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Note: April 21, 2013 I don't follow the statistics on my website regularly any more. Experience shows I don't get many readers. However lately I see that this is the most read article on my whole website. In this article I describe my experience trying to help one non-singer find her voice. Since that time, in 2011, I have had a similar experience with another friend, a friend from church who has known all her life that she couldn't sing. I worked with her much more extensively over a period of months. I can't say we had any success, but I am working on a description of that experience with the intention of appending it to this article. I would be much more motivated to actually complete this task if a few people would email me and tell me that they are interested. Contact me at either firstname.lastname@example.org or (preferably) email@example.com. Put "can't carry" in the subject line so I won't throw it away as junk mail.
Can't Carry A Tune In A Bucket
Some Thoughts And Observations On Musical Talent
Brian D. Rude 2010
I have been involved with music in some way or another most of my life. I have observed in myself and others various levels, and varieties, of talent. In this article I will relate some of these observations and try to analyze them a little. I have no thesis to argue, just a few experiences to relate and interpret as best I can. I will begin with some experiences and observations involving singing, but will spread out from there.
When asked if they sing, some people will reply that they don't. "I can't carry a tune in a bucket", is a phrase sometimes used. Just what do they mean? Are they talking about ability or interest? Do they mean they can't sing like they would like to? Do they mean they sing in a monotone?
I think they can mean any of these things, and more. Some people have never really tried to sing. When they were in elementary school and in a singing situation they would drone along with the words, but would really pay no attention to the music. They wouldn't know if they were singing in tune or not. They wouldn't know what it means to sing in tune, and they don't care. I will call these people the apathetic non-singers. We may assume their musical ability is very low, but there is certainly the possibility that their apathy covers up some talent.
Other people are very painfully aware that they can't sing in tune. They remember being back in elementary school in a singing situation and not being comfortable. They would try to sound right, but they wouldn't know whether they were singing in tune or not. They would always suspect they probably are not. As they grew older they got increasing confirmation that they cannot "carry a tune". Once in a while a teacher may have asked them not to sing, to just move their lips and pretend. However I think this is very rare. Teachers don't want to do this. In most situations teachers will put up with a few droners. In some situations the singing in general is of such low quality that droners are hardly noticed.
Some idealists might argue that there is no such thing as a droner. Everyone can sing. They just need a little encouragement sometimes, or the right situation. I do not agree with this. I have limited experience teaching music. My experience as a vocal teacher is limited to one year when I was young. I was the only music teacher in a small town school. I taught both instrumental and vocal music. I did not have droners in the high school girls chorus or boys chorus, but those were elective subjects. In the lower grades I was aware of a few droners. Everyone had to take music in the seventh and eighth grade. And of course everyone had regularly scheduled music time in elementary school. I didn't worry about the droners in elementary school. Each grade would be scheduled for about twenty minutes of music two or three times a week. We would sing songs, mostly for enjoyment, and it was enjoyable. Trying to teach each grade a few new songs during the course of the school year was as ambitious as I got in that situation.
But I wanted to do better with the junior high kids. Vocal music was an important part of the music I taught for these groups (separate boys and girls groups, as music alternated with physical education). I tried to teach singing in parts, with some success. But I was always aware there were a few droners in each class. I wondered all year what to do about them - ignore them, try to do things as a group that would get them on pitch without identifying them individually, try to work with each droner individually away from the group, or try to identify and help the droners in class, risking embarrassment to them. I never found an answer. I never really tried anything.
In years since I have had occasion to ask other music teachers what they do about droners. The answer is always inconclusive. More than one person whom I considered to be a very good music teacher answered my question about droners very nebulously. I concluded that it is a problem for them too, that they didn't have a really effective solution to the problem. If anyone has a good solution, I have not heard about it.
Some people may think they have a solution. One incident sticks in my memory. It was the year I was a full time music teacher and I was at some local music teacher's workshop. A professor of music education was there, probably he was the speaker, though I don't remember for sure. Somewhere between events I was talking with him, and I asked him what to do about droners. I don't remember just how I asked the question. There is the possibility that he misunderstood what I meant to say. Anyway, he was glad to give me an answer. "Have them start on the fourth line D, sing la, then . . . . . ." He continued on for a while, but he had immediately lost my attention. Unless I misunderstood him, and I don't think that is likely, he was talking nonsense. He was suggesting that you could take a non singer and ask him to match a pitch in the upper register of his voice. That is totally unrealistic. You might get a droner to sing "la" on a note, but the note will be low in his voice range, very low. This music professor only showed that he was out of touch with actual teaching and actual kids, totally out of touch.
I do have a technique in mind for dealing with a droner individually. I have had very limited chance to try this technique, and never for long enough to know how much success is possible. The technique is to have to subject hum a pitch, any pitch. Then I find that pitch on the piano. Droners drone on a low pitch, about at the bottom of their range, I believe, and when asked to sing any pitch, will produce a low pitch. Once you find the subject's pitch on the piano, then ask the subject to try to relate the sound and feeling of his or her voice and the sound from the piano. Then try to move up a half step and try to have the subject follow. Over time, hopefully, one can expand the range and the facility in matching pitches. The most important factor in this technique is that you, on piano or perhaps your own voice, must find the pitch of the subject, not the other way around. If the subject could find your pitch there wouldn't be a problem in the first place.
I will describe the last time I tried this. As I say, I think it is a promising technique, but I have seldom been in a position to try it. In this case I was only able to try it for perhaps a half an hour, which is not much of a trial.
A friend at church, a middle aged woman, mentioned in passing one day that she could not sing. She further related that an acquaintance of hers claimed that she could teach anyone to carry a tune in one session. I asked my friend how her acquaintance was going to do that, but there was no clear answer. I was very interested in this. Was the method her acquaintance had in mind anything like the method I had in mind? Anyway after talking a few minutes I suggested to my friend that I would like to get with her at the piano some day and see if my approach could elicit a bit of tune carrying ability from her. She was willing, but it was a month or so later that we actually managed to find a time get together at church with the piano and see what we could do.
During this month I did plenty of wondering just what my friend meant when she said "I can't sing". I can't remember her words. She may have used the phrase, "I can't carry a tune in a bucket", or she may not have. But the meaning was clear. She was claiming that she could not sing at all. Doesn't that mean she cannot carry a tune? Or could it mean something else?
Yes, it certainly can mean something else. Occasionally people will say "I can't sing" when all they mean is that can't sing as well as they would like, or as well as their friends, or as well as their parents expected. Sometimes a person will say, "I can't sing" followed by something like, "My vibrato never really matured." Sometimes a person will say "I can't sing" when what they really want is to sing and be complimented on their singing. But also, of course, sometimes a person will say, "I can't sing" and mean simply that. When they try to sing all pitches are at best slight variations on some pitch near the bottom of their voice range. I suspect some of these people may not even know how to make their voice go higher or lower.
I expected my friend probably could carry a tune, but I was wrong. To start out, when we finally got together at the piano, I chose an easy song out of our hymn book. I don't remember just which one it was, but it was probably one that starts the melody on the tonic and moves mostly stepwise. I think I played a B flat chord, and then a half a dozen beginning notes of the melody, and then asked her to sing a bit of the first verse while I played the melody notes on the piano. She was right, she couldn't sing. Her pitch was low, but did not match the B flat tonic. I think it was below, even though that is a rather low starting note. I think she probably sang only about five words of the song before stopping and saying something like, "See I told you so!"
We probably repeated this much a time or two to confirm what was obvious, though my memory is hazy on the details of what we did. But my memory is clear on the result. She could not sing. She could not get on pitch and stay on pitch for even a half a dozen notes. She could not match the pitch of her voice to the pitch of the note being played on the piano. At least she could not do it quickly and easily as most people can. There may have been a bit of ability there, but so little as to be unimportant. She simply could not match pitches in any meaningful sense, either in isolation or in the context of a familiar song.
My basic technique, as I have mentioned, is to have the singer (or non-singer as the case may be) just hum a note. The note chosen may vary in pitch without the person realizing it. This may need to be pointed out, and the person asked to try to maintain an even pitch. I don't remember if this were the case with my friend or not. But we did manage to get so far that I could find her pitch, A flat below middle C as I remember.
It stands to reason that if a person just chooses a pitch at random it will not be right on any note of the piano. It may be approximately A below middle C, but a little higher or a little lower. So maybe it does not totally make sense to say, "find her pitch on the piano". Her pitch is probably somewhere in between two adjacent pitches on the piano. Perhaps for this method to work there must be at least some pitch matching ability present. Perhaps those who apparently cannot match a pitch actually cannot match a pitch unless their pitch is already very close to the pitch being played. At any rate, as I remember it, my friend was able to match the piano pitch once I found the note closest to the pitch she was humming. But it was not easy.
One must emphasize to the subject when she is, or is not, matching the pitch of the piano. "Hear that?", I would say. "You're exactly with the piano. Get that feeling! That's what it feels like to sing in tune!" I think my friend did feel it, at least a little bit, and appreciated it. It was perhaps not a brand new feeling for her. I don't know. But it was not a feeling she would have very often. If she did try to sing with the congregation in church she could not expect to be on the right pitch most of the time. But hopefully by isolating that feeling, dwelling on it, cultivating it, she could make progress.
The next step in my method is to move up a half step and match that pitch. I explained this to my friend as best I could. But how do you explain how to raise the pitch of your voice? Droners don't have much practice in that. But over the next twenty minutes or so my friend was able to come up a few tones and match the pitch of the piano. I think she knew when she was matching, and when she was not, but it was not obvious to her as it would be to a more normal person.
