Soapbox: Ear Singing versus Rote Learning

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soapboxRegular readers will be familiar with this theme from previous occasions when I have climbed up onto my soapbox, such as here), or more helpfully and less rantingly, here. So you know the general point already: if people insist on using parrot-fashion as a primary learning method, you can't be surprised if you end up with a choir of bird-brains. Follow the links for the reasoning, we don't need to repeat it all again.

Instead I am going to share with you a penny-drop moment I had when in recent dialogue with some proponents of the Kodály method. For those who are not very familiar with their approach, it is all about building musicianship. A combination of singing and clapping and gestural vocabulary helps build a robust inner musical landscape that acts as a foundation for all other musical activity. It's good stuff.

Now, central to Kodály's philosophy was the sense that music should be accessible to everyone, and that it starts with the voice. He was an active folk-song collector, and hailed the transmission of national or regional musical traditions by ear as evidence of humanity's essential musicality. It's not just reserved for a special few with 'talent', it's for all of us.

Now, anyone with the slightest connection with a populist and/or participatory form of singing is currently nodding their head. It's a cheering worldview, an encouraging one, and it's good to know that learning by ear isn't an inferior form of musicianship, but rather a fundamental one.

The idea of 'ear-singing' thus emerges as a value-laden concept, bringing connotations of authenticity in both the sense of personal honesty and of the Real McCoy. If you sing or play by ear, you are more than just a vehicle for someone else's ideas, more than just a robot following someone else's musical instructions, the music comes from within you.

Now, it's been reasonably common knowledge since Gage Averill published his history of American barbershop ten years ago that the image of the genre's origin as 'ear-singing' is a rather over-romanticised myth.* In fact, the genre was a product of a burgeoning commercial popular music that flourished at the moment when the printed song was just starting to be challenged by the recorded one. An amateur aficionado in 1910 could be learning from sheet music or from singing along with records as easily as he could be experimenting with genuinely improvised harmonies.

The early members of the Barbershop Harmony Society (or as I like to think of them, tsfkaSPEBSQSA - The Society Formerly Known as The Society For the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America) in the late 1930s were overwhelmingly non-music-readers, so it was easy for the myth of an improvised origin of the style to take root. And while these were all middle-aged guys singing along with their nostalgic recollections of the hits of their youth, it's likely there was a fair bit of actual improvisation going on too - the multi-mode learning of their younger days probably did build a pretty strong internal musical landscape to explore.

But there's something a bit odd going on when people conflate the idea of ear-singing as fundamental musicianship with the long-standing mythology of barbershop as improvisatory in origin with the modern-day practice of learning by rote from recordings. Do you see what I mean?

The point about ear-singing in the Kodály sense is that there is a fullness, a richness of understanding, the inner ear is fully engaged. Whereas singing along with an MP3 file is a short-cut to complex music designed to avoid all that tedious learning of actual musical skills.

To put it another way: ear-singing in the sense of woodshedding is a way of devising an arrangement, but making it harder by denying yourselves the crutch of noting down what you do. Whereas learning from a teach track is not only getting somebody else to do the arranging, but also getting someone else to read it out to you.

By analogy: ear-singing is like making dinner without using a recipe, but just using your knowledge of ingredients and cooking processes. Learning from a teach track is like ordering a take-away, having it delivered, and then having someone else feed it to you.

So next time someone tries to defend their continued refusal to even attempt to learn to read music on the grounds that barbershop is a tradition of 'ear-singing', ask them who invented the harmony parts they sing. There are all kinds of realistic and understandable reasons why adult learners may shy away from music literacy (I'm short of time, I'm inhibited by painful memories of past attempts, I'm scared of feeling like a complete novice just when I thought I was getting the hang of things), but appealing to a mythologised origin of the genre is simply a cop-out.


*One thing I would say about the guys in the Ancient and Harmonious Society of Woodshedders is that they practice what they preach. On the one hand, they are some of the most persistent purveyors of originary myths, but they are proper hard-core in their approach. And whilst I don't believe they are preserving the earliest form of the genre, they are preserving one of its deep and esoteric pleasures. If they're not 'purist' in the historical sense, they are in a musical one.

Hmmm... and so the early quartets -didn't- essentially create their contest arrangements through improvisation? Was one of them always the literate master-arranger, then? Somebody had better tell Jim Henry.

If you want to over-simplify your concept of the early years of the society, go ahead. But I don't think Dr Jim would have too much beef with anything I've written here.

And thank you, Dr. Cooper - message received. Guess I'll just mosey along, then.

Eh? Who is Dr Cooper? Confused.

