Q&A: If playing music is like speaking a language – what about harmony?

If playing music is like speaking a language, how should we think about harmony, or playing two hands on piano?

Learn the answers in this clip from the archive of live member Q&A calls at Musical U. Enjoy!

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So the first question, the one I mentioned was just quite interesting, was when I had come in via a private message earlier this month. So I won’t say who it was asking because they chose to make it a private message rather than a discussion. But it was one of our pianist members on Musical U and they were asking a slightly unusual question, which is music is a lot like language, so we often use this analogy that learning music is like learning a new foreign language, or that playing music is a bit like speaking a language. But this member was wondering, that’s all well and good, but what about when you have harmonies? What if I’m playing piano and I have my left hand and my right hand, how does that relate to speaking a language? Because obviously you can’t speak two languages at once.

And I had to think about this before answering because it is a slightly thought-provoking question. And in the end, what I came down to was that language is an analogy we use for music. It’s a useful analogy. It can help us understand some concepts, but it’s not a perfect analogy. Music is its own creative art form, and I think we all know it’s not as straightforward as speaking a language. It’s not as simple, maybe, as speaking a language. And so we can’t always expect that analogy to be perfect, but there are a couple of ways we can think about this particular question of how does harmony relate to music as a language.

So one way to think about it is that harmony, the obvious analogy is we have multiple people talking at the same time. So just like you have your left hand and your right hand on piano, or you might have a guitar player and the bassist combining their sounds for a harmony that matches. Language can be a bit like multiple people all speaking, and if they aren’t coordinated, which would be like if we had musicians not playing in the same key, for example, or playing from completely different scales, or not being in sync with their rhythm, it would be a hopeless jumble. If you have five conversations going on around you, it can be quite hard to tune into any one of them. Or if you have two people asking you a question at once, you have to really pay attention to answer one and then the other, and you can’t answer them both at once.

So when people are speaking at the same time and it’s not coordinated, it makes a big mess, and the same is true in music. That said, if people are coordinated, we know from music that that works. When we talk about harmony, what we normally mean is multiple voices contributing to something that works, something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. And the same can be true of language. So if you think about a crowd who are chanting a slogan, if they’re at a protest rally saying, “Down with the something something,” or a crowd of football fans at a match saying, “Come on Arsenal,” and they’re all chanting at the same time, and they’re chanting the same thing, that’s very analogous to music. So it’s almost like they’re chanting in key whether or not they’re speaking at the same note. And they certainly are aligned in their rhythm. And so we can see there even in language, there is the opportunity for a form of harmony or a form of working together like that. So that’s one way you can think about it, that your left and right hands are kind of working together and coordinating, even though they might be saying different things.

The other way to think about it, which is a slightly more heavyweight analogy, is that actually when we speak a language, it’s true that we can only say one thing at a time. We can only speak a certain sentence, and we can’t say two sentences at once, but actually that’s not the only way we communicate. So if we’re communicating with someone there’s also our facial expressions, there’s gestures, like I just inadvertently made with my hand. We move our bodies, we move our faces in particular. And that communicates as well as the speech. And if anyone who has studied body language knows that the amount of information you can receive from someone through their speech and their body language can be much greater than the speech alone. And you know, we all have an instinct for this. When we speak on the phone, we’re conscious that we don’t always quite understand someone as well as if we saw them in person. There are also situations where you kind of can tell from someone’s body language or facial expression that they don’t quite mean what they’re saying, or they’re saying something, but they mean it as a joke. Which doesn’t necessarily come across on the phone when you only have the voice.

And so that’s, in a way, analogous to harmony and music in that we are communicating with someone in multiple ways at the same time, even though only one of them is speech. So that’s maybe a bit more analogous to singing and playing guitar at the same time. But that is an example of harmony. And it’s maybe less clear-cut to see that your left and right hand on piano is a bit like that. But if you held up a written message on a piece of paper and you showed someone the message while speaking to them, you could be saying two completely different things at the same time. And you could, if you wanted to, coordinate those in a harmonic way. So I thought that was quite an interesting question because we do so often turn to this analogy of language for music. And it can be helpful and thought-provoking to think about that, and to think about where are they comparable, and where actually does that analogy break down, and what can we learn about music from thinking about that?