This is as far as I got with my friend. At this point it was time to discuss what the next steps would be, if she chose to pursue the matter. I think she had some interest in continuing, but like everyone else has many competing interests, and singing was not high in priority. I suggested that I could make a tape of some few simple exercises to try every day. Basically I would put just a few minutes of exercises on the tape. I would play A flat on the piano, wait a few seconds, then play A flat followed by A natural, wait a few seconds, etc, etc. etc. I would make it a four or five minute exercise, to be repeated at least once a day for a few days, and then we would meet again and try to progress. I further said that I was very interested myself in pursuing this just as an investigation. I didn't want to be paid. I was not a music teacher at that time, and didn't want to be. But I did very much want to learn what, if anything, helps a person who literally "can't carry a tune in a bucket".
I think our efforts probably confirmed her suspicion that progress would be uncertain and slow. I think she was probably right. She decided that she didn't want to pursue the matter any more at that time. She had lots of other things going on in her life that were more important.
In my experience giving lessons on piano, guitar, and accordion, I have had a few occasions to try this sort of thing with non-singing students. I can't say that I ever got too far, but then the goal there was always either piano, guitar, or accordion, not singing. But with several students, doing this sort of thing just a few minutes at each weekly lesson yielded a bit of progress.
I think it is strange, and sad, that I should be relating this at all. One would think that any music education program would address this problem of non-singers. Every music teacher will have droners. That is just a fact of life for any music teacher who cannot be selective in choosing students. But the problem was never addressed in my music education courses. Music was my minor in college, not my major, but I think I took pretty much the same music education courses as my classmates did. And I have had enough contact with other music teachers to doubt that it is addressed in music education courses anywhere. I surely don't understand why. But that is another matter than the subject of this article.
My non-singing friend was perhaps as low in vocal ability as anyone that I could describe. I will next describe my own singing aptitude, as I think it might be about next in line in a logical progression from low to high. I am not a nonsinger like my church friend, but I am not too far away. When I was in a singing situation in elementary school I was probably an apathetic droner. I don't know for sure if I was a droner or not - I was that apathetic. I don't remember much about vocal music in elementary school, but we must have had some. I do remember seventh and eighth grade music. As was the usual custom it alternated with physical education, so it would be two or three times a week in a single sex class. Mostly we sang, so I didn't pay much attention.
I do remember that the teacher had us learn a little music notation. That included knowing the key signatures of the different keys. I cannot remember if it made any sense to me at that time. I was playing piano at home to at least some extent. That would give me some basis for understanding key signatures, but I don't remember if I understood it enough from my piano playing to really understand what the teacher was trying to teach us. I remember some confusion. Just what does it mean to say that a particular piece of music is in the key of G? I could certainly memorize the keys, one sharp is G (or E minor - I canít remember if we learned that or not), two sharps is D, and so on. But it is entirely possible that my confusion was primarily caused by wondering what sense my classmates, without benefit of piano playing, could get from it.
Once I got into high school I had no more vocal experience. However as high school wore on, and I continued to play piano at home, I began to realize that I had made a mistake in never taking any music. I realized that I did have an interest in music, and that I wanted something more than simply playing piano on my own at home. Somewhere along the line I began to wonder what was meant by classical music, but for a few years didn't know enough, and didn't care enough, to try to learn anything. I think it was at the beginning of my senior year in high school that I decided classical music had been a mystery for too long. I joined a record club and began to listen to the symphonies of Beethoven, the piano music of Chopin and so on. It probably took only a few weeks to decide that I liked classical music, and wanted to learn a lot more.
So I began college with the intention of taking some music, even though up to that point I had passed on every chance to take any instruction in music. My first semester I enrolled in the only music course that seemed appropriate for me, fundamentals of music, a two hour course for non-music majors. I did well, of course. There was a fair amount of book work, and I could learn things from books. The teacher was the cellist on the music faculty, so I decided to take up the cello, which I did the next semester. Cello was my main instrument in college. I think I was rather untalented and never progressed too far, but it was an important part of my musical education and development.
I had no interest in vocal music at that time, but after a semester of cello lessons I knew I wanted to continue in music. That second year I took music theory, which I did well in except for ear training. I think it was the year after that that that I decided to take the voice class that was offered for beginning singers.
I did not do well in that voice class. And the class did not do well for me. We had a book of nice art songs to work on. We presumably worked on the artistic details. We would sing individually for the class. I know I did very poorly. Whether I was actually off key or not, I do not know. I was struggling to simply match pitches, to start off on the right note, and stay on the right pitch. I did not fit into that class.
But of course I analyzed everything. It did not take me long to realize that the teacher was at a loss as to what to do with a would-be singer who actually had trouble matching pitches. Her solution was the same as the solution of most music teachers with droners - just ignore the problem. Looking back on it, I have an idea of what she could have done, and should have done. She should have told me to come to her office and she would help me individually. I donít think this actually would have taken too much time on her part. I think a few minutes on one song, telling me where I was losing the pitch, whether I was too high or two low, and so on might have be valuable to me. I was extremely untalented, compared to the normal students that a singing teacher works with, but I was not as untalented as my church friend. I think with some careful guidance I might have made some progress. I wonder what the teacher thought about me. I suspect, but have no way of knowing, that she simply wrote me off. She probably just saw failure as inevitable and felt no obligation to think any more about it. Iíll never know.
I suppose I got a C in the course. The music department grades easily. I started to take the second semester of the course, but dropped out in the first week. I think the final straw was the book of art songs we were going to use the second semester. They were more sophisticated musically than what we used the first semester. It seemed just too futile.
This experience made me well aware of my limitations. One day in a music education course the professor was making some point about voice quality, how it varies with every individual, and was asking individual students to just sing ďlaĒ on a certain pitch. We were supposed to listen for differing tonal qualities in different voices. Would he ask me? And could I match that pitch? I was nervous. I donít like being embarrassed. He passed over me. I wonder what he thought about having such an untalented person as me in a music class. I always assumed he passed over me intentionally. Bless him for that.
I do not have trouble matching pitches now. I can sing at church with no great concern about matching pitches. However I donít normally try to sing at church because my voice has lowered over the years and I know I canít get up to the high notes, so I usually donít sing the low notes either.
But when I say I can match pitches now, that doesn't mean I can match pitches like others can. I am made painfully aware of this when I have a recording, from the radio or internet, of a tune that I wish to transcribe into notes. I have done this off and on for years, and it is nearly always difficult. It helps if I can hum or sing along with the recorded music. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't. I think many people of average musical talent and singing ability would have a hard time understanding what I mean here. Just hum along, they would say. What's the problem? Well, I can't seem to find the right pitches. If it's a simple tune, and I persevere, I usually get there. Sometimes with perseverance I have transcribed tunes that are not simple, and even found harmonies that are anything but simple. But other times I simply cannot. Yes, I can match pitches, but no, I can't do it with the ease I would like, and that many people take for granted, and I can't do it in many unfamiliar contexts.
What should be done for kids in elementary school who canít match pitches? Should anything be done? I think there is a fear on the part of teachers about embarrassing students. Singing, for some reason, is not like arithmetic or spelling. If a kid can't add or spell the teacher makes no bones about it. Incorrect responses are immediately identified as such, or circled in red ink. Actually, teachers do care about whether or not the kid might be embarrassed, just as parents do. But we also realize that we have to give correction if we are going to teach. And so we do. When a student makes a mistake we don't ignore it.
Iím not sure what ďshouldĒ be done for non singers in elementary school, but I can visualize some possibilities. I am assuming the general pattern of a music teacher spending maybe 20 minutes with each class perhaps two or three times a week doing mostly singing. This practice not only provides some music instruction for the kids, but it also provides some relief for the classroom teachers. Once this schedule is put into place at the beginning of the school year it can be difficult to modify. You canít have less music time, because the classroom teachers count on that relief time. But equally you canít have more music time, or take kids out of the classroom because the classroom teachers have enough trouble just getting in everything that they are supposed to cover.
But visualize this. The music teacher does the usual thing for the first eight weeks or so of the school year, and during that time gets an idea of the vocal abilities of each student. She informally identifies the droners, and perhaps also spots exceptional talent . Then she explains to the class that their regular singing time will be given over to a substitute, and she will work with small groups of four or five students at a time on a special task. Call it ďdiscovering your voiceĒ or something like that. She would choose the groups of four or five based on vocal ability. For a group of five droners or sort-of droners she would work on matching pitches as I have described. For another group of five who can easily carry a tune she might work might on part singing, or sight singing, or scales, or whatever might seem appropriate for the normally talented, or even highly talented children. The important thing is that some arrangement like this would allow a teacher to work individually with droners, so there would be at least a chance that some of them could be taken beyond that stage.
This sort of assumes that there is a droning stage in everyone's vocal learning. If so then it would probably be at the toddler stage for most children. Perhaps some children never have a droning stage. Perhaps they can sing a phrase of several words or syllables on pitch at the stage when the parents expect only a repetition of the words or syllables. My guess is that careful observation would show that a droning stage can be identified in any child, and that the percentage of droners decreases with age. I would take a guess that perhaps 50% of three year olds are droners, but something more like 30% of five year olds are droners, and maybe 10% of fourth graders are droners, and so on. But all of this is just speculation. I am not aware of any research along this line.
