Are you listening?

I once tutored a Navajo college student who had trouble writing essays. She wrote beautiful stories filled with rich images, layered in such a way that they circled around and around the central point, engaging her reader in the scenario she described. But she couldn’t get the form her professor wanted: thesis, exposition, conclusion.

She told stories in the way of her predominantly oral culture, where repetition is key to memory.

The ability to refer to the written word lets us get to the point and move on. In music, you can play a dozen new songs in an hour if you can read notes or tab or have a lyric sheet with chords. It’s efficient, you can share the notation with other players, and you can save the tune for later.

If you want to perform, or just play for friends without pulling out your phone and propping it nearby, you can memorize the song. Play what you see and repeat. A bit robotic, but it gets the job done.

Learning a song by ear would seem to be the least efficient way to go. A feature of folk culture used to be that, if you wanted to learn a tune, you had to find someone who’d play it for you, or wait til your neighbors got together and hang out in the back picking up a few notes at a time. Commonly, the range of music in those days was narrow, so you heard the same songs over and over, and their tendency to be based on simple and familiar chord progressions or repetitive melodies facilitated learning and remembering. Still, it took time.

Today, we have as many genres as folk communities had songs, and with both notation and recording, music can be as complex and challenging as we can imagine. Learning by ear is that much harder. You might have to play the same two measures over and over, put the song on every time you get in the car to get the overall structure, then go back measure by measure and see what you missed.

Drudgery or fun? It depends entirely on where you’re coming from. If you’re curious — curious about what your ear can do, curious about what makes this song attractive to you, curious about how it’s put together and how different performers have made it their own — you can’t beat learning by ear. If you want the tune under your fingers, the lyrics flowing without effort, a deep feeling for what’s possible from within the song, learning by ear is the surest way to get there.

For this reason, my preference as a teacher is to teach only by ear in the early stages. But if you’re already playing and haven’t done much ear training, you can get started by picking a song that’s not too complex and work up from there.

As for efficiency, it will come, but later. Once your ear is in gear, you’ll find it easier and easier to pick up new songs, to create harmonies on the spot, to embellish and improvise with less and less effort.

I always found it a pleasure to read the first drafts of the essays my tutoring student brought to me. The more I circled through the landscape of her story, the more beauty and harmony appeared. I find that to be true when I spend time with a recording of a song I want to learn, too. The more I listen, the more I’m rewarded with richness and musical depth, and what might have been work turns into the pleasure of discovery.

Shelley Satonin-Hershkovits