Music is a remarkable thing. So is the mind and the heart. Together, these three elements can create beautiful music for all who hear it. I’ve noticed that generally it is the simpler music that touches people most deeply. I encourage any who enjoy listening to music to give writing music a try. The best indicator to tell if you have ability to write music is to notice how much you enjoy listening to it. The more you enjoy listening to it, the more developed your mental ear is, and the greater capacity your mind has to bring new music to life. This may be hard to believe, but in my experience, it is true.
Many people, even musicians, may try to convince you that music writing is something you’ve either ‘got’ or you don’t. Don’t believe them. This is but a convenient way to make musicianship sound unreachable for the inexperienced.
The truth is, even the most gifted musicians have developed the capacities we have been discussing, but they rarely know how to explain it, because so much of what is happening in practice is internal. So they only explain those things which are easily explained – the note values, the time signatures, and the drill techniques. These are all good, but they are only the technical parts. I hope in this series I’ve been able to convey some internal ideas that are used in playing and writing music.
That is not an easy task, but I hope my attempts prove helpful in your quest to play and write music, by ear and by heart.
The Sound Method
The basic idea of the sound method also works with silence, but silence can be a little more difficult to find in the busy world that we live in. If the opportunity presents itself, try creating music using only your mental ear while you are in complete silence.
Also, have you ever noticed that when you sit or lay in complete silence – perhaps shortly before you begin to fall asleep, you can occasionally imagine sounds so well that you can almost convince yourself that you actually hear them? I don’t think this is anything strange. As your mind approaches sleep, it will sometimes begin to drift into dreaming before you have completely fallen asleep.
If you ever find yourself drifting off, and are aware that you are doing so, try playing with your mental ear. You may, on occasion, find that you can make yourself hear music – not actually hear it, but almost hear it. If it works, you may find that you can create beautiful music, much in the same way you would if you used the sound method. The only caution with the sleepy method is that if you fall asleep completely, you’ll probably forget what your music sounded like.
In speaking of these methods, I hope not to create the impression that writing music by heart requires some kind of deep meditation or something. That is not the case at all. Actually, these sound and silence methods work best if you have already created some of your own music using the basic methods we’ve already discussed. Sound and silence methods are just a fun way to play with your developing mental ear.
Music is a simple thing that promotes emotion and motivation, and is best created with that idea in mind.
If this method does prove itself effective for you, you may find that it is not difficult to invent a tune while humming during a walk, or whistling while you work. You will likely find that you can spontaneously begin humming a tune that you have never before heard, and perhaps you will never hear again – unless you have a piano handy. Try some things out, and you may be surprised how easily you can write original music.
The Sound Method
This section of the Play by Ear, Write by Heart series may seem like the strangest, and may give you the impression that I have a bit of a mental disorder, but if you will take it seriously, and try it out, I’m sure you will find these tools as useful for you as they have been for me. These methods are certainly not necessary, but they can be a bit of fun, and might even help you in creating original music.
Your mental ear is quite powerful. It is also very sensitive, and can be easily manipulated. If you have ever been in a situation where you have been surrounded by a continuous and solid noise, such as a loud motor or fan, you may have noticed that any sound that you hear in the distance may be distorted and misunderstood. If someone speaks to you while you are next to a loud motor, for example, you may hear something different than what they actually said. This can be frustrating in terms of communication, but if you are trying to learn to write music by heart, a loud and constant sound can be a great tool.
I should clarify that I am not speaking of loud music or loud rhythm. Those will prevent the very thing you are trying to accomplish. I am speaking of a constant sound, such as the hum of a vacuum cleaner or the crashing of falling water.
As you listen to the sound, listen carefully. Listen intently and try to hear more in the hum than what is really there. When you feel as though you might be able to hear echoes of other sounds emanating from the hum, let your mental ear play with it. Imagine that you can hear music in the hum. Imagine it with as detailed as you can.