The scenario of a music teacher working with small groups on singing is all fantasy, of course. I can only imagine how it would work out in practice. However several things are clear to me. Getting every kid to find his or her singing voice would take individual attention. That is hard to do. I costs money to pay the teacher, and it can disrupt other teacher's schedules. And it is clear that it calls for a shift in the usual perspective. The "perspective" I am talking about here is a passive, and polite, assumption of competence. We do not use this passive polite assumption of competence to arithmetic and spelling. We give direct instruction in these subjects. We assume children are not competent in these subjects until we teach them, and test them. Can't we do the same for singing as we do for arithmetic and spelling? Should we?
These are not a rhetorical questions. I think the answer to the first part is, yes, we can. The answer to the second part of this question, should we, is also yes, at least if we can afford it and find time in the school day for it. But as to just how to do it, all I have to offer is what I have already said.
Having described a low level of singing talent, I would now like to present a few descriptions of a high level of singing talent. However that is not easy for me. How would I recognize a high level of talent, as opposed to a medium level of talent? I observe that other people can sing without difficulty. How can I distinguish levels of singing talent more finely.
I can describe a church friend in a city where we lived for two years. In that two years several of us formed a small group of musicians that would perform every month or so at a nursing home. In the year, approximately, that we worked together I became aware that Alan had a special gift for singing. I'm not sure just how to describe this special gift. He always knew just where the pitch of his voice should be. That means, first of all, that he could always sing in tune. Second, it means that he could easily sing a harmony part.
Alan's talent was something more than simply being able to "carry a tune". Perhaps it would make sense to define the ability to "carry a tune" as to be able to produce the right pitches under favorable circumstances, and indeed circumstances often are favorable. The favorable circumstances I am talking about are that the song is reasonably simple and familiar, and others are singing the same thing. In a group singing situation if one can match the pitch of all the others, one can sing. But we can describe less favorable circumstances, and as circumstances become less favorable I would presume that the number of singers who are successful and comfortable in their singing decline.
One might imagine a sliding scale of difficulty along these lines. I will suggest the following:
Level 0: The singer can not dependably sing the right pitch, even if surrounded by competent singers.
Level 1, The singer can competently carry a tune under very favorable conditions, such as:
a: The singer is surrounded by other competent singers. No one is singing harmony. No one is droning or singing out of pitch.
b: The singer is singing solo, but with an accompaniment that clearly includes the melody line.
Level 2, The singer can competently sing under somewhat less favorable conditions, such as:
a: The singer is surrounded by mostly competent singers. No one is singing harmony, but at least one person is droning or singing out of pitch.
b: The singer's immediate neighbors are competent singers, but there is at least one harmony part also being sung.
c: The singer is singing solo with no accompaniment.
d: The singer is singing solo with accompaniment that does not include the melody line, but the harmonies are simple and clear
Level 3, The singer can sing competently under conditions such as:
a. The singer can hear others singing his part, but can also plainly hear harmony parts.
b. The singer is singing solo, but with an accompaniment that not only fails to double the melody line, but at times is dissonant with the melody line.
Level 4: The singer is competent under any conditions more difficult that already described.
I feel sure that my friend Alan would be on level 4. I can only guess what the relative distribution of the general population would be on this scale. The general population includes at least some people who will simply avoid being in any situation that calls for singing. One might ask what the relative proportion of these different classification might be in different singing groups. I will present my opinion in several different scenarios.
Scenario 1, the congregation of a church is singing a simple hymn. I would estimate 5% are on level 0, 50% on level 2, 30% on level three, and 15% on level 4. I would think of this as approximately the distribution of singing talent in the population at large.
Scenario 2, a high school mixed chorus. Hopefully there will be 0% on level 0, but the only way to ensure this is to restrict entry in some way or another. Then I would estimate 25% on level 1, 35% on level 2, and 25% on level 3 and 15% on level 4.
Scenario 3, A selective high school chorus or a selective church choir. I would guess 0% on level 1, 10% on level 2, 50% on level three, and 40% on level four.
Scenario 4, A professional singing group, 100% on level 4.
It might be argued that these figures can't work in scenarios 2 and 3. If you have a high school chorus and don't have 100% on level three and four then you can't do what we normally expect of a high school chorus. My guess is that there are many who are actually on level 2 or even level 1, but who appear to perform competently at level 3 simply because the teacher knows what must be done to accomplish that.
Are these levels fixed by nature, or are they subject to improvement by training? Can one be a level 1singer and by effort and guidance become a level 3 or 4 singer? I don't know. I'd like to find out. I remember well being a level 0 singer in my youth. Now I'd call myself a level 1 singer. Can I go higher? Should I bother? I don't know.
Next I will talk about talent with harmony, beginning with singing in harmony. The ability to sing in harmony is taken for granted by some, totally foreign to others, and an object of envy to some, like me. I have described how I struggled just to match pitches. Could I ever expect to be able to sing harmony? I donít know. I may find out some day, or I may not. How does one learn to sing in harmony?
Some people can naturally sing in harmony. They donít seem to have to learn. Some of them, I presume, have no idea what they are doing. They just do what sounds good. Others know exactly what they are doing because they have studied music, both theory and performance. Can training take the place of natural ability? Could I, with very modest musical talents, but a substantial knowledge of music and music theory, learn to sing in harmony in a meaningful sense? I don't know.
In reading about music education there is some mention about introducing part songs in upper elementary school. Does this work to teach the singing of harmony? I donít know. The one year that I taught music I wrote out some two or three part arrangements of some simple songs for the junior high classes. I think I could make them work for the girls, but my memory is not clear. I think with the boys my success was less, and perhaps would best be called borderline. Are others successful in getting general pre high school students to effectively sing in harmony? Probably, but I don't know. I know some teachers can get wonderful sophisticated music out of a children's chorus. My daughter was in one in elementary school. But that situation is not and unselected class of students of that age. The children's chorus my daughter was in was open only by audition. Students had to want to be in that chorus and they had to audition. Hence there were no droners. I had a lot of respect for their teacher. I was amazed at the marvelous music he got from those kids. But I have no idea what he was able to do with a general class of sixth graders.
Presumably the use of rounds is a good way to begin part singing. The rational is that in singing a round the singers are singing in harmony, but since they are just repeating the same melody in different time frames, it is easy, enjoyable, and leads to other skills in harmony. I don't know if this is basically true or not. My only experience with singing rounds has been in church services. I don't like singing rounds in church. From my perspective we just wade through it as an exercise. When we are done some people say it was good. People who don't like it, like me, are politely silent.
Until recently I passively assumed most people reacted to singing rounds in church as I do, which is to say they don't care much for it, but politely decline to complain. However recently it occurred to me that that might not be the case at all. Perhaps some people, musically inclined or otherwise, do like rounds. Perhaps for a lot of people it is a satisfying experience. Maybe I don't like rounds because my musical brain, such as it is, is simply not capable of integrating the two parts into one musical idea. When I am listening to good harmony singing, I really like it. In that situation, listening, apparently my musical brain does whatever it takes to integrate the parts into a whole.
I will move from the idea of singing in harmony to a more general idea of a harmonic sense. I can describe my sense of harmony. I have a knowledge of harmony that comes from several years of music theory in college. Music theory is largely technical. You can dig it out of a book, and I did. You learn that a major chord consists of a minor third on top of a major third, while a minor triad is a major third on top of a minor third. You learn that a triad built on the first, or fourth, or fifth scale degree is a major triad, but a triad built on the second, third or sixth scale degree is a minor triad, and a triad built on the seventh scale degree is a diminished triad. All of that is a matter of conceptual knowledge. It is learned a lot like math is learned, with definitions and the logical consequences of those definitions. It's not hard, but there's a lot to learn. I can't all be learned in one year of music theory in college, but two years gives a pretty good foundation. Two years of music theory pretty well covers the ideas needed to understand the structure of most music of western civilization. Beyond that, of course, there's no limit. There's always something more to learn.
So I know all about harmony from a music theory perspective. But what about a natural "sense of harmony"? What about the people who know nothing of music notation or theory, but still can sing spontaneously in harmony? How does that work? And what about the harmonic sense of what we might call "strum along" musicians?
I will discuss the "strum along" concept, as it can give a picture of talent in harmony that is not apparent in other settings. I have two sources of experience here, my experience teaching guitar, and my experience observing guitar players, or players of other instruments, in a natural setting. I will describe each.
I have a little experience giving private guitar lessons. This was over a period of about ten years, but during that time I never had a full teaching load. At most I would have as many as ten guitar students at any one time. This is not massive experience but it gives me some basis on which to talk. I used a note approach to teaching guitar, not a chord approach. A chord approach to guitar instruction means that chords are taught first. Students are shown where to place the fingers for several chords, then shown a simple quarter note strum, and the result is used to accompany singing or another instrument.
I felt this chord approach was pretty primitive, though quite appropriate for some teaching situations and for some students. It does very little to teach note reading. There are a few students, to be sure, who donít want to learn to read notes. But most students are quite agreeable to learning to read notes, and I considered note reading very important. And one can certainly learn to read notes from playing guitar if one will simply use a note approach, not a chord approach. So that is what I did. I would start with simple melodies using middle C, D, E, F, and G. (Thatís middle C as written, first ledger line below the treble staff, actually sounding an octave lower on the guitar, and itís third fret on the A string of the guitar.) Then as the lessons progressed I would add more notes up and down. After perhaps a month of instruction we would get into occasional two string chords in these simple melodies, and then shortly thereafter introduce three string chords on the top three strings of the guitar, and then add lower strings to make complete chords as we went along.