Learning by rote and by ear is less good? But surely many of the great solo musicians, whether instrumentalists or singers, perform without the music in front of them. They may have learnt it faster than I could, as a poor rote learner of choral music (though I can read music I cannot see and sing intervals accurately and quickly) but the fact that they know all the notes allows them to put more effort into the interpretation. In the same way, when I sang a Verdi Requiem from memory, the performance was much better because no heads were down in copies and we could concentrate on doing what the conductor wanted. So I do not accept your argument about rote learning. Let singers do it as they want as long as they produce a good performance.

There is a difference to performing from memory and learning by rote. I absolutely agree that internalising the music so that you no longer need the visual prompt of score or lyrics allows a greater depth and freedom of interpretation, and is a standard professional requirement for all solo singers (and indeed pianists). Let us all continue to learn music well enough to perform from memory and thereby do a better job.

Learning by rote, however, refers to the way in which you internalise the music - do you do it by working out your part for your self (ear singing), working out how to sing a part somebody else has composed from the score (reading), or by a monkey-hear, monkey-do process of imitation from a recording made solely for the purpose of teaching parts to people who can't do either of the first two?

Now, I don't want to be too hard on the whole teach-track industry - as by the some token that they remove the need for depth of musicianship, they also facilitate a lot of people to participate in singing much harder music than they could have done without that tool. More singing is always good.

The point of this post is that to hold up this rote-learning style as 'ear-singing' in the first sense is to conflate two quite different things. One is a prop to help people with gaps in their musicianship skills, the other requires a real depth of musicianship to achieve. I'm not saying don't use the prop if you need it, but I am saying, don't kid yourself it is the same as having those skills.

Monkey-see, Monkey-do sounds needlessly offensive. I do listen to midi files and recordings of my part as I find it helpful to learn the notes. But I try to reproduce the music the way the conductor wants it, indeed some of the companies producing recordings for this kind of learning do so with the minimum of interpretation, dynamics, tempo changes, to leave the conductor free to do this themselves. Human music making must have started, by definition, without written music. Much early music will have been performed without written music, I suspect, and the whole folk music tradition is based on one person hearing a song from another. As I said earlier, I fail to understand why you appear to have such a strong objection to people learning the notes in a way that works for them. I also suspect that many people who say they learn in other ways also learn choral music by hearing it in rehearsals and performances. Clearly at every rehearsal even the best sight-readers get this extra learning - as long as the guy next to you is singing it right! Overall, I simply do not get your problem with learning in different ways. As for Monkey-see, Monkey-do, yesterday I watched a military band perform a drumming routine where they had drilled to within an inch of their lives, immense precision, identical movements, highly satisfying. Another example of rote leading to something very good in performance.

Hello again Peter,

I have written at length on this in the past (linked within this post), but I think this one is probably the most useful to explain my position: http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/rote

To give an example: I recently watched a barbershop quartet contest in which two really quite accomplished quartets broke down towards the end of a song. In both cases, they had to go right back to the beginning to recover. If they had learned the music in a more interactive way, they would have had the wherewithal to pick up near to where they left off, or possibly to recover from the error without actually breaking down.

It is unfair to characterise my position as being against the use of one's ears in learning. Or indeed to suppose that I object to polished performances. I am simply analysing the issues thrown up by one type of learning method which sometimes get presented as a panacea, and noting still leaves gaps in a learner's musicianship that need filling in some way or another (whether literate or not - though I would contend that literacy is at least useful in traditions based around a written score).

So they did not learn it completely! I was in a rehearsal once where a leading solo piano player could not simply restart anywhere but only at milestone moments that were a part of his way of learning. I have also seen some research suggesting that sight readers do not really sight read notes and sing them one by one, just as we do not read individual letters in order to read words. Rather, sight readers, the research suggests, work partly from pattern recognition, partly from past learned music (which could be seen as a form of rote learning) and partly by guessing the next note from their musical experience. Some of the best sight readers sang as children and they learned to sight read by being exposed to singing every day. So again there was a form of rote learning in their development. Overall, I still find your distinction artificial and rather snobbish - you do after all refer to monkeys and bird brains. I wonder if I put two really good choirs in front of you whether you could tell which one was comprised of sight readers and which one rote learners who also happen to be able to interpret the music well with their conductor.

I'm sorry if you are not seeing the point I am trying to make, even after repeated explanations. And I am also sorry that you are upset by my tone - the 'soapbox' tag is intended to signal that I am addressing a subject from a somewhat provocative/opinionated stance as an analytical device. You will see from the post I linked to, if you have looked at it, that it is not the only approach I take, and I am sad to feel you consider my work as snobbish and offensive.

Having looked through my original post again, I do not find it so very inhumane, even if under the 'soapbox' label.

To answer your last point. The key distinction is not, in this context, between sight-readers and rote-learners, but between woodshedders and rote-learners. And, having worked with both, yes I can tell the difference in their music-making.

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