As your mind begins developing a tune, repeat it over and over, until you feel confident that you won’t easily forget it. Then, go to a piano and try to play it. This may or may not work, but when it does work, it can be a fun way of inventing a piece of music.
Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged when your attempt at playing your imagined music on the piano doesn’t sound nearly as good as you remember hearing it.
Your mental ear has much more skill than your hands do. Your mind can play entire orchestras with every little detail. After all, consider a piece of music that you’ve heard dozens of times. Can’t you hear the tune in your mind with all the little instrumental details? That is your mental ear playing back a piece of music. This same format can be used to write a whole new piece of music that has never been heard before by anyone.
If you can come up with a basic tune this way, allow yourself time to learn to play it.
You’ll also find that a tune is MUCH easier to remember once you’ve played it on the piano (however inadequately), because sometimes when you come back to a piece you can remember the fingering better than the tune. That’s all right, since as soon as your fingers do their work, your mind will recall the feelings and notes of your original music.
Cautions concerning your mental ear
Your mental ear has a remarkable capacity to remember and bring forth beautiful music from a seeming oblivion. It collects information from every tune it hears, and binds emotion to any mix of chords. Using this as a guide to writing music can make it possible to promote virtually any emotion that the human heart can experience. The mental ear also builds up a catalog of chord usages to draw from for writing music.
I would like to share a couple of cautions, however, concerning the mental ear. It is so common, and so easy, for a person to write a piece of music by heart, only to find later that the piece already exists. You may find, after writing a piece, that the melody or chord structure has already been written by someone else. It is comforting to know that chord structures are not copyrighted, but it is important to also understand that melodies are. If you find that your chords match some other song that already existed, but your melody is different, don’t worry, that is alright. There’s nothing wrong with using the same chords that someone else is using. But if you find that your melody is already in existence, recognize that it is not yours, and you must either give proper credit to the writer, or change your tune.
My second bit of caution is also the more important caution: if this happens to you (you write a piece only to discover that someone else wrote it first) do not get discouraged by this. It can be embarrassing if you have publicized (not published) your piece already, only to find that it wasn’t yours in the first place, but do not let this scare you from writing more! Consider it a great compliment. Does it not prove that your capacity to write music is great? Does it not prove that your musical ear is incredibly powerful and effective? If you can write a melody that is already popular without even knowing that someone else wrote it, does that not validate the talent that you have developed?
Sometime read “The Story of my Life” by Helen Keller. She went through this on a heavy level. But with her, it was with writing instead of music. She was very gifted with words and wrote a beautiful story, only to find out later that it wasn’t hers. She could only assume afterward that she had heard it years before and forgotten about it. She was greatly complimented for her work, but when it was discovered that the story already existed, she was looked down upon by some of the people she most admired. During her recovery period from this most challenging part of her life, she said:
Miss Canby [a teacher] herself wrote kindly, “Some day you will write a great story out of your own head, that will be a comfort and help to many.” But this kind prophecy has never been fulfilled. I have never played with words again for the mere pleasure of the game. Indeed, I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own.
The shock of the whole event discouraged her from writing fiction for the rest of her life. This is a tragedy. Don’t let that happen to you! When you find that a piece is not yours, simply step down and start working on your next piece. You have infinite music in your heart that has yet to be written, and no matter how good your piece is, your best is not yet written. Write it, and let no failure or fear of embarrassment hinder you.
Now, just because you recognize what your ear is trying to tell you doesn’t mean you have to follow that advice. Play your first chord, and then listen for your metal ear’s advice. When you know what it wants you to play, you are then left with a choice: you can follow it or reject it.
If you reject the chord given to you by your mental ear unintentionally too often, you will likely dull your capacity to find the chord that your mind suggests. This will make it difficult to write by heart, because rather than writing music by heart, you will be left to take guesses and choose chords either randomly or by knowledge alone, neither of which are very effective.