With this note approach to learning guitar students don't have much opportunity for a while to use their harmonic sense. But after some months of instruction the student knows several chords, and can go from one to the other reasonably fast and effectively. Then the student is capable of chording along as accompaniment to either singing or another instrument. It is at this point that one can began to observe the students natural ability to fit harmonies to melodies. My observations do not lead to any dramatic conclusions, other than that harmonic ability varies greatly among different people.
Of course my students would normally be playing from notes, which very much obscures their natural ability in harmony, unless you know just what to look for. I felt I did know just what to look for. And to describe what I would look for I will turn to harmonic ability in what I will call a "natural setting". To explain this I will describe two hypothetical guitar players. These descriptions are based on a number people I have actually known, usually only briefly.
Player A is about eleven or twelve years old, and is growing up in a musical family. They sing and play instruments and have friends over who do the same. At perhaps age 5 player Aís parents presented him with a guitar and started showing him how to place his fingers for chords. He enjoyed it, and by age ten could strum along quite fluently with the songs his family sings. When someone introduces a new song in a familiar key, he has no trouble very quickly learning the chords. Even on the first or second time a song is played he intuitively knows when a chord change is coming and what chord it will be, at least for simple songs in familiar keys.
Player B is superficially very similar to player A. He's also about 11 or 12 years old, also growing up in a musical family. Like player A he started learning guitar at about age five and has made similar progress. However player B does not have the natural harmonic sense of player A. This is not evident when he is strumming along with familiar songs. But when somebody introduces a new song his comparatively lesser sense of harmony becomes apparent, if you observe closely. He is not nearly as quick to pick up the new song. Let's say the new song is in the key of G. Both player A and player B know to expect it to start and end on the G chord, that the D7 will probably be used a lot, and the C chord might be used quite a bit. They both know that various other chords might be used, but likely will not be. All this knowledge is easily available just by being in the setting of family music making among people who know a few chords on the instruments. It is important in enabling both player A and player B to learn the new song pretty quickly. However the difference in how A and B do this is quite pronounced if you watch closely. Player A hardly needs to be told what the chords are and when to change. He seems to just know. Player B doesn't seem to just know. On the first playing he doesn't know when to change chords. He may strum several beats after a chord change before he realizes he missed it. Then he may play another beat or two on a wrong chord. His harmonic sense is limited in comparison to Player A. If the new song is introduced in a family gathering, and if the song is repeated over the next weeks and months at similar gatherings, player B may continue to make many mistakes before he becomes fluent in making every chord change accurately and exactly on the right beat. These mistakes may not be very noticeable to others who are just interested in enjoying the music, but they are evident to player B himself, and anyone who is watching him closely. If player B is organized and conscientious he may shorten the learning process considerably by writing out the lyrics and putting chord abbreviations above the words. Or, if he has learned, he may play from music. Player A never needs to do this. His harmonic sense makes the whole learning process go quickly and easily. After playing through the song a time or two he will make no mistakes in which chord to play at any time. Player B must consciously learn the harmonies for every song he plays. Player A doesn't have to learn the harmonies. He just knows them. He feels them.
But how complete is this harmonic sense? It is one thing to have a harmonic sense that is easy and adequate for dealing with the I, IV and V7 chords. that is what I described in player A. But does it follow that such a player will just as easily, perhaps after some years of experience, be just as capable with a song that has much more harmonic elaboration? Suppose a song starts on the tonic and jumps to the major three chord, a C chord going directly to an E major chord, for example, probably followed by A, D, and G, then back to C. Is this just as easy for player A as the simpler three chord songs? I presume not, but I have little experience to base this on.
However I will describe a bass guitar player that I know, as he gives some perspective on this. I'll call him player C. C is not a person of high general intelligence. In fact he is below normal intelligence. As an adult he lives in a group home for people who are not quite up to independent living. But he has more musical talent than I. As a child it was obvious that he had some musical ability and interest. However he never progressed very far on any given instrument. He learned to read notes a little bit, but only a little bit. And he learned to read rhythms even less. However at about age 18 or 20 I asked if he wanted to try bass guitar. He was willing, and within the next few months he was quite successful.
Player C had tried playing guitar in his younger days, but made very little progress. He never could get his fingers to move from chord to chord with any fluency. In fact I don't think he ever got a firm knowledge of just where the fingers go for any chord. I didn't ask him to play bass guitar by note. Note reading never worked for him. But with bass guitar you mostly play the root and fifth of the chord. This C could do quite effectively by ear. It turned out that he could anticipate chord changes. His harmonic sense was like I described for player A. At that time I and some friends had a polka band that practiced about once a week. For a year or so C was a regular part of this. Actually C had been playing tambourine with the polka band for a few months before it occurred to me that he should try bass guitar. His tambourine playing was pretty simple, but a welcome addition to the sound of our band, at least when he was paying attention. (When his mind wondered, sometimes it was not such a welcome addition.)
In this context I was able to observe C's harmonic ability. He had no trouble with tonic, subdominant, and dominant harmonies. However anything beyond that didn't seem to work for him. If a song had a two seven chord leading to a dominant seventh chord, C would not get it. I would try to help him. "That's a D chord there before the G chord" I would tell him, if the harmony were a D7 going to a G7 leading to the tonic C, and he might get it on the next time we played that song, but then he would forget. He would either stumble at that point, or would go straight to the G chord. I have described player B as being able to write down the chords with the words , or in some other way use his brain to do by design what his harmonic sense would not do for him automatically. But C was not that conscientious or capable. If he couldn't play it by ear and intuition, he couldn't play it. C's harmonic sense seemed to work well on I, IV, V harmonies, but not beyond that.
Can one's harmonic sense change? I have one bit of evidence that it can, and that evidence is once more myself. I remember taking music theory in college. I always did well on anything that I could dig out of a book, anything conceptual or analytical. But I always did poorly in any sort of ear training. I seemed to be totally incapable at harmonic dictation. The teacher would play a chord and tell the class that that was the tonic. Then he'd play the next chord and ask what harmony it was. I would not know. Others in the class would know. "That's the dominant" a student would say, and the teacher would confirm it and go to another harmony. I tried hard, but seemed to get nowhere. I just seemed to have no harmonic sense at all.
I have a vague memory of wondering a few years later, sometime in my twenties, if I could ever develop a harmonic sense. And I remember musing that life is long. What seemed impossible at that time might not always be impossible.
And years later the impossible seemed to happen. I don't remember just when it was, and it did not happen all of a sudden, but at some point I realized I could recognize a II7 chord when I hear it in a piece of music, at least sometimes. I might have been in my forties at that time, or perhaps only my thirties. I had not been active in music in all those intervening years, but music has never totally left my life. And of course my knowledge of music theory was a big help. When I began to be able to identify a II7chord when I heard it, I knew exactly what I was hearing. The theory was easy. The music itself was what was hard. Actually "hard" is not the right word. "Impossible" is the right word. Until I started hearing the two seven chord, my progress in recognizing harmonies was flat zero.
Until this time I could listen closely to a simple piece of music and try to hear chord changes. I simply got nowhere. My ability didn't change for years. My harmonic sense was zero in college and zero for years after. I might hear what I thought was a chord change, but not know what the new harmony was, or even if indeed the harmony had actually changed or not. But at some point I realized I could identify one harmony, the II7 chord. I suspect I could identify it only in a simple context. I think if the music happened to have the tonic move to the II7 chord, I would know it immediately and without a doubt. Or if the harmony moved from a V chord to a II7 chord, I think I would immediately recognize the II7 chord. But I would have no way of knowing whether the preceding chord was a tonic, dominant, or what. But somehow I would just know the II7 chord when I heard it. I was glad for that, but a little sad that it came a decade or so too late to do me any good in my music theory classes.
Was this the beginning, I wondered, or will it lead nowhere? It didn't matter much at the time. I was not doing anything in music in those years other than enjoying it at times. There was no practical benefit of being able to identify a II7 chord when I hear it. I hoped it would lead to more harmonic talent, but it didn't matter much. If every additional accomplishment like this was going to take decades, it really wasn't very important. But it was gratifying to realize I had progressed a bit.
Somewhere along the line I learned to identify a flat six chord when I heard it. I don't know if this came before or after learning to identify the II7 chord. Actually it may have occurred when learning about it in music theory. If so then I am wrong about my harmonic sense being flat zero while in college. But I always considered it not of too much importance. It is a very distinctive sound, and it almost always comes in a predictable pattern at the end of a piece, a brief alternate to the final tonic for dramatic effect. I was glad I could recognize it, but it didn't seem to be of much importance when I would struggle so hard to identify the basic harmonies and get nowhere. It didn't seem to really count as part of a harmonic sense.
I am sixty-six now. My harmonic sense has developed. Now I don't have much trouble identifying a subdominant chord when I hear it. The dominant, which one might expect to be easier to identify, for some reason is not. I still am very seldom certain whether a chord is major or minor. A diminished chord, I think, is sometimes identifiable, but not dependably. About the only harmonies I can easily identify are the II7 and the IV chords.
Actually there are two hopeful exceptions to this. If I will pick up my guitar, and if I can find the key of the song, and if its a pretty simple song, I find my fingers will recognize the harmonies quite readily. I may not consciously know when a dominant chord comes, but often my fingers will automatically move. In this context, guitar in hand, my harmonic sense is adequate for four chords, the I, IV, V7, and II7.
And sometimes I will try to analyze a song and find I am pretty sure that the harmony jumped to the major VI chord or major III chord, or possibly a major flat VII chord. If I am trying to transcribe a song from the audio that can be very helpful, but it is only a vague feeling, not very definite.