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Q&A: Why use headphones and what kind should I buy?

Did you know that wearing good headphones is one of the easiest ways to improve your ear training? Why is that – and what exactly makes a pair of headphones “good”?

Learn how to choose the right headphones to level up your ears in this clip from the archive of live member Q&A calls at Musical U. Enjoy!

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So, the other question that’s been coming up several times on the site over the last month or so in direct messages and a couple of the discussions and progress journals is about headphones. And I think, based on time, this will probably be our last question unless anyone has any last minute shout outs. The question… The issue that keeps coming up is particularly around harmonic hearing, so when you’re trying to hear a harmonic interval, both notes play at once, or you’re working on chord ear training and you’re trying to figure out different types of chord from one another.

It can really help to use good headphones. And that’s because once you’re hearing more than one note at once, your brain has to listen very carefully to pick apart those notes. And sometimes what you’re trying to do is separate the notes and really hear one and the other. And sometimes what you’re trying to hear is their combination, but in quite an accurate way. But, either way, if you’re listening on terrible laptop speakers, you’re really doing yourself a disservice because you just won’t be able to hear the detail you need to to recognize what you’re trying to. And that can sound funny if you’re not used to audio quality and paying attention to how good speakers are and that kind of thing. You might think, well, I can hear it’s a piano. What more do I need? Or, I can hear there’s an interval, there’s a chord. Surely I should be able to recognize it.

Actually, the ear is very subtle and the more you dig into this area, the more you realize just how much detail the ear is capable of hearing. And I often recommend musicians practice active listening, and that’s probably a topic for another day. But, just to say, spending some time really listening carefully to music can reveal a whole world of detail that you’d been oblivious to when you were just enjoying it as a song for a song’s sake. So, if you’re not used to thinking about this, you might be surprised to hear how much of a difference headphones can make, but they really do. And there’s a number of reasons for that. The first is that good headphones will just reproduce the audio much more accurately. And that means you’ll be able to hear detail in the timbre and in the various notes present that you just couldn’t if you’re listening on tinny laptop speakers or some cheap-o speakers you’ve plugged into your computer.

And the second aspect is just that earphones are either on your ear or in your year, and either way they provide a much better listing environment. So, even if it seems quiet around you, if you’re listening on speakers or you’re listening in the car, there’s a lot of noise that you may not be thinking about, but is interfering with your listening. And that can be as simple as an echoey room, or it can be children playing outside the part of your brain is having to pay attention to. But, getting rid of those distractions by using headphones instead goes a long way to letting your ear really hear what it needs to for these exercises. So, they reproduce the sound more accurately typically, and they isolate you in an idealistic environment to focus on what you’re really trying to focus on.

So then, that naturally brings up the question of what is a good set of headphones. I said a couple of times there, “If you’re listening on good headphones”. And the reality is the headphones that came free with your mobile phone are probably not good headphones. And what I mean by good there isn’t about brand. It’s not necessarily about price. What it’s really about is accurately reproducing the sound. So, for example, your average person in the street might say, “My headphones are really good. They’ve got a lot of bass to them”, or, “My headphones are really good. They make the music sound so exciting”. Actually, that’s not really what we’re looking for. Obviously it can be great if all you’re doing is enjoying music and listening for the fun of it, but for ear training and for really developing your musical ear, you actually want them to be precise, not just sound good.

And there is a difference there. So, what I mean by precise is they are giving you exactly the sound that was originally recorded. They’re not boosting the bass. They’re not adding a reverb. They’re not doing clever effects. Bose, as a company, is particularly notorious for this. They’ll make speakers that sound fantastic, but actually completely distort the sound compared with what was intended by the artist. So, you need to be a bit careful to find good headphones. And there’re a few rules of thumb I can give you for that because I know when you go into your average shop, there’re so many brands and models to choose from. You’ve got a few things to think about. The first is choose the kind of headphones you prefer. So, the three main options are you can get what are called canalphones, where they go right into your ear canal.

