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The Dumb Tune Game
'I play what I hear' is a statement that many aspiring guitarists have heard from players they idolize. A goal worth striving to attain would be the fingers performing sounds which the improvising soloist hears, but many guitarists often overrate their ability in this area.
As a guitar teacher, and having taught ear training at the college level, I've given some thought to what constitutes an instrumentalist's ear. Often, when a student claimed the ability to play what was heard, it usually indicated an ability to recall rehearsed ideas or licks. When presented with an opportunity to hear and play back ideas that were played by me, the results were typically quite different.
The intent of the exercise was not to stump anyone, but to test the actual ability to remember a new idea; to sense the actual control the student had to reproduce an idea vocally and to play it, without fumbling, on the instrument.
The ability to recall and sing a short melodic phrase was, in most instances, strong. The skill needed to play back the same musical idea without errors was often much weaker. The throat and vocal chords can shape sounds with ease. The fingers are not vocal chords and require some practice in order to develop a relationship with a musical instrument before they can begin to imitate the ease that nature provides the pitched human voice.
A formal education in ear training or solfege is most often taught without an instrument in hand, which makes sense. The ability to "hear the page" has value for a reading instrumentalist or composer but what value does it have for the non reader.
Wouldn't it be important for any guitarist to hear the instrument through the fingers? In improvisational music the ability to hear and express oneself is extremely important. There are guitarists who are proud to claim a knowledge of guitar that is not based on being able to read or even knowing the note names. Some players even demonstrate a reverse snobbery to an educated instrumentalist's confidence to being literate. When asked, "Can you read?" The reply has often been, "Not so much that it interferes with my playing." Perhaps that is why, more than any other family of instruments, there are so many fretted string players who claim pride in not knowing their instruments, or music, in conventional terms.
There is a way to connect both the academic approach and informal ways of learning by consciously relating 'ears' and the fingers. As a process, it can be used to develop skill in finding melodies and perhaps then lead to an awareness of all formal music skills. As a teaching technique, an instructor should include exercises that link ear-finger games, and standard music instruction. This would include learning to read music notation by writing down what the fingers hear. Lacking a better term for this method, I call this exercise the 'dumb tune game'.
A great deal of what we regard as ear is the ability to remember a given melody or tune. A melodic idea could be what has been heard from a CD, tape, or the recollection of a simple well known tune. Our heads are filled with diatonic melodies from the past which can be a resource for ear and finger coordination.
Diatonic tunes are those which can be found within one scale. These melodies are the basis for the dumb tune game. A scale could be defined as what is left over after all the interesting stuff has been deleted from a melody. The 'ups and downs' that make a melody interesting and identifiable have been removed, and what is left is a series of notes ascending by steps, like a ladder.
When a spoken word is written down, the pen records a curving line that has a recognizable meaning in a specific language. That is if the code is understood by the reader. Is it French, Spanish, etc. If the pen merely moves at an angle on the page, it has direction but lacks word meaning. The ups and downs of a melody also produce a curve that makes it recognizable and memorable.
Melodies make music, not scales. Scales are for analysis and study, tunes are interesting and fundamental to music.
The physical nature of any musical instrument creates different challenges. The guitar is not an easy instrument to hear. It does not have a symmetric repetition in the tuning. The tuning in fourths is broken by the inclusion of a third between the third and second string. The violin is tuned in perfect fifths so there is a repetition and regularity in the tuning that the performers' ear can use. Viola, cello, and string bass in the orchestra are all symmetrically tuned. In the fretted string instruments the mandolin and even the tenor banjo use the predictable regularity of the constant fifths tuning.
In addition, the guitar has six strings as compared to the instruments previously mentioned, which all have four. This means guitar has more physical locations to produced the same pitch in the same octave. In the middle register the same note can be found on a number of different strings. This leads to more choices with regard to which fingers can perform a melodic idea. Fingering choices are not a fundamental challenge for the saxophonist because the fingering of a given note is typically under the hand and played in the same location over and over. There is a link between sound and fingering which becomes second nature for the performer.
Even the piano, which has to include different fingering choices for the same pitch, has the logic of a repeating layout for each octave. The guitarist has to work at hearing the finger board because of the structure of the instrument, and the tuning, so it is important to develop a relationship between melodic fingerings and the ear.
Here's the game
Most fretted string players have rehearsed a scale fingering or two. After playing up and down the scale in order to tune to a favorite fingering, that is 1,2,3, etc. or do, re, mi, etc. (which we all probably sang in grade school), try the following. Think of a simple tune,' London Bridges', ' Mary Had a Little Lamb',' Happy Birthday', any easy tune, close the door, so no one overhears the dumb tune you've chosen.
