Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Good Ear: Part II

Yesterday, in A Good Ear, we discussed the importance of sensory integration and translation.

Sensory Integration
Sensory integration is what our brains do when coordinating the processing of stimuli that affect multiple sensory systems. For example, when you run, your tactile system lets you know when your foot has hit the ground, your vestibular system (inner ear) lets you know when you off balance, your visual system helps you avoid rocks and gaps in the path, your aural system (hearing) helps you identify potential danger from passing cars, your sense of smell helps you avoid dog droppings. Sensory integration is the process of taking all these sundry inputs and causing your foot to step a little bit to the left or right.

It's important to note that what we often perceive as issues with sensory systems (e.g., not hearing well) have nothing to do with the sensors (e.g., your ears and eardrums), but instead, with the brain's processing of the information recorded by the sensors.

Lost in Translation
Sensory translation is the ability to transform a stimulus from one sensory system into something meaningful to another sensory system. It's the ability to visualize sound. It's the ability to feel as though you were falling when watching a three-d movie. It's the ability to see the fork hit the floor as you hear it. It's the ability to toss a basketball through a hoop.

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses regarding sensory translation. For some of us translating vision into the complex set of movements required to make a free-throw shot comes easily and for others it's nearly impossible. For some, translating scribblings on a page to the motor movements required to play a piano is no problem. And yet, translating what we hear into those same motor movements is daunting.

The problem is not one of hearing. It's not one of being able to play. It's one of translating from one sensory system (hearing) to others (visual and tactile systems).

Once you recognize that there's nothing fundamentally wrong or incapacitating about your inability to play by ear, that it's simply an issue of learning to translate, all that remains is to learn how. As with most things, it's easy if you break it down into steps.

Step 1: Same or Different
This may seem obvious once you hear it, but the first step in learning to translate hearing into playing or singing is to know whether or not you're accurately reproducing what you hear. It starts one note at a time.

You can do this with a piano or a flute or a guitar or with your voice. Have a friend pick a note and play or sing it. Listen to it and try to play or sing the same note. Before you ask your friend whether or not you got it right, ask yourself, "Is what I played what I heard?"

Until you answer, "yes!", don't ask your friend for the answer.

Step 2: Higher or Lower
Step 2 comes into play when you've determined that you're not playing the same note. Then the question is: Is what I played lower than what I heard or is it higher than what I heard?

As you can see, the question itself involves some sensory translation. Low and high are concepts that we can see and feel (through our vestibular systems). Low and high are also aural (hearing) concepts referring to frequency of sound.

So, if the note that you played is different than that note that you heard, was it lower or higher than the note you heard?

Step 3: Use What You Know
You know that you played something different than what you heard. You know that what you played was higher. What do you do?

The easiest thing is to walk (metaphorically) in the direction of the note. If you're higher, walk down. If you're lower, walk up. Slide your finger down the neck of the guitar, one fret at a time. Let your fingers walk down the keyboard. At each step, ask yourself the questions from step one and step two.

Step 4: Tune a Guitar
One of the tools that ruins good ears is the electronic tuner. I can't tell you how many really good guitar and bass players have become completely dependent upon electronic tuners. It their instruments go out of tune while playing a song, they can't quickly identify which string is out, in which direction it's out and then adjust it. Instead, they must wait until the song's conclusion to "tune up" using a machine.

However, tuning a guitar is one of the most efficient ways to develop a good ear.

Each string on the guitar is tuned five steps (half-notes) above the string next to it. The exception is the fifth string which is tuned four steps above the fourth.

For this exercise, we'll assume that the first string (the one closest to your chin when you hold the guitar to play) is in tune. To tune the second string, place your finger just to the left of the fifth fret of the first string and play. Now, play the open second string and follow steps one through three. 1. Same note or different? 2. Lower or higher? 3. Move closer (by turning the tuners at the top of the neck.)

The beauty of tuning a guitar is that it's a simple process and yet it requires many sensory systems. You hear the notes. You see the fretboard. You feel the tuner pulling tighter (higher) or looser (lower).

At first, it may take you a while to get your guitar in tune. But once you've got it, you'll be well on your way to having a great ear.

Step 5: Advanced Tuning
As you tune a guitar, you'll learn that there's the same note and then there's really the same note. Even when the two strings sound pretty darn close, they can be out of tune. You can hear that it's not right. It might bother you a bit, but it's hard to tell why.

This is a great opportunity to improve your aural awareness. Take two adjacent strings on the guitar that are not quite yet in tune. Place your finger on a fret so that both will sound the same note. Play both strings at once and listen.

If you listen closely, you'll hear the volume of the two notes increasing and decreasing at a regular frequency; it's almost like the oscillation you hear from an electric motor or refrigerator compressor. If you adjust the tuning of one string while letting the strings play, you'll hear the frequency of the fluctuation increase or decrease. If it decreases, then you're moving in the right direction. When the fluctuation stops altogether, the notes will be perfectly in tune.

Go Tune A Guitar
OK, that's it for today. I guarantee you that, if you do all the above on a consistent basis, you'll begin to develop an amazing ear. Further, you'll probably get smarter in the process. It's our ability to integrate and translate sensory stimuli that help us "think outside the box" and see answers to questions that can't be seen when you think only in one or two sensory domains.

Don't have a guitar? Pawn shops are full of cheap ones or you could offer to tune guitars for friends. Let me know if you get good at guitar tuning, and we'll move on to more advanced ear training.

Happy Saturday,

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