And that’s great for sound isolation, but some people hate having something inside their ear. So, that’s personal preference. The next level out is just in ear earphones, like the kind you get with an iPhone or a mobile phone that just sit in this part of your ear. And the third type is what musicians often call cans, the big chunky ones that sit on your ears. These days you can get some smaller ones for sure. But, with those they can be good or bad. The bad is the 1980s Walkman style headphones where they just sit very loosely on top of your ear. Those aren’t so good. What you’re looking for is the ones with a bit of cushioned padding that really create a seal around your ear because that means you still get the isolation even though they’re not inside your ear.

So those are the three main types, and it’s really personal preference, but try and find some that fit snugly wherever they fit so that you do get that isolation from background noise. The second big thing is choose a good brand. So, that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. And it doesn’t necessarily mean a very famous brand. And in particular here, you want to steer away from the fashionable brands. So, a couple of the big ones would be Skullcandy or Beats by Dre. They’re great if you’re into fashion. They’re not so great if you’re into audio fidelity. I think there is one model of Beats by Dre that are professional grade, but for the most part they would fall into the category of headphones that are more designed for style than substance. So, you want to steer clear of the fashion brands and you actually genuinely want to steer clear of electronics brands too.

So, people like Sony or Panasonic, they make decent headphones, earphones, but they’re not the best because they’re not audio companies, they’re electronics companies. What you really want to move towards is audio brands like Shure, S H U R E, or Sennheiser. And they do produce low end, low price point models too. So, you can pick up $30 headphones for sure. It doesn’t need to break the bank. But, if you go into that audio manufacturers range, you’ll be getting generally better headphones. So, pick an audio brand and you’ll find lots of information about those online if you look. And then, look for a model that doesn’t boast about its base response, or its amazing effects, or it doesn’t make claims about how it modifies the music. Some earphones are very much sold on, ‘We will make your music sound better’.

That’s not really what you’re looking for. So, generally mid price range is fine. So, if you’re paying upwards of $30, $40, you’ll probably be getting a good model if you factor in the other things I mentioned. So, an audio brand in that price range will do you just fine. You don’t need to go beyond that. If you go up to the hundred dollar price point, you can get some really nice… Getting into the professional grade there where they’re designed for studio use and that kind of thing. And really, if you want top end, you’re talking probably $200 for a serious pair of headphones that will last you the next 10 years.

But, it doesn’t have to be that. A $30 pair by Shure or Sennheiser will do you just fine. And, if you haven’t tried it, definitely factor that into your training. A, use headphones, and B, if you can buy some good headphones because you might find actually that lets you leap over the hurdles that have been holding you back. And it seems silly, but it just makes it so much easier on your ear when it’s not hearing a blurry sound, or a distorted sound, or a sound half drowned out by the noise around you. So, give that a try for sure.

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241 Q&A: What can you do if you struggle to audiate (imagine music)?

New musicality video:

Audiation is one of the most powerful ways to develop your musicality – but what if you find you really struggle with it?
In this clip from the archive of live member Q&A calls at Musical U we share some practical tips to help you audiate. Enjoy!

Watch the episode: http://musl.ink/pod241

Links and Resources

About Audiation – https://www.musical-u.com/learn/about-audiation/

Audiation and Thinking Music, with Cynthia Crump Taggart – https://www.musical-u.com/learn/audiation-and-thinking-music-with-cynthia-crump-taggart/

How to “Hear Like A Musician” – https://www.musical-u.com/learn/how-to-hear-like-a-musician/

The Secret Music Practice Skill: Audiation – https://www.musical-u.com/learn/the-secret-music-practice-skill-audiation/

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241 Q&A: What can you do if you struggle to audiate (imagine music)?

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