But is my harmonic sense now comparable to the harmonic sense of my classmates back in college? Probably not. The harmonic sense that I might be developing in mid life probably came to my music classmates early in their lives. What they learned in college was probably just formalizing that talent, not developing it. I was decades behind.
Developing the harmonic sense is not very important to most people. Probably most musicians have it enough to not have to be much concerned with it. And non musicians have no reason to care. But one still might ask about it. Are there musical experiences that parents should make sure their young children get that are important to developing the harmonic sense? Is there something that piano teacher ought to do along that line? Is there something that untalented music students like myself can do?
Maybe everyone should learn to play accordion. Maybe my harmonic sense, pathetically weak and late as it is, developed as a result of playing accordion and guitar. The connection here is in the fingers. Just as my fingers will automatically find harmonies on guitar, providing the music is simple, perhaps my fingers finding the chords in the left hand accordion provided an essential link to being able to identify a few harmonies when I hear them. I started playing accordion in midlife after picking up an accordion at a garage sale. Had I never played accordion or guitar would I remain the harmonic basket case I was in my youth? I have no way of knowing.
So now I can strum along on guitar when the opportunity presents itself. Is there a connection between a strum-along harmonic sense and being able to sing harmony by ear? Can one lead to the other? I would think so, but I don't know.
There is yet another line of thought on harmonic ability that I want to bring up. From my formal study of harmony in college I know about major, minor, dominant seventh, diminished seventh, and augmented chords. This forms a good basis for analyzing most music one encounters in everyday life. All this is vastly more complicated when one gets into sixth chords. The sixth chords I am talking about here are major, minor, and possible diminished or augmented triads with an added tone a sixth above the root of the chord. I am not talking about chords built on the sixth scale degree such as the somewhat common minor six chord in major tonality or the somewhat common major six chord in minor tonality, or the abrupt and dramatic major six chord built on the flatted sixth scale degree in major tonality. Rather I am talking about the usual chords with a sixth above the root of the chord added for harmonic color. In the key of C major, for example one can have the C6 chord of C, E, G, and A, serving its usual function as the tonic. When studying these chords in college I was not too interested in them. As the years went by after college and I would engage in music in some way or another I would come across six chords and mostly ignore them. I would wonder why they were there. But one situation caused me to think about them, and I came away with a new perspective. I will describe this situation.
My daughter played clarinet in school. I think she must have been in the sixth grade when this incident occurred. Of course method books for band instruments include an occasional solo with piano accompaniment. I wanted to play the piano part for one of these simple solos for my daughter. (I really can't remember whether she wanted me to or not, but I like to think she did.) So I opened up the piano part to practice it. I quickly discovered that I didn't care too much for the piano accompaniment, though the clarinet melody seemed nice. I probably did this off and on for a few days, each time not much liking the piano accompaniment. Something about it seemed so mediocre, so unattractive, so unappealing. I like a wide variety of music. This was a simple clarinet melody with a simple accompaniment, so why was it so unappealing? So finally instead of just practicing the notes that were written I tried to analyze it. Maybe I could simplify it a little, and make it more to my liking.
To my amazement the simplification was very easy and did wonders for the attractiveness of the piece. The accompaniment, as written, used a lot of six chords. When I analyzed a bit I realized that it was the usual pattern of I, IV, and V7 chords, but with an added sixth in most of them. I went through and threw out all the added sixths and was pleasantly surprised to find that the piece was now very attractive. I liked it. It was appealing. It was nice. It gave the type of feeling that in my senior year of high school made me realize that I want to learn some music.
What kind of idiot, I asked myself, wrote this stupid accompaniment? Some guy who doesn't know music, I thought. But it didn't take too much time for me to realize that it could be exactly the opposite. Maybe the accompaniment was written by some person who revels in the harmonic richness of six chords, and wants to share those wonderful sounds with the whole world.
In other words, maybe my musical brain is simply not capable of processing six chords. Maybe what to others is a rich world of subtle flavors is to me nondescript mud. Indeed at that time I had decided that's what six chords were to me, mud. Take a nice tonic chord, add a sixth above the root, and the result, to me is a muddy unattractive sound. But maybe that's only me. Maybe people with a better harmonic sense than I find such chords very attractive.
Or maybe not. I also consider the possibility that the editors of the book this clarinet piece was in just thought they should be modern. Maybe half a dozen people who had influence in putting together that book personally preferred the accompaniment as I did, simple I, IV, V7 harmonies, but figured they should be more modern. Maybe they thought that's what modern ears want. If that's what they think I suspect they are sadly mistaken. Of course I have no way of knowing what they were thinking.
But I don't think that all six chords are a matter of trying to be modern and pretentious. I like some harmonies beyond the basic three. Indeed I think there have been sometimes when I liked six chords, but I can't remember any specific examples. So the idea that six chords really are attractive to some people makes some sense. And the idea that they are attractive to those whose musical brains can somehow process them, and mine can't, seems sensible.
Am I the exception? Is my harmonic sense just so much below average that my musical taste is stunted? Perhaps. But I will describe two more people I knew whose talents have some relevance here. One person, I'll call him Alf, played accordion by ear. If he read notes at all he was not very fluent, and avoided them when he could. After playing with this person for some months it became apparent that he avoided minor chords also. That seemed funny. Minor chords are so easy on accordion. There is a whole row of them under the left hand. And there are plenty of simple tunes in a minor key. Alf was not interested in them. In the course of our playing together I would occasionally think of a tune in a minor key and suggest it. I can't remember details, but I think Alf's melodic sense was such that he could pick out a tune in a minor key without much trouble. He could probably play Greensleaves by ear, for example. But if he did he would avoid adding chords with his left hand, even though it seemed very simple to do so. Perhaps more telling is what he would do with tunes in major keys in which minor chords, built on the second, third or sixth scale degree, were used. he would not play the minor chords. he would simplify the tune a bit to avoid them. I tried to prod him now and then to use minor chords when clearly needed in some familiar melodies, but I never got too far. He would make some effort to oblige me, but clearly his heart was not in it.
Alf had some musical talents that I did not. I had a lot of musical knowledge that Alf did not, and perhaps I had some musical talents that he did not. But it's hard to pin down just why Alf avoided minor chords. My best explanation is that somehow his musical brain could not process minor chords, just as my musical brain could not process six chords.
And there is yet one more step in this discussion. I have known several people, perhaps Alf is one of them, who simply don't do dominant seventh chords. A friend I'll call Terry loved music. He said he loved bluegrass, but it would be more accurate to say he loved simple songs, old time songs. He played strum along guitar a little, and mandolin as I recall, but more commonly played string bass, by ear. After playing together for sometime, months or perhaps a year, it became apparent that where I would want a dominant seventh chord, Terry, playing guitar or mandolin, would play just the dominant chord. Why didn't he use the seventh chords in that situation? They are generally just as easy on guitar, and are well worth the effort. My explanation is that the dominant seventh to Terry must have been what six chords were for me, and apparently minor chords were to Alf, muddy, unattractive, and unwelcome. Why? I presume Terry's musical brain somehow could not process them. And I know Terry is not alone. I have known other strum along musicians who apparently don't play seventh chords. They seem to have a good harmonic sense in that, like Player A I described, they can anticipate chord changes in the music, at least for harmonies limited to I, IV, and V7, which they change to I, IV, and V.
Is this a matter of talent, or preference? It is certainly preference, but is it only preference? I don't know. My best guess is that the preference is based on the ability of the musical brain to process some sounds and not others. In that way it could be called talent.
I have talked about singing talent and harmonic talent. What about rhythmic talent? I don't have too much to say about rhythmic talent, because fortunately it has not been a great problem for me. Is there something in rhythm that corresponds to the droner in singing? Probably. I presume there would be those who cannot easily and dependably clap along with the rhythm. Is there a way to turn a "rhythmic droner" into a rhythmically competent person? Perhaps. I do have some ideas on teaching rhythm that comes from my experience, but will not go into that here.
v I have some other experiences having to do with manifestations of musical talent, but now I want to turn to the rather academic question of defining musical talent. Are there many musical talents, or just a few, or one global talent. And where, evolutionarily speaking did musical talent come from. Why, in an evolutionary perspective, should we have any musical talent at all? And why, in an evolutionary perspective, should we have find any appeal in music.
When talking about singing I sort of took it for granted that singing ability requires musical talent. Or should we say that singing talent is musical talent? Or is it possible that one might be able to sing quite adequately, but still, for some reason, still be said to not have much musical talent? It would seem sensible to me to say that a sense of pitch is an important part of musical talent, but surely there are other forms musical talent. Is it possible to have a very good sense of pitch, yet somehow be unable to apply that sense of pitch to one's voice, and hence not be able to carry a tune?
