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Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 16
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.
Writing music uses the same principle. Your mental ear is so used to hearing and predicting music that it becomes your primary source for coming up with chord progressions and melody ideas.
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.
This is the basic procedure for writing music by heart. It is important to recognize what your mental ear is trying to tell you to play. Your ear and your feelings must be your guide.
Read more of the series, Play by Ear, Write by Heart