Try to focus on which degree the melody starts on. Sing, don't play, up and down the scale until the sound of the starting note is identified. Each note of a scale has a relationship to the first degree or tonic note. Every note has a distinctive quality or musical meaning.
It is important to sense the identity of the first pitch. The last note of a melody is typically the tonic. Sing the first and last note. Sing up the scale until the first note is identified.
Then, as the melodic idea changes direction, by ascending and descending, envision the silhouette of a mountain range before you and move up or down as needed. A large mountain with steep sides could be a large leap up within the scale. Visualizing a gradual descending slope would represent moving down through scale tones, perhaps by step.
The important thing to do is not to find notes like a chicken finds grain in the barn yard, by pecking indiscriminately at every possibility. Try to hear ahead and feel if the leap is large or small and be sure to locate every degree or note, before you play it move the fingers with deliberation.
Imagine playing a simple tune like Happy Birthday at a birthday party and stumbling haphazardly on the melody and missing notes. It would be embarrassing! If we can sing it, we should practice hearing and finding notes without floundering.
By finding many simple melodies, within a scale fingering, a sub conscious ability to hear melodic passages develops. The fingerings of any melody needn't be restricted to typical fingerings found in books. Try experimenting finding tunes on a single string, or on a chosen set of strings.
The second part of the game would be to transpose the tune through the circle of fifths. Simply put, the circle of fifths can be thought of as counting backwards through the musical alphabet five letter names. Starting with c, it would be, c, b, a, g, ending with the note f.
The tuning of the guitar makes the chromatic scale available within five frets. If all the notes we typically use can be found within the chromatic scale then all scales are related to it. All the notes of any given scale can be seen to be part of the chromatic scale.
That leads to the conclusion that every scale exists within the same five fret range. So, the simple melody can now be played in all keys by transposing the example through the circle of fifths. If the tune started on the fifth of the scale, the last note of tune is usually the first note in a key a fifth lower.
If 'London Bridge' starts on the fifth in the key of C then the last note is C which would then be the fifth in the new key of F. This is an opportunity to hear a simple melody in every key, learn to transpose, and increase the knowledge of the finger board.
A third variation of the game would be to find the melody in each position on the finger board, while remaining in the same key. The problem with position thinking is the narrow definition it is given in most method books. Position is typically determined by the placement of the first finger. If it is behind the fifth fret, it is fifth position, seventh fret, seventh position.
In addition, guitarists are asked to restrict the concept of position to four fingers on four adjacent frets. This doesn't take into account that it takes five frets to play a two octave chromatic scale from the sixth to the first string while remaining in position.
The problem is, we don't have five fingers. In order to perform most scales, a five fret playing area should be considered the total range of a given position. Playing notes beyond four adjacent frets, requires stretching or shifting up or down by a fret.
Thinking this way doesn't change the idea of position. It expands it, and challenges guitarists to reach with the fingers rather than moving the entire hand.
Playing a tune in each position provides an opportunity to hear and compare which fingering works best for the musical phrase to be performed.
The fourth part of the game creates another challenge. Make a list of simple tune titles. Starting in the middle of the finger board, choose a note on the third or fourth string and play it with any finger. The starting note and finger remains the same through all of the tunes, no matter what degree of the scale the new tune begins with.
The quality or meaning of the first note is important and this game puts emphasis on hearing and identifying the starting degree. Those guitarists who read, and have acquired a number of fake books, the song index is a ready made catalog of tunes.
They may not be simple, but playing the tunes listed in the front of the fake book is a greater challenge. It helps to develop the coordination of the fingers and a musical ear on the finger board. It is also tests the memory of the tunes listed.
Certainly it makes sense to practice finding melodies in the privacy of your practice room and it does make musical sense to start with the dumb tunes that everyone knows before tackling that difficult and inspiring solo by a great artist.
Start with hearing and finding the easy stuff and work toward the difficult. If the 'Saints Come Marching In' is an elusive melody, a solo by bebop star or heavy metal wizard can be more than demanding. It would even be counter productive.
The dumb tune game is similar to learning to swim the width of the pool before tackling the English channel. Success finding easy tunes helps the ear to evolve and builds confidence, and courage, to work on the ultimate solo. In a creative moment, the ultimate solo could be a new melody. One that you hear in your head and play with fingers willing to perform faithfully.
Good luck with the dumb tune game.
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