A pioneer in studying musical talent is Carl Seashore. In fact his is the only name I know in this subject, though I assume there must be others. He wrote "Psychology Of Music" in 1938. I have a copy of this book and have tried to study it, but it doesn't seem to give me much enlightenment. He devised a test of pitch discrimination. To test a subject's pitch discrimination he gives two tones, either by tuning forks or by some electrical apparatus, and asks the subject if they are they same pitch or if they are different. If the subject can successfully identify one tone as the higher and the other as the lower, then that subject is given two more tones that are closer together in pitch. the test continues in this way until the subject can no longer say that one pitch is higher than the other. I can understand the attractiveness of this approach as a beginning point to study the perception of pitch, but as I understand it Seashore then takes this as a general measure of musical talent. Indeed he says:
"Since pitch is the fundamental character of a tone, and pitch discrimination is a measure of the capacity of this sense, it ordinarily may be regarded as the most basic measure of musical capacity that we have. It determines not only what we shall hear, but fundamentally what we shall remember, imagine, and think, and, most important of all, it determines in large part what emotional reaction we shall have for the tone. These differences, often enormously large, must therefore be taken into account in selection and guidance for music education, in musical criticism, in choice of instruments, and in judgment concerning extraordinary capacity, or incapacity, for musical purposes. (page 63)
That seems quite a leap to me. I can imagine subjects who do well on this test of pitch discrimination, but who can not match pitches with their voice. I can imagine subjects who do poorly on this test, but become accomplished musicians. I can imagine many other combinations of test scores and musical abilities or inabilities. But I don't have data, other than a few anecdotes, to base any conclusions on. If Seashore is right, that a test of pitch discrimination is valid as a test of general musical ability, I don't think he establishes that in his book. And I don't think he's right. The way to establish it would be to show a good correlation between the results of his "talent test" and some other measure of talent. For example he could give his test to a few hundred fourth graders, predict their future musical accomplishments and then after, say, five years come back and collect data on the same kids. How many of them took up an instrument and stuck with it for those five years? How many sing in a school chorus, and are there any among that group whom their teacher would describe as droners. And are there some whose teachers would describe as musically gifted?
Has anyone done this? Surely in the past seven decades or so someone has tried. But I know nothing about it. A few years back when I began teaching guitar and accordion I subscribed to the Instrumentalist magazine for several years. The target audience for that magazine is mainly high school teachers of instrumental music, and there are many articles directed to that audience, but I was impressed by the shallowness of those articles. One would think that if anyone has ever done useful research in music education it would leave some trace in that magazine.
Seashore gives a lot of emphasis to pitch discrimination, but he also has a chapter on time discrimination. He does this by a very similar testing process . Two tones are presented and the subject is asked which has the longer duration. Some subjects have a high level of time discrimination, and other subjects have a lower level. Is this a valuable approach? Does a highly developed sense of time mean a person is good at rhythm? I would think probably not. If it is, then I think it would have to be established through experimentation. I don't think Seashore does anything along this line. I have not tried to study Seashore in any depth. It doesn't seem that promising.
It seems reasonable that the ability to play an instrument requires musical talent. It seems reasonable to say that the ability to sing requires musical talent. It seems reasonable to say that the ability to accurately play complex rhythms on a drum set requires musical talent. And it seems reasonable to say that these various musical activates require different talents. Is it possible that a person could be a proficient piano player without being able to carry a tune? Probably, but I have no evidence at hand. Is it possible that a person could be a proficient piano player, but not be able to play an unfretted stringed instrument in tune? Again, probably, but I have no evidence. It would seem reasonable to say that different people do best on different instruments. That would seem to be an argument that musical talents are varied.
The last few paragraphs don't seem to lead anywhere. My opinion in general is that there are many musical talents. There are many abilities that can be conceptually separated and observed and that lead to musical ability. But to identify them with any precision is not something I can claim to do at the moment. Some of those abilities might be very mundane. Others might be very subtle.
I will use the concept of note reading to get to a talent that is perhaps rather subtle, but perhaps of some importance, and perhaps about as basic as a talent can be. How should we define note reading? If a person learns to identify the letter names of the notes on the treble staff can we say that person can read notes? Perhaps we could, but that is a pretty low level of proficiency. If a person can fluently play a simple one-note melody on the piano from printed music, can we say that person can read notes? this is certainly a higher level of proficiency than giving the letter names of a few notes. A slightly higher level of proficiency in note reading would be the ability to play at sight two hand piano music in which both hands have chords as well as single notes. But in setting up levels like this are we talking about note reading or proficiency in playing an instrument?
It may be hard to separate note reading as an abstract skill from the playing of notes on any specific instrument. But what about note reading in vocal music? This gets into sight singing.
In sight singing you sing the pitches, and rhythms, dictated by the notes. I can read notes, and could since childhood, but only in the primitive sense I talked about above. I could not sight sing beyond a very rudimentary level. Indeed I may not have even known of the concept of sight singing until I took theory in college. Notes on the page, to me, were directions on what key to play on the piano. They did not convey information of what those notes would sound like. You played the notes, and then you learned how they sounded.
As a child I also learned to play the trumpet a little. We had a trumpet in the house because my older brother took beginning band for probably one year, but was not interested enough to continue. So, along with learning some piano on my own, I also learned how to play the trumpet. We had a method book with the trumpet, which of course had fingering charts. That was enough for me to figure out whatever I needed. I'm sure I was never very good as a child, but I could play a little. Again the notes on the printed page were directions to be followed. The sound came from the instrument. However it goes a little beyond that with the trumpet. Just because you are putting down the right keys doesn't mean you are playing the right note. You have to know by ear whether you are playing the right note or not. The first line e, for example, has the same fingering as the second space a, or third space c#. I had no trouble with that. I played melodies I knew. My musical sense was adequate to tell me if I were playing the wrong note with the right fingering or not, but musically that is pretty blatant. Notes remained primarily directions on what to do. The idea that you could get the sounds directly from the notes, with no intervening instruments, was slow to dawn on me.
But people can get sound directly from notes on the printed page. How is it done? Again I will turn to my own experience, starting with melodic dictation.
Melodic dictation is an important part of ear training in freshman music theory. The teacher plays a few notes in succession, usually announcing the starting note, and the students respond by naming the successive tones. If there are only two notes then it is a matter of identifying the melodic interval. That was very difficult for me, but I understood exactly what we were doing and made some progress. If there are more notes than that then it can be very difficult for the musically untalented (and very easy for many people who are so musically talented that they have a hard time understanding why we might bother with it.)
For me about the only way it can be done is with "movable do". Most musicians will know what I mean by moveable do, but for those who do not I will briefly explain.
v The major scale consists of a series of half steps and whole steps. Using the traditional syllables, do (sometimes spelled doh), re, mi, fa, so (sometimes spelled sol), la, ti, and do an octave higher. A given note on the piano is not automatically any of these scale degrees. It depends on which key you're in. If you're in the key of C, then C is do, D is re, E is mi, and so on. If you're in the key of D, then D is do, E is re, F# is mi, and so on. The major scale consists of a whole step between do and re, a whole step between re and mi, a half step between mi and fa, a whole step between fa and so, a whole step between so and la, a whole step between la and ti, and a half step between ti and do.
There seems to be something natural about the major scale. The frequency ratios are in simple whole numbers. For example the frequency ratio of notes an octave apart, such as do and do an octave higher, is two to one. The frequency ratio of so to do below it is three to two. The frequency ratio of mi to do below it is five to four. and so on. There's a lot more to it, but that's a brief description. I understand these basic ideas were understood in the ancient world. The come easily from some simple experiments with vibrating strings, providing you can accurately measure the length of the string and the tension on the string. Apparently the brain is somehow wired to naturally identify these simple ratios of pitch. And apparently it takes only a pretty low level of talent to put notes in a framework of a scale by ear. A person, such as myself, with limited musical ability can get these sounds in his head, in terms of the do, re, mi syllables. Then a little knowledge of musical notation enables one to fairly easily interpret the printed notes in terms of these do, re, mi syllables, and therefore know the pitches, or relative pitches at least.
So I can take a piece of simple music, observe the key signature, thereby know the scale degree of each note, and thereby be able to hum the melody. I'm not sure I can hear the sounds in my head before I hum them, but when I hum them, and think about them, and check them mentally in various ways, I can get the melody. I gather talented musicians can do this a lot more fluently than I can, and probably with a lot less mental effort. If the melody is in a minor key I can't do much. I can hum a major scale or major triad with confidence. But I cannot hum a minor scale or a minor chord with any confidence.
Shape notes is a system of notation that makes use of all this. I understand that several varieties of shape note systems were popular in parts of the united states in the 19th century and into the twentieth century. With a shape note system the tonic of the scale is notated with a certain shape for the head of the note. The dominant has a different shape. The mediant has yet a different shape, and so on. Perhaps shape notes were used only for major tonality. I'm not sure of that.
But this type of approach is rather thought intensive. One has to consciously analyze in terms of a framework of tones that has to be learned to a reasonably high level of fluency. One has to develop a pretty good sense of the sounds of the different scale degrees. I have never tried to learn shape notes. It seems like it would probably not help me much. I'm already analyzing in terms of scale degrees when I try to sight read anyway.
v In my studies of music theory in college this sort of analysis using moveable do was not prominent. Indeed I think the only time it was mentioned was in a class taught by a European trained professor of music theory. The concept came up in class when a student asked some question about something. The professor was shocked at the idea of moveable do. He had apparently never heard of the idea and immediately decided it was crazy. As I understand it in Europe, or at least parts of Europe, "fixed do" is standard. Do is C, re is D, mi is E, and so on. Do has nothing to do with being the tonic of the scale. When the professor expressed his shock at the idea of moveable do, I had already figured out that it was a valuable tool for me. Using it I had already made a bit of progress in melodic dictation, and I couldn't imagine being able to get anywhere without moveable do. The ear training we did in this professor's course was more or less impossible for me. I think by this time I was quite aware that other people get sounds from notes, but I simply knew and accepted that that was not the case for me. I think it was probably about this time that I formed the opinion that my natural musical ability is pretty mediocre. I still think this is the case. I have accomplished what I have in music on the basis of interest and hard work, not on the basis of talent.
