You are here

Aural Investigation: Finding answers using your own ear

15 January, 2016 - 09:13
Available under Creative Commons-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Download for free at

When musicians talk about ear, what they are really discussing is the part of your brain that makes sense of what you are hearing. It normally does this without any conscious effort, and most people are not even aware of how much their ear understands. The "rules" that a piece of music follows - rules about what types of sounds are good, how they should fit together, and how a piece should start, progress and end - are actually quite complex. You don't have any trouble deciphering familiar musics, though, because your ear already knows the rules. You picked them up just as you picked up the rules for speaking your language, just by hearing it often, in context. You are most likely to notice "ear" when it fails you, when you hear a piece of music that makes no sense to you. Because you don't understand how sounds are supposed to be organized in this kind of music, it may sound boring, foreign, exotic, annoying or noisy.

So the first few times you listen, your main goal is to find some points of reference, things that you can actually hear in the music. These will be based on the knowledge that you already have about music, including:

Listen with all the knowledge you already have

  • Ear-based knowledge - Even if you have no formal ear-training, you can make use of the aural knowledge you have about more-familiar types of music. Does the recording sound at all like any of the music you already know and like? What specifically sounds different? See the ***what do you hear?*** list for suggestions.
  • Movement-based knowledge - Some of your intuitive knowledge about music may not be in the "ear" part of your brain, but instead is in the part of your brain that controls your movements. If you are a dancer, or if you like to clap your hands, tap your feet, or move to your favorite music, then you may find that letting yourself move with this unfamiliar music - dance, clap, conduct, etc. - actually helps you understand the music, and also helps you locate the elements that you do not yet understand. (For example, I find that the easiest way to check whether I am "getting" the rhythm of a piece is to try to conduct along while listening.)
  • Formal music knowledge - This is an exercise in developing intuitive, ear-based understandings, so it is not necessary to have formal knowledge about music theory and notation. But if you do, by all means, make use of it! You may find that your formal understandings are not that helpful - for example, your knowledge of major and minor scales may be inadequate when trying to listen to music based on ragas - but exploring exactly how and where and when they fail will help you understand how this music is different and help you focus on what to listen for.
  • Instrument-based knowledge - Again, this is not necessary for this activity, but if you do know how to play an instrument (or sing), you may want to get out your instrument and either try to play/sing along with the recording or try to reproduce parts of it immediately after listening to it. Can you reproduce the timbre in the recording? How is it different from the timbre that you usually use? Are there stylistic elements (such as ornaments or articulations) that you have trouble reproducing because they are unfamiliar? Is the tuning in the recording different from your normal tuning? Do the notes used seem to belong to a scale, raga, or mode that you know? If not, how are they different?
  • Cultural knowledge - Where does this music come from? What is it for? Who creates it? Who enjoys it? What are their lives like, and how does music fit in? Again, you do not need to know the answers to these questions, but anything you do know may help you understand the music.

As you study a piece, create a journal or record of what you hear, what you want to listen to more carefully next time, guesses about what is going on in the music, reactions, and questions. It may be difficult at first to come up with descriptions, but the struggle to write something that makes sense to you is an important step in making sense of the music. Pictures and diagrams can also be part of your journal. You can use any music notations you know, or make up your own. Choosing words, phrases and pictures that describe elements and characteristics of the sound will help you to think about them, listen for them, remember them accurately, and discuss them with others.

You won't be able to listen carefully to everything at once. If the piece is long, you might want to start with just your favorite section of it. Start by listening to the characteristics or elements that are most interesting or obvious to you. Save more challenging elements for later. You can think about the music in any way that is useful to you, but if you have no idea where to start, here are some suggestions:

What do you hear?

