Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Learning songs by ear

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared in February 2007 as Papa’s got a brand new song.

Many people have no idea how a song is learnt by ear. They assume that written music is a must. But don’t forget that people have been singing (and learning) songs for thousands of years without music.

Listening ears

my listening ears by niclindh

But what is the best way to go about learning a song by ear? How long does it take? Are there any shortcuts? Why bother?

new season, new songs

The beginning of any new season with the choir is always shaky as I usually start three or four new songs at once. We never finish a song in a single session, but keep a few on the go for several weeks at various stages of completion. I personally believe that this variety is a better way of learning (but what do I know?!).

In the first few weeks singers often don’t have a clear grasp of where a song is going or what the final version will actually sound like. Some people have suggested that I play the choir the full song before I start to teach it, but often I don’t have a recording or perhaps it’s a new arrangement that I’ve not tried before. In any case, I want people to keep an open mind about how we might end up presenting the song, rather than slavishly trying to reproduce what they’ve heard on a recording.

it’s new for me too!

Another issue is that I might not be familiar enough with the song, despite the fact that I’ve spent ages on it at home!

I practice and practice and think I know it inside out, but then in front of the choir when everyone’s a bit tired and we’ve already begun two new songs that evening, I suddenly realise that I’ve not totally nailed a particular interval or part of the harmony and it all goes pear-shaped.

This can also happen when choir members are learning or revising songs on their own. You practice at home and think you know it perfectly, but once you’re at choir with a bit of pressure and all the other singers around you, it all goes out the window.

My advice is to practice the song in as many different contexts as possible: whilst doing the washing up or driving or cooking or gardening ... in fact anywhere other than just sitting quietly doing nothing. This will help to prepare you for the many distractions when you’re back with the choir.

repetition, repetition, repetition

Unlike most people in the choir, I get to learn all the parts of every song. This is mainly due to simple repetition. I now know all the parts to over 600 songs!

People often ask: “how do you manage it?”, “how do you remember them all?” Maybe I have some talent for it (I know I have a good ear) but the main thing is that I get to repeat each song or part at least four times when teaching a new song – that’s four times more than most people.

So here’s a hint when learning a new harmony song: listen to the other parts attentively while they’re being taught (resist the temptation to natter!), you then learn the words more easily and can also sing your part in your head at the same time and see how the harmony works. In short, you get to repeat the new song or part many more times.

we’re no longer an aural or oral culture

In many of the cultures that I source songs from, people start “learning” songs when they are children. They repeatedly hear others singing the same song, over and over again from a very early age. Even if there’s no conscious effort to learn it, a song will get into the brain of those who hear it despite themselves.

We see a similar effect with the children of choir members who hear their parents singing their part around the house. Before we know it, they know the song better than we do!

Basically, we are trying to short circuit years of repeatedly hearing a song in different contexts, so what we are doing is slightly artificial. To make things easier, musical notation was invented and people started using written scores instead of really listening and relying on their own memory. But then you never really get the song inside you.

it takes time

It turns out that some people believe that they can’t sing because they think that ‘proper’ singers only have to hear a song once before they’ve learnt it perfectly. It often comes as a surprise when I tell them that even professional singers take a few months before they really get to grips with a new song.

So be patient. It will take many weeks before a song is really under your belt. I teach a new song for several weeks, then have a little gap before revisiting it. I also try to revisit it after a break, and again at regular intervals thereafter. Finally, after several years (!) the song will have finally bedded in.

why bother?

Sometimes when I explain to people what it is that I do, they find it hard to understand that I don’t use written music (or a piano). It is beyond their comprehension that songs can be taught and learnt without these aids.

Occasionally somebody joins my choir with music-reading ability and finds it a real struggle at first to learn by ear. But music is an aural medium and not a visual one, so why do we insist that people look at bits of paper instead of really listening?

That’s one reason I don’t use written music: I want people to develop their listening skills. But the main reason is that I want singing and music-making to be accessible to as wide a range of people as possible, regardless of any musical training or experience they might have. Consequently I don’t assume any prior knowledge and thus teach by ear.

Being in a choir is about working as a team and paying attention to the hand-waver out front (or musical director if you prefer!). It’s much, much easier to do this when you’re not looking at a piece of paper.

I believe that singers who learn by ear develop a better sense of musicality and aural awareness. So just put that score down and listen!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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