Playing by ear

I’ve led two composition projects recently that worked with just a limited range of pitches, and it’s interesting to see how this restriction helps the participants hone in their aural skills and pitch awareness.

The first project was with teenagers at Signal. Linked to the Australian Art Orchestra’s ongoing collaboration with musicians from South India, we developed an original composition that took inspiration from one of the AAO’s movements of the work Into The Fire, borrowing a mode, a tala (like a time signature), some melodic phrases, and some structural ideas and rhythmic patterns.

The mode had 6 pitches ascending and 5 pitches descending. We learned it aurally, slowly, and got the participants to improvise on it and invent short patterns and phrases. Later, when we began to teach melodic material that was taken directly from the original (again, aurally), I was impressed by how quickly the group found the pitches and memorised the phrases. They were already becoming sensitive to the ‘taste’ of the different pitches within the mode, and their relationships with each other. Or if they weren’t, they were getting better at making more accurate educated guesses as to which note in the 5-6-note mode was being played.

That group was a jazz and improvisation group so perhaps their ears were more ready to be put to use. The following week, with a group of classically-trained younger musicians at ArtPlay (aged 9-14 years), we were creating short sections of music using only the notes of the Aeolian mode (A to A on the white notes of the piano, A natural minor). The group was tired, and uncertain how to proceed. I reminded them, “We’re only using these 7 notes! You don’t need to guess, just notice if it is going up or down from where you already are, and if it moves by step or by leap. Then find the note. And listen for its flavour!”

A little while later, I felt a shift in the group. We’d reached a section in the music where I wanted everyone to create a short riff, working in instrument sections. I wanted them to do this quickly, there and then, as we were short on time. What I felt was a shift in energy, where enough of the participants suddenly understood that every one of those 7 notes would sound “good” and “right” and that all they had to do was arrange some of them in a rhythm. Suddenly, we had riffs bursting out all over the group. One player would invent something, and the others in that section would learn it from them, on the spot.

“That’s the idea!” I thought to myself. There is something really liberating about the discovery that you can figure out how to play something by listening to it. Some young players instinctively understand this, but others are filled with trepidation. It takes courage to blow or bow those first tentative notes, trying to match pitches or play by ear – but how thrilling the energy rush is that you get when you realise it worked!


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