Soapbox: Ear Singing versus Rote Learning
Regular 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.