  • Text - Are there sung or spoken words? Can you understand the text? If not, why not? Is understanding the text important to you? If you can understand the text, can you relate to what it is saying? How different is it from the texts of your favorite songs?
  • Meter - Can you feel a steady beat? Are beats organized into stronger and weaker pulses? Are they all the same length, or is there a pattern of shorter and longer beats? Does the pattern seem too subtle, too slow, too fast, or complex for you to follow? Is it possible that the music moves forward freely, without reference to a predictable beat? How is it different from the beat in familiar kinds of music?
  • Rhythm - When do notes begin and end, (on a beat, in between beats, at irregular intervals)? How long do they last (one beat, many, an indefinite length)? Do they follow each other quickly or slowly? Can you hear specific rhythmic ideas or patterns? How complex are the rhythms? How repetitive are they? Do different parts (different instruments or voices) have the same rhythms or different ones?
  • Mode - Do some of the sounds have pitch? If so, do they slide up and down, hitting all of the possible pitches, or does the music only use specific pitches in each range? Does it use a lot of different pitches that seem very close to each other, or only a few pitches that seem to be spaced far apart? Do some pitches seem more important than others? Do you think this music is using the same set of notes (the same scale, mode, or raga, for example) as familiar musics? If not, how would you describe the difference?
  • Tuning - Do pitched notes seem "in tune" or "out of tune" by the standards of more familiar music? If the tuning is noticeably different, how would you describe the differences?
  • Articulation and ornaments - How does each sound begin and end? (For example, do notes seem to be separate, or do they glide into each other? Are they cut short, or do they die away slowly?) Is each note a single pitch, or does it include little ornamental variations? What do the variations do to the pitch (does it slide, waver, bend)? Do they happen at the beginning or end of a note, or all through it? Do they connect one note to the next?
  • Timbre - What adjectives would you use to describe the tone quality of the sounds you hear (for example, squeaky, nasal, warm, resonant, fiery)? What do the sounds do (crash, flow, clang, buzz, echo)? Are the instruments that make the sounds familiar or unfamiliar? Can you name them or picture them? Are the sounds they make like any instruments in your favorite musics? How is the tone quality different from what is familiar to you? If there are singers, is the quality of the voice very different from the voices in your favorite musics? If it is noticeably different, how would you describe the difference?
  • Range - Does the sound of the music seem higher or lower than you are used to, or is it in a range that is comfortable and familiar? For each specific instrument (or voice) that you can distinguish, do you hear it playing only high notes? Only low notes? A wide range? Does it sound as if the instrument (or voice) is near its upper or lower limit, or in the middle of its range?
  • Texture - Are there multiple lines or parts going on at the same time? Can you tell what instrument (or voice) is creating each part? What role does each part have in the music, and how do the parts fit together? Which parts catch your attention, and which seem to be supporting/accompanying parts? Does the piece include recordings of sounds such as traffic or ocean waves? Does it include recorded samples of music, and if so, what do these contribute to the piece (for example, in terms of rhythm, meter, harmony, timbre, and so on)?
  • Harmony - If there are multiple pitched parts going on at the same time, do the pitches interact with each other to form harmonies? Are there two notes at a time? Three or more? By the standards of the musics you like, do they seem harmonious or discordant? Do you seem to hear changing chords that direct you to an expected ending chord (functional harmony)? Are any of the parts unchanging drones? How different is this from familiar musics?
  • Small-scale form - Are there pauses, rests, ebbs and flows, or sudden bursts in the sound that seem to organize it into ideas, motives, themes or phrases? Are there any rhythms or melodic ideas that are repeated often? Are they exactly the same with each repetition, or do they change? If they change, how do they change? Do individual ideas overlap each other, flow seamlessly into each other, or happen one at a time with pauses between? How easy or difficult is it for you to follow the way the music is organized from moment to moment?
  • Large-scale Form - As the piece develops, do you hear major changes that seem to divide the piece into sections? How many sections are there? Are they all different, or do some seem to be a return to an earlier section? What is it that marks the different sections: changes in rhythm, instruments, range? Is it easy for you to recognize sections (for example, verses and refrains of a song) or difficult?

Remember, these are just suggestions to get you started on your exploration. There is no expectation that you will hear all of these things or discuss all of them in your journal. Start with the easiest ones, and, for the moment, ignore anything that does not make sense or seems too difficult. If you are still drawing a blank and don't know where to start, listen to a favorite familiar piece, and see what you can write about that. What draws your attention? Why specifically do you like this piece? What are your favorite parts, and how would you describe them to a friend? Then listen to the unfamiliar piece again and compare it directly to what you said about the familiar piece.