Activate Your Inner Musician

This post is addressing primarily music lovers who are beginning or considering formal studies in music, but could easily apply to anyone who loves music. In all music disciplines, we are confronted with music that is new to us and often foreign to our musical tastes. My encouragement for you is to allow these new sounds and styles to penetrate your present musical experience to see if they might change you in ways you could not have anticipated. Musical tastes are very personal. And I’m not here to criticize or challenge anyone’s musical tastes. My encouragement to you is to venture outside of your music comfort zone, that is, your “music box.”

Most of us know the story of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), arguably, one of the greatest composers and musicians ever to live. Beginning somewhere around 1802, he began to experience a progressive loss of hearing until, as records indicate, by 1816, he was almost completely deaf. Yet he continued to compose music until his death in 1827. To some, this puts Beethoven in the league with the gods, as he was able to write some of his greatest music while he was deaf! How could he write music that he could not hear? The reality, however, is that Beethoven could hear his music because he had a highly developed “inner ear,” that is, the ability to hear music in his mind. Can any musician learn to develop an inner ear, or is this a skill that either one is born with, or is the result of a genius-level musical intelligence? Beethoven was certainly a genius. And I’m not going to suggest that just anyone can learn to write music of his caliber with fully functional hearing, let alone being deaf. But learning to hear music in your mind, is something you may already be able to do, but you never thought to try it. Still, to develop this skill more fully takes effort, but it can be done and will make you a better musician, even if you don’t have what is sometimes referred to as absolute pitch.

Beethoven lived in the late 18th through early 19th centuries when hearing and listening to music were very different than they are today. We take for granted that when we want to hear music, we play a recording. If we don’t own the recording, we buy it. And I still marvel at how much more accessible music has become since the advent of the Internet. Also, it is very difficult to go anywhere without hearing some sort of music (e.g., restaurants, shopping malls, etc.). What's more, many of us have music playing all the time: in our cars, walking with an iPod, CD player at home, and the list goes on. As if all these things are not enough, it is not unusual to hear a multitude of musical styles (pop, jazz, rock, classical, hip hop, rap, etc.) in a single day.

Passive and Active Music Listening

Because our world today is saturated with music, we have become, for the most part, passive listeners, that is, hearing music without really listening to it. In a Parade magazine column, Marilyn vos Savant lists music as an activity that does not require one to focus. And she’s right. However, if you are an aspiring musician, you owe it to yourself to learn to be an active listener, or more precisely, focus on the music that you are hearing. Doing this will help to develop your inner ear and improve your musicianship.

Let’s get back to Ludwig’s day for a moment. Try to imagine what it was like not having recordings, iPods, CD players, or any other way to hear music without hearing it live. Of course there were plenty of opportunities to hear music in Beethoven’s day, but it was nothing like it is today. And if you were an aspiring musician, you had to make an explicit effort to hear music. When you did, you would most likely listen actively, since you had to put forth the effort to be in the presence of the music playing. And since you could not learn music from recordings, you studied scores and learned to play them at a piano, even if the music was not written for piano. You might also copy music from other manuscripts. All of these concentrated activities, led to a more developed inner ear, because you were actively involved in the music. (It was not merely going in one ear and out the other!) Because of Beethoven’s thorough musical training, and the musical environment in which he grew up, when he started to go deaf, he was able to rely on his inner ear to hear music in his mind.

You don't have to give up your iPod, your CD player, or your mp3s, and you don't have to go deaf to develop your inner ear. But you do need to be an active listener and make an effort to develop one of the most valuable skills a musician can possess: the ability to hear music in your mind.

There is a great dramatization of inner hearing in the film,Amadeus:

While Antonio Salieri is perusing some of Mozart’s original manuscripts, at the request of Mozart’s wife, the soundtrack is playing the music that he is hearing in his mind. As he turns the pages of the musical scores, Salieri’s emotions intensify, and he is overcome with the beauty of the music that Mozart wrote, apparently with little effort. Finally hedrops the scores and declares to Mozart’s wife, “It is miraculousI”

Salieri was using his inner ear to hear Mozart's music. He didn't have to hear the music actually being played to know what it sounded like. We don’t emphasize inner hearing today because it’s so easy just to turn on a recording and let the technology do the work for us. I’m not suggesting we give up our wonderful technology. But I do believe we need to make a more concerted effort to develop our musicianship skills by studying music without the aid of a recording. To develop your inner ear, you must practice it. Some might argue that it is not necessary today with all the access to recordings. My argument is simply that the more you internalize music, the better musician you become.

If you are planning to study music at a university, or perhaps your high school, you will encounter courses in aural theory. Sometimes they call these courses musicianship, a name I prefer because it identifies the goal of the course. In these courses you learn to write down melodies and harmonies that are played. You also learn to sight-sing, that is, look at a melody and sing it the first time you see it. These courses can get frustrating because you always feel a step behind. It seems that just as you are getting to a certain level of proficiency, the instructor moves on to the next level of difficulty. One way that I have encouraged my musicianship students is, after we are well into the course of study, I take them back to the beginning to show them how easy those first melodies are now that they have had some practice. This gives them a sense that they truly have progressed. I also have them look at the melodies from the beginning and ask them to hear them in their minds without actually singing them. I love to see the joy on some of their faces when they discover that they really have progressed, and that they are on their way to developing their inner ear, which, to me, is one of of the primary goals of these courses.

Inner hearing is not difficult, it just takes practice. If you’ve never tried it before, do this simple exercise:

Look at the following sentence, but don’t say it aloud:

I love music theory.

Can you hear the sentence in your mind? Of course you can. You probably do this often when reading. I used words and not music here to show you that inner hearing is a natural part of what we do everyday, usually without thinking about it. Now look at the following melody, but don’t click the play button below it:

Do you know what the melody is just by looking at it? Can you hear it in your mind? It doesn’t matter if you can’t hear the actual first pitch. Choose any starting pitch in your mind. The goal is to hear the relationships between the pitches. If you can’t hear the melody, click the play button and listen to it. Then try to hear it in your mind again. Now some might argue that, after playing the melody, you’re just memorizing it when you listen to it internally. That’s true. But you have to start somewhere. With practice you’ll discover that you do have an inner ear. It just needs to be developed through practice.

Now let’s try a simple harmony. Look at the sequence of harmonies below (they're all sixths) and see if you can hear it. If not, click the play button and try it again.

Obviously more complex music becomes more difficult. But as you grow musically, if you work on being an active listener and practice inner hearing, your skill will improve.

Final Thought on Absolute Pitch

Absolute, or perfect pitch is not the same thing as developing your inner ear. Perfect pitch is the ability to know what a pitch sounds like (e.g., a C) without a reference point. This is a valuable skill, but not what we're talking about here. And you don't need perfect pitch to develop a proficient inner ear. As I said before, the goal of inner hearing is to hear the pitch relationships, not necessarily the exact pitches.