Apparently practicing musicians are much better than I at hearing sounds in their minds from seeing notes on the page. How is this ability developed? I would presume that for musically talented people this skill must be developed to quite an extent before they tackle it formally in a music theory class. And it would seem that this is a pretty basic musical talent. But is it needed to be a good singer? It would seem not at all to be needed for the basic task of carrying a tune vocally.
I will hypothesize that the most basic musical talent is the ability of the brain to process musical sounds, and to hold a musical idea, or to mentally construct a musical idea out of the elements of pitch and rhythm. Is that the same as the ability to imagine sounds? I don't know.
I will present a few more examples of musical talent in people I have know. I don't have any particular conclusions to draw from these examples, other than the general idea that the most basic musical talent is the brain's ability to process musical sounds.
Al, as I will call him, was a guitar student of mine for a year or so. His talents were limited. He was probably about 50 years old when I knew him. Apparently he never had any musical training as a child. Or, if he did, it had all disappeared. When he came to me he had been trying to teach himself guitar for probably a number of months, or perhaps more. He had a few songbooks with guitar chords, and probably a guitar book or so that explained the basics of playing guitar. He had a misconception about rhythm. He knew the count values of quarter, half, dotted half, and whole notes. But when he would count, for example, a dotted half note and a quarter note in one measure, he would pick the guitar string on each count, in effect playing four quarter notes. He knew something was wrong but just didn't understand quite what. He understood my explanation and got that straightened out without trouble.
Al never made rapid progress, but he did learn. I teach guitar with a note approach, not a chord approach. I start with simple melodies, emphasizing note reading and understanding the basics of music and music notation. This he could learn, and did, but slowly.
Al seemed to have a special lack of talent in placing his fingers of his left hand. He was okay playing simple melodies one note at a time, but when we began to take up chords his lack of left hand motor ability became much more pronounced. For a simple chord, the C chord for example. He knew where his fingers should go on the frets. He could put his fingers there one at a time just like anyone could. But that is only the beginning of learning chords. Next must come increasing fluency and quickness in placing those fingers. For an accomplished player all fingers must move simultaneously from one chord position to another. For most people this takes a lot of practice over a period of weeks or months. For Al it just never came. He could not move his fingers quickly, and he could not move his fingers accurately. They seemed dead.
I was part of an Irish band at that time, a small group of guys who liked to sing Irish songs on St. Patrick's day, with varying degrees of musical skill and taste. After perhaps a year of guitar lessons I invited Al to join us. He did so, and very much liked the experience. But his skill just didn't develop much. He could chord along, nothing more. He is in good company there. Many guitar players never get beyond the "strum along" stage, and many have no desire to. But for many of these players a high degree of speed and accuracy comes with experience. Their left hand can move quickly, easily, and accurately from one chord to another. This did not seem to be the case for Al. His chording was never clean and effective. His guitar playing was pretty well lost in the sound of the rest of the band, and that was good. Just what mix of enjoyment and frustration he got from playing with us I never knew. I believe he got more enjoyment than frustration, hopefully a lot more. He enjoyed the music. But there had to be some frustration in trying to make the music. His fingers just never could learn to do what he wanted them to do.
Is this musical talent? Or should finger dexterity not be considered musical talent? I'm not sure. Maybe Al's lack of finger dexterity should no more be considered a matter of talent than a person with only two fingers on his left hand. Finger dexterity, it might be argued is only peripherally related to what should be called musical talent. As I have suggested, perhaps musical talent must be first considered as the ability of the mind to hold a musical idea, or to mentally construct a musical idea out of the elements of pitch and rhythm. By this definition a person who does nothing more than imagine music could have good musical talent. And by this definition a person who is a skillful performer could have very little musical talent. As an extreme example we might find a person who can skillfully play the piano, but with no more musicality than the person who can punch the right buttons to play a CD.
Al was very unsuccessful at guitar playing because of his lack of finger dexterity. Watching him struggle to place his fingers on the fretboard of the guitar would make me wonder if that lack of finger dexterity hampered him in other areas of life. How can he hold a fork in his hand if he is so unskillful? How can he shift gears on a tractor? How can he get a key into a key hole? How can he open the tiny latch on a necklace? I don't know. I never had any evidence that his lack of finger dexterity caused any problems in everyday living. But how would I know?
Perhaps I have it wrong. Perhaps it was it the other way around. Perhaps Al had approximately normal finger dexterity, but a lack of musical talent prevented him from using that normal dexterity to a musical end. I don't have much of an opinion on Al's musical talent. I should have considered that more at the time, but at the time I was always wrapped up in trying to figure out how to get those fingers to do what we wanted them to do.
In contrast to Al I will describe Frank. Frank was a high school student and he was very talented musically. He came to me to take lessons on bass guitar. He was quite the exceptional student. He was a skillful guitar player, though he may never have had any lessons. As I recall when he started with me he was not a skillful bass guitar player. But that didn't mean too much. He didn't need lessons from me, or anyone, to become skillful on any instrument. He just needed a little practice. So why did he come to me for lessons? That was never entirely clear, but after a few months one rationale became apparent. I believe that his mother pushed him to take bass guitar lessons as a way of learning to read notes. That certainly made sense. And indeed he did try to learn to read notes. And I supplied him with notes. That's the way I teach, by note. It's hard to say how much he succeeded in learning to read notes. He simply didn't need notes. Once he knew what sound he wanted, he knew how to produce that sound, whether it be a melody, a particular harmony, a rhythm, or whatever. It appeared that he had a basic knowledge of note reading. He could name the notes on the staff, probably not as fluently as would be desirable, but fluently enough for most situations. For any instrument he tried, he could learn the basics of where the notes are. He played baritone in the school band, but that didn't seem as important to him as his guitar playing. I presume the fingering chart for the baritone made sense to him. I presume he knew the fingerings for all the notes. But that is not quite the same thing as saying that he was good at note reading. Again, he learned very quickly what sounds he wanted, and he knew how to make those sounds. He had no need to be a fluent note reader.
Frank played in the school jazz band, I believe. But Iím not sure he was a regular member or just stepped in now and then when they needed a guitar player. I'm not sure just what he did. Maybe he just chorded along, maybe he did a lot more. I didn't have occasion to know too much about this. However I got a little more perspective on his guitar playing after he began taking bass guitar lessons. More than once he would come to the bass guitar lesson with his guitar and ask for help figuring out a particular chord that he wanted. I think he knew all the common chords, but would need to figure out an uncommon chord, such as an Eb7 chord. I would figure how to finger it for him. Normally it would be a bar chord. He would listen and watch carefully and place his fingers as I directed him and strum it a few times. Then he take his fingers away and repeat the process another time or two. Then he would be satisfied. At that point, I presume, he could then go to the jazz band and competently play what he wanted to play.
There are only a few general finger positions for bar chords. Frank was probably familiar with most of them. He lacked the knowledge of basic music theory to figure them out by himself. When I showed him I presume the information I presented would relate in his mind to various other things he knew. What impressed me most was the control of his fingers that he took for granted. Is this musical talent?
Finger dexterity is very important here, but is it only finger dexterity? I don't know. I think of myself as having pretty good finger dexterity, but I could play the bar chords that I would show to Frank only rather primitively. I could figure out a chord and know where my fingers should go. I could put my fingers in position to show Frank the chord. But I could not thereafter quickly and easily go from one chord to another. Frank could. I could go quickly from one chord to another only for a few very familiar chords. Bar chords were always very difficult for me, as they are for many people. But for Frank bar chords were simply no problem. If Frank had a highly exceptional degree of finger dexterity, was it evident in other areas of life than guitar playing? I don't know.
Is the difference in Al's and Frank's ability to make their fingers do what they wanted independent of musical ability? I don't know. Is it possible that both Al and Frank had approximately equal musical talent, but Frank's dexterity made everything possible? Is it possible that both Al and Frank had approximately equal dexterity, but musical talent made all the difference? I don't know.
v Frank did not make spectacular progress on the bass guitar. He was talented and interested in music, but I think his interest in bass guitar was not at the top of his list. At the beginning of a lesson I would ask him to play what I had assigned the last week. He would do so, and was usually reasonably competent in his playing. But often I would get the impression that he had practiced little or none on the piece that I had assigned. This is not uncommon for music students, at least in my experience. Students know that practice is necessary to learn to play an instrument. And they intend to practice. Sometimes they are very enthusiastic about sticking rigorously to a practice schedule. But life has a way of diluting our good intentions. Initial enthusiasm has a way of slipping away. Many other things demand our time and attention. A once a week music lesson can easily get lost, pushed back, ignored, rationalized away. "I'll practice tomorrow", a student may think. But then tomorrow is not a good time to practice either. Soon the whole week has gone by with little or no practice being done. Sometimes it works out that a student practices regularly simply because it is enjoyable. No good intentions are needed. Other times a student has the self discipline to faithfully follow through on good intentions. But also it is very common for the good intentions to become forgotten. Sometimes a student realizes rather quickly that music lessons are probably not really worth the effort, and the student therefore quits. Other times a student may go a year or so, showing up faithfully once a week for a lesson but doing very little in between. I suspect sometimes a student is caught in a dilemma, being unwilling to give up on the goal of learning an instrument, but also lacking the discipline to make it work.
It is clear that Frank had an exceptional talent for guitar playing. I think it is also clear than Frank had an exception talent for music in general. Beyond that all is murky.