The best way to prevent this is to pay close attention. If you play a chord and it doesn’t match the note or chord suggested by your mental ear, stop and try another chord. If you find that you’ve already forgotten what that chord was supposed to sound like, start over with the first chord again. By paying careful attention to the notes or chord that your mental ear suggests, you will find that your metal ear has a great memory, as well as good taste in music!
If you are given a note by your mental ear, you can choose to reject it. It’s okay to use a different chord than what your mental ear suggests, as long as you are doing it knowingly and intentionally. Rejecting a chord intentionally will, to some extent, re-configure your mental ear to listen for that different chord or note. In other words, any time you begin writing a piece of music for the first time, as you approach the time to play a new chord, your mind will tell you what chord to play. If you choose those chords as your mind tells you, you will be able to write your piece quite easily. If you choose a different chord, you may be able to find a chord that you like even better. The bottom line is, you must have your mind, heart, and fingers trained to be able to play a chord that you hear (audibly or mentally) so that you can choose whether or not to use those chords or notes.
The great thing about choosing a different chord than your mental ear suggests is that in finding new chord progressions, you create for yourself a whole new library of possibilities for your mental ear to draw from. The more you try new things and learn to work with new ideas, the more you will have to build with. This becomes a remarkable adventure. You will find that most any two chords can work together if you take time to discover when and where and how to play them. With your mental ear and your creativity as your guide, there are very few limitations to your potential.
The Mental Ear
Inside your mind, there is something I call a mental ear. It is the part of the mind that processes and predicts music. When you hear your favorite song on the radio, your mental ear tells you what to expect as your listening. You have heard the song before, and although you probably don’t consciously recognize the chord patterns that are used, your mental ear recognizes them very well. So if you went to a concert where the musician was playing your favorite song, and a wrong chord was played, you would know immediately that something was wrong. Your mental ear would alert you of the mishap immediately. You may not instantly recognize what it was that went wrong, but you would hear and feel a difference.
That ‘ear’ has collected so much data over the course of your lifetime, and is so full of chord progressions, that when you sit down at a piano to create a new piece of music, and you play a chord or melody for the first time, your mental ear will tell you what the next chord should be. It may take a little while to fully recognize what your metal ear is trying to tell you, but you must practice in order to become familiar with it’s messages.
In learning to hear your mental ear, it is helpful to remember how you have been already using it thus far. Turn on the radio to a familiar song. While one chord is being played, listen to the part of your brain that tells you what the next chord will be. I’m not speaking of the chord names, but of the way the chord sounds and feels. What is the feeling that you get when the music changes one this chord to the next? You know what’s coming, you know how you’ll probably feel when you hear it. You can thank your mental ear for that.
Now, transfer that recognition to your own music writing. Play a chord – play it in what ever style you would like, but then pause for a moment. What does your mental ear tell you the next chord should sound and feel like? Find the chord. You may have to pluck around a bit before you find it. If you lose your train of feeling in your attempts, start over. Keep doing this until you find the chord that your mental ear is trying to encourage. Once you find it, play it a few times with the original chord. Then, play the that far again but stop and try to feel what your mental ear is trying to tell you the next chord should be.
Writing by Heart
Explaining the process of writing your own original music by heart is challenging. This is not because writing original music is more difficult, but because the principles of writing music are a little more intangible than those of learning to play the piano by ear. Perhaps this is why there are many sites that teach how to play by ear, but very few about writing your own music.
The writing process encompasses all the play-by-ear principles we have discussed, and ventures further into new territory. Sometimes someone will ask me, “How do you just sit down and write music?” This is difficult to answer because it takes mind, heart, and skill; and it takes a lot of each. But don’t be intimidated by that fact, because you have already become very familiar with the musical use of each.
It does take a great deal of practice. Keep in mind, however, that the practice required for learning to write music by heart is a much different kind of practice than is used for learning to read music. It is also quite different than learning to play by ear – though learning by ear is, to some extent, prerequisite.
If your intent in all of this is to learn to play music by heart, then you must recognize the role of learning to play by ear. Remember that in training yourself to hear and play a note, you are training much more than just your ear.