How musical is a novice?



If you are embarking on skiing lessons, you’ll never have experienced skiing before. In this sense, you’re a complete beginner. But, have you never experienced music, never listened to any on TV or radio or film, never been to a gig or watched a jam before you decided to learn guitar? Never hummed along and remembered a tune? Never winced at an out of tune singer?

If you answer this with a “no”, then you truly are a musical novice. For the remaining 99.99999% of folk, you are not a beginner. You’ve a lot of musical experience. So, I thought we could tease out some musical concepts from your everyday listening experiences, and see if you agree with me that you are not a novice.

Your mechanical technique for playing guitar obviously is non-existent initially, but the cognitive skills for “processing” music are already highly developed, well before day one of picking up the guitar. There is an awful lot of music psychology research to back this up, running tests with non-musicians and musicians alike. Because of these skills, we pick up the clues, cues, and signposts present in music and react emotionally. Because this seems so natural, we never even think about this.

But it’s not a giant step for you to become consciously aware of these cues and so on. With this awareness, you can quickly, easily and simply understand the concepts around how these clues, cues and signposts are created and why the occur where they do in a song, and so you experiment incorporating these into your own musical journey.

However, using these concepts musically is something that develops with experience, trial and error, and observation pulling apart the music that moves you. For many of us, this is a lifelong quest and passion, as is my case.

After reading this you should have a reasonable understanding that music is about relationships formed between notes laid out in time.

The early years

How music affects you is greatly influenced by your previous listening history, starting as a baby.

Awareness of rhythm develops quickly, around the age of one, while the ability to “get the notes right” singing a melody takes a while longer, around the age of five to six. Before that, a youngster can happily wreck a nursery rhyme melody by the pitches they choose to sing, but they’ll sing the words mostly at the right points in time, with the right duration. However, with enough repeated listening, they eventually catch on to the idea that so long as they follow the “ups” and “downs” of the melody,it doesn’t matter what note they start on … the melody will be recogniseable.

The word “rhythm” in this context means the layout of notes in time… e.g. two long notes, one short one, one long note, then silence …. then three long notes … and so on. That whole thing is the rhythm; how sounds and silences occupies the passage of time. The actual notes involved are less important (this isn’t strictly true, but let’s keep things simple)

So, a kid easily recognises the rhythm and can recreate it. The parent could muck around with the notes involved in the nursery rhyme, but keep the rhythm the same, and the kid laps it up. Later, as the kid develops relative pitch awareness (I’ll come to this in a moment), the parent can no longer muck around with the notes used … the kid knows when it’s “right” or “wrong”.

Our bodies are literally full of processes that are timed that keep us functioning and healthy unless something breaks down. Our heart beat, our biorhythms, our brain waves, the synchronisation of signals sent from our brains to our muscles to position our joints correctly for the motions we are about to make. Of course, these are all happening wthout us thinking about it, but it also means we can latch on to the beat in music, and mainitain it for awhile, even when the music stops. It means we can accurately distinguish actual note placement in time against the underlying beat, until the music gets so fast, or so slow, that this capability disappears. It means nearly everyone can tell when a band is playing out of time, regardless if we’ve never touched a musical instrument.

We hear melody as relationships between notes.

Here’s the interesting bit … the parent could shift the entire melody higher or lower, keeping the same “shape” and rhythm, but the kid a) recognises it as that song, and b) doesn’t realise the shift has happened.

Let’s relate this to guitar. Try the first short melody with a couple of easy to play chords in it. (Obviously, a newbie would not know how to read tab, but imagine someone demonstrated how to play it, which you copy … assuming you have the basic skill of fretting notes).

Let’s say you’re the parent and your 9-year-old has listened to this. Say you do this for a few days, and this becomes your kid’s favourite tune. Next day, you’re crafty, and you shift this whole melody up in pitch, by sliding up the neck two frets: (try the second melody).

Your 9-year-old is there, rocking away, loving this tune, humming it maybe. He has no clue you’ve made the change. That night, you’ve had a few beers too many, and the next day, your kid is demanding his tune, and you mess up … you play this third melody.

You are going to get one very unhappy nipper … “that’s not my favourite tune”!! Bye bye TV set. He’s picked up that the tune has changed … the notes aren’t all the same distances apart as previously.

The point is that we all hear a melody as a stream of occurrences of notes relative to each other. For example, in the first example above, we have the succession of notes at frets 0 (open string), 1 and 3. In the shifted tune, we have the succession of notes at frets 2,3, and 5. In both cases, the second note in this succession is one fret above the first note, and two frets below the third note. In both cases, the relative distances between the notes are identical. The notes aren’t, but the relationship (the gaps) are identical.

Hence, if you shift a pattern exactly, the “distances” between the notes involved (the semitone gaps between each note) are maintained, and we perceive the same melody. Some folk, if they have perfect pitch, will know the change has happened, but the clear majority of us hear things “relatively”.

This means we need to pay much more attention to the distances between the notes and the resulting sounds, and nowhere near as much attention the the names of the notes involved.

This blog is continued at How musical is a novice (2)?

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