I have another short experience to describe that is relevant here. I had one saxophone student. I'll call her Jane. I probably had no more than a half a dozen lessons with her, so I can't say too much about her ability. I was not looking for saxophone students. I am not much of a sax player. It's just one more instrument that I have picked up out of interest and learned a little. Her parents thought maybe a few lessons from me would help her with her note reading. I hope it did, but it was hard to tell. Like Frank she had a pretty good musical talent. In one of the early lessons, I had her play a simple tune that I had assigned the previous week. She played it quite competently, probably not flawlessly, but one note followed another without much difficulty. But after only two or three notes I realized she was playing the right tune in the wrong key. How is that possible? Her eyes were on the notes on the page, but she wasn't playing the notes on the page. For normal students it wouldn't make any sense at all. But for her the explanation was quite simple. She knew the tune. She was still rather new to the saxophone, but she had been at it enough, months probably, so that she knew a lot of the notes and their fingerings. So, like Frank, if she knew the sound she wanted, she could produce them. Note reading was hard for her. That was the main reason her parents wanted her to take a few lessens from me. But her difficulty with note reading didn't seem to matter much to her ability to play the sax. I think she wanted to read notes better. I think she was quite aware that her note reading difficulty was a handicap that she had to compensate for in various ways. But her high general level of musical ability probably enabled her to compensate quite effectively. I think she continued to play saxophone throughout high school. I suspect her note reading ability advanced somewhat during that time, but I can well imagine that her compensations were always important.
I mentioned some paragraphs back that it appears that the most basic musical talent is the ability of the brain to process sounds. Al, Frank, and Jane neither prove nor disprove this idea. Frank appeared to have a high ability to process musical sounds, and his motor abilities allowed him to easily translate what was in his brain to what his muscles should do. Jane was similarly talented, though less pronounced than Frank. Jane had the additional problem of a somehow special difficulty with note reading. That is not irrelevant to learning to play an instrument, and it is not irrelevant to sight reading, but she can still produce music in a wide variety of settings. Al was hard to figure out. His fingers just could not move with the speed and efficiency needed for normal guitar playing.
Is Al's motivation evidence of the ability of his brain to process musical sounds? He loved music. Had he not he would not have persevered. Can we argue that a love of music is obvious evidence of the ability of a brain to process musical sounds? A central theme through this article is the idea that my musical abilities are sub par, at least in comparison to successful practicing musicians. But my love of music has kept me at it for a lifetime. I've pretty well given up telling friends that my music talents are limited. I make music, so I must be talented. Well, I'm talented enough to do what I do, but I wish I could do a whole lot more. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of music, so apparently my brain must be able to process musical sounds. But I have many frustrations with what I can't do, so my brain cannot do all that I wish it could. I'll stick with my hypothesis that the most basic musical talent is the ability of the brain to process musical sounds, but I'm not sure it gets us very far.
Carl, as I'll call him, was another guitar student of mine. He was probably in his twenties when he took guitar lessons from me for a year or so. He had no great talents, but made steady progress for a while. If he had any musical training as a child, it was not at all evident. He probably didn't practice nearly as much as one would like, but he was not one of these students who would come to a lesson totally unprepared. He did not learn fast, but he did learn, and seemed to enjoy it.
I bring up Carl to describe the situation that I think is relevant at this point. For the first few months of guitar lessons the typical student is a slave to the printed notes on the page. In general that is good, because note reading is important. However we don't want anyone to be a total slave to the printed page. Being able to play by ear is also valuable. So after a month or so, maybe several months, I will try to modify that dependency on the printed page at least a little. In a typical lesson after a student plays the piece I assigned the previous week, and after we work on trouble spots a bit, and make sure they understand whatever ideas of music or music notation that are relevant at the moment, I will ask a student to play the same piece without the notes. Sometimes I would take a sheet of paper and lay it over the printed page and say something like, "Let's see if you can play some of that without the notes." For many students this becomes a common part of lessons, but not necessarily every lesson. A typical student, after I have done this a few times, accepts the idea, and begins the piece and is able to play a few measures without the notes. At this stage the goal is not to memorize music, but to develop the ability to play by ear, and I think most students understand and appreciate this.
This would not be needed for Frank or Jane, of course. It's obvious they can do a lot without notes. But most students are not nearly so good at it. Carl, it seemed could do very little by ear. I think the first time I did this with Carl he could do nothing. Just for illustration let's say the tune was Yankee Doodle in the key of D, though I really can't remember. "Do you remember the first couple of notes?" I probably asked him. No, he didn't. "Well the first measure is d, d, e, f#" Can you play that?" He would think hard to assemble that information in his mind and probably could play that one measure, but nothing more. I don't remember details but I think we would do something like this every now and then, but not at every lesson. I didn't want to over do it. He was making progress. He was developing his note reading skill quite satisfactorily. Reading from the printed page he could string notes together, one after the other, to make the melody that was written. He enjoyed the music and the learning. I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that success. But it is also well worthwhile to develop the ability to play by ear, so I would come back to this stratagem now and then. I don't think he ever made much progress.
For Carl, I presume, note reading was pretty much like it was for me when I was young. Notes provide information of what to do. When you do that, then you find out what the music sounds like, not before. Does that mean Carl could keep no musical ideas in mind, not even a simple melody like Yankee Doodle? I don't know. In many ways Carl appeared to have pretty normal musical abilities. But maybe it would be more accurately to say he had little musical ability. He just was competent in reading symbols, interpreting those symbols, and doing what those symbols told him to do. That's talent, but maybe not musical. Maybe that's just normal intellectual talents applied to mechanically playing the guitar. Perhaps Carl had very low musical talent in the sense that his brain was no good at all at processing musical sounds. Or perhaps his brain was fine at processing musical sounds, but his body was no good at all at knowing how to translate musical ideas into motor actions. And yet when presented with notes, he knew how to translate them into motor actions.
Carl enjoyed music, so far as I could tell, so maybe that is evidence of musical talent. But it is also true that people enjoy learning, especially when they are in a situation in which the subject to be learned yields to efforts. They get satisfaction of accomplishment, which can be quite separate from enjoying the music. Or so I would suppose at least.
Here is another phenomenon that I wonder if it connects to talent. When I was young, say age nine or ten, I was aware that I liked music. I played the piano because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed learning, to be sure, but I also simply enjoyed music. I also listened to the radio and enjoyed the music that was available there. I think radio was different at that time than it is today. A substantial part of a typical radio broadcast day would be the popular music of the day. New songs by popular entertainers were just a part of everybody's culture, more so than is the case today. And of course we would be introduced to new songs in our school music. I was aware from a rather young age that I could not know if I liked a new song or not on the first hearing. I have always been introspective and analytic. I would think about what I was thinking. And I remember being consciously aware that any new song would at first be meaningless to me. I would have to hear a new song several times before I would start to form an opinion about whether I liked it or not. At some point in my young life I observed that seemed not to be the case with others. They would announce immediately whether they liked a new song or not. I wondered how they could know. Are they different from me? Can they really know on the first hearing whether they like a new song or not?
My hypothesis is as follows. I have said that the most basic musical talent must be the brain's ability to process sounds. Perhaps many people can process the sounds of a new song much more effectively than I. Maybe my sound processor is relatively ineffective and inefficient. Until I manage to process the sounds, in whatever way the human sound processor works, the artistic appeal of the sounds cannot come through. Perhaps other people's sound processors are comparatively more effective and efficient. Therefore it is easy to know on first hearing whether one likes a new song or not.
I have mentioned that in my senior year of high school I joined a record club to find out what classical music is all about. My knowledge that I don't know whether I like a new song on the first hearing served me well. When my first records came I fully expected that I would not be able to make much sense out of the music very quickly. I don't remember well, but I think that is exactly the way it happened. My first shipment, as I recall, contained five records. One record, I think, had Beethoven's fifth symphony on one side and the fourth on the other. Another record was all of Chopin's preludes. And indeed the first few times I listened the music didn't make any sense. I don't remember if it had any appeal at all at first. But I knew that whether it had any immediate appear or not didn't mean much. I kept listening, and at some point, probably a matter of weeks, the music became attractive, attractive enough to know that I wanted more. I presume it became attractive because my sound processor in my brain, mediocre though it may be, worked well enough to process the sounds given enough time. Once my brain could process the sounds (whatever that might mean), then my artistic sense could respond.
Why does the human animal respond to music? What in our evolutionary past would make the human brain develop the ability to process sounds in the way it does? This has always been quite a mystery to me. Imagine a primitive human, say at a stage considerably closer to human than ape, trudging through a forest looking for food. In that environment how would the ability to respond to a symphony have any survival value? Or how would the ability to whistle a simple tune have any survival value.
I have only a few conjectures to offer. My basic conjecture lies on a very firm evolutionary foundation, our social instincts. We can't know many details about human evolution, but a few broad factors stand out and seem well established. Our brains evolved as general problem solvers. That has survival advantage. As part of this general problem solving adaptation we are social animals and have evolved language abilities. We are pack animals, like wolves, not solitary animals like cats. As part of this general sociability we do things together. Our ability to coordinate our actions has a great deal of survival value. My conjecture is that the ability to imitate and fit our actions with others evolved to include the ability to vocalize, and make rhythmic sounds, in precise synchrony with others. The ability to do this is the ability that allows us to respond to a symphony, or to whistle a happy tune. That's a pretty sketchy hypothesis, but what else is there?
I haven't presented any firm conclusions in this article, nor even any testable hypotheses. Many mysteries remain. But perhaps the ideas and descriptions I provided will be of some value. Music is important in our lives. Almost everyone loves music in some way. We try to teach it in school, yet among the adult population very few are practitioners of music. Perhaps a more thorough understanding of musical talent would enable us to do more with music.