SoundCatcher: Workshop Introduction



Record stores classify music as classical, rock, alternative or folk. But in this workshop we ask a question that spans the genres: whether a piece of music is rooted in its tune or its chord patterns. If the tune is fundamental, then chords may change from performance to performance, if they’re played at all. In pieces built on a specific chord pattern, that sequence repeats and seldom changes, though the melody may be varied or transformed through improvisation. Some improvised melodies are memorable in their own right, like Greensleeves.

Generally speaking, songs are tune-centered and dances are chord-centered, but many exceptions occur. Some world music pieces are rhythm-centered. But whatever the root of a piece might be, that element becomes fixed in people’s memories, like Mona Lisa’s smile. Funny, though, in both the early and traditional music worlds, we find performers adding or subtracting twiddles to the melody of a tune-centered piece, or substituting chords in the harmony of a chord-centered one. 

What if we changed Mona Lisa’s background landscape to New Jersey? Made her robe a different color or style? Stuck a hat on her head? She would continue to be Mona Lisa; she’d keep her identity. The smile is the hook, isn’t it? If the lady started frowning she’d lose us. The melody of a tune-centered piece, or the harmony of a chord-centered piece can vary as long as the hook remains. Identifying that hook can help you remember a piece. 


When a musician reads music, there are four steps between the page and the fingers—seeing the notes, hearing them in your head/aka making sense of them, translating them into finger movements and playing them. That includes both right and left-brain activities.

When a musician plays by ear there are three steps, hearing the notes, translating them into movement, and playing them.  That’s only left-brain.

Since there’s one fewer step when playing by ear, and it doesn’t require coordinating both sides of the brain, playing by ear should be easier than playing from music. And it is, once you learn how to listen. To play by ear you need to listen actively, not just passively.

An example of active listening: When I began to drive my car today the brakes made a strange, clunky sound. I was hoping it would stop after a few minutes, and indeed, after about 10 minutes the sound got softer and finally went away. The kind of listening I did during those 10 minutes was active listening, listening with a purpose.


Gathering information through active listening works best when you have questions to ask, clues to find the answers to, structures to create, like the frame of a house. Then you can fill in the details as you go.  These details create an aural, 3 dimensional map/graph that gives you the information to help you remember the tune.

When you gather information by reading you look for clues in the text. When you gather information through active listening, you listen for clues in the music by 1) noticing what sticks out (finding the hook) and 2) going through a mental checklist. Because you’re no longer reading 2-dimensional text, your clues may also be 3-dimensional—besides notes and rhythms you can use gesture, shape, tone color, balance, anything that helps you remember the tune. You can also organize your clues as if you’re taking notes. It’s up to you.

III. MUSIC HAS DEPTH: images and learning practices

Some useful images when organizing your clues.

  1. Although a tune seems like a succession of equal notes, flat like a field of new-fallen snow, under the snow’s surface there’s a mixture of textures—icy, slushy, slick, bumpy, hard or yielding. Music has texture too under the surface. If you go deep enough you’ll find the tune’s skeleton--the slowest, longest notes of the melody.
  2. Let’s switch to anatomical imagery. If you can reduce a tune to its musical skeleton, how do you build flesh on the bones? Some people consider the whole piece from the feet (bass line) and build up, through the spine (harmony) to the head (melody). Some go down from the top. Some think in food metaphors. Others look at the tune itself from inside out—on top of the skeleton the organs and muscles add quarter notes, the skin adds eighths, and the clothes and jewelry are the 16th note ornaments and articulations.

Howard Gardner says that people learn in a lot of different ways, not just verbally but mathematically, visually, kinetically, spatially, intuitively, etc. Take a second and think about the process by which you usually remember something. A list? A rhyme? Seeing it on the page? That will help you learn music by ear.

Moving to music is a great way to help remember it--experience the music in your body—tap, clap, sing. The melody is high or low/fast or slow. If you think of written music as a graph, a combination of duration (left to right) and pitch (up and down). How does that translate to movement for you?

Learning by ear requires a personal combination of these approaches, your own mix.


The basic elements of music are Harmony, Melody and Rhythm. If we surround them with two questions [How does the music Start? How does it Grow and develop?] we get SHMRG (pronounced ‘Shmurg’). SHMRG can spark your mental checklist.

Other items on your mental checklist might be:

  1. Forms, templates and structures
  2. Patterns, short and long—chords and melodies
  3. Skeletons
  4. Motifs and nuggets
  5. Shapes
  6. Tricks
  7. Poetry +rhyme
  8. Familiar tunes and intervals
  9. And then—what sticks out? What’s the hook? What jogs your memory?


Give your internal critic a vacation-we’re establishing a ‘no blame’ zone.
Trust your process-it will take however long it takes.
Avoid comparisons-with others and with your own idea of what you should be.
Reward your efforts-this is Hard. You’re brave to start.
Ask foolish questions-everyone else wants to know the same thing but is embarrassed to ask. People learn by building on a foundation of background knowledge. If you’re missing some information your foundation is rockier.
Listen to and play or sing along with your tape at least 4x a day, particularly just before you go to bed.
Embrace your mistakes-they’re signs of an active imagination.


Since you have no written music (and please don’t write the tunes down in your room) you’ll learn by listening to the tape, and singing and playing along. The more times you do this each day, the faster you’ll learn. Just listening isn’t enough; active listening requires making music along with the tape. Don’t be afraid to sing with the tape—singing fixes the tune in your brain, and once you can sing it, you can play it.

When learning music by ear, you may find it useful to act like a traditional musician. When most music is ear music, people don’t slow the tune down and learn it in small sections. They play as much of the full tune as they can, up to speed, incessantly, adding what then can each time--a cumulative effect. That way the tune gets in your fingers/voice. Some people need to write the first 2-3 notes of a tune down in a kind of alphabet tablature. C D F for example. That’s ok-you’re using notation as a memory jogger, it’s good for that.

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