Why You Should Learn To Hear Multiple Musical Lines At The Same Time
Ear training is something that every musician should take seriously, whether you play guitar, violin, piano or anything else. And no, this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. You can definitely have fun, enjoy music and take ear training seriously at the same time. Truth is, ear training can be a lot of fun if approached the right way.
The aspect of ear training I will focus on in this article is developing your ear for harmony. This means the ability to keep track of many different melodies at the same time. If this sounds overwhelming, remember that it is like any other musical skill: You can learn and progress in it bit by bit. You don’t need to go from zero to one hundred instantly.
This skill is really important if you want to make the best music you can. It is what great composers and songwriters have trained themselves on and the results show in their ability to generate masterpiece after masterpiece.
Do you want to taste what it is like to write a masterpiece? Then you need to train your ear for harmony!
A Quick Explanation Of Harmony
Harmony is simply many notes sounding at the same time. This allows you to get a rich variety of different sounds and feelings you can generate in your listener. It is the reason why a song doesn’t sound as good when you sing it without the CD playing in the background: The context is missing!
Most think harmony means chords and that’s it. But that’s false: In reality chords are only a part of the larger context of harmony. Harmony has more to do with two or more voices moving relative to each other and producing an interplay between them that achieves the desired emotional response from a listener. Chords are one of many ways you can do that, but on its own it can become limited.
A ‘voice’ doesn’t mean the melody has to be for a singer: It can be on any instrument. But the easiest way to understand the concept is something that can be sung one note at a time. A chord doesn’t qualify, because although you can sing all the notes in a chord one after the other, you cannot realistically sing the whole chord at once. You would need as many singers as the chord has notes to do that.
Most orchestra instruments can also play one note at a time. Some instruments can hold out two or more notes at the same time and play melodies or musical lines with many voices. The most prominent of these are guitar and piano. Now that I’ve explained the basics of what harmony means, I will tell you a few different kinds and which one is my favourite!
My Favourite Type Of Harmony
There are many different types of harmony. Chords provide a framework that you can use to write melodies on top that can sound really nice. If you learn to make arrangements and write some complementary parts you can add a few more layers to the song, giving it more depth while still in the framework of chords.
Then, if you start playing around with chords and modifying them one note at a time, you are starting to stretch the concept of chords to its limit. If you want to move beyond that, it is more beneficial to start thinking more in terms of voices that interplay with each other. This simply means that you write each individual melody or musical line individually and make them fit together.
Afterwards you can choose what instrument plays what. Is every melody played on a separate instrument? Is some melody played by different instruments at the same time? Could you in theory play everything on one instrument? You can get many different versions of the exact same composition. Fun!
Choir arrangements are written so that there are many distinct voices or melodies, but such that they sound pleasant together. This is very different and much more complex than just playing chords and the result is a larger variety of things you can achieve with harmony. You can do this on any instruments you want. This is called polyphonic music, meaning there are multiple melodies happening at the same time. It is my absolute favourite music to listen to and also to make.
How To Develop Your Ear For Harmony
Firstly and I