC theme from earlier) might come quite naturally. Major sixths seem like a piece of cake. Then one day, you listen to a song and want to figure out a riff or solo. That riff or solo might have a major sixth in it, but it might not be from Do to La. If that first note isn’t a Do, then you suddenly have lost all of your grounding that has been repetitively beaten into you back in class.

For those of you who would like a less theory intensive example: imagine you’re learning a foreign language. Ear training would represent the process of learning single words and phrases. Helpful, but it won’t get you very far in when you travel across the seas to a new land when you need to carry on entire conversations and survive.

So how would this extra context work in ear training? Simple: have the students play along with other music. This could come from one’s personal music collection, the radio, or even as an assignment from a professor (i.e. go home, listen to this sonata, and try to play along as best as you can).

Going back to the foreign language comparison: it would be the same idea as moving to a foreign country and completely immersing oneself into the language. People always say that that’s the quickest and most successful method in becoming fluent. Why couldn’t the same be said for training one’s ears in a musical fashion?

So, if you find yourself in an ear training class, do yourself a favor: turn on the radio and start jamming. You’ll be thankful you did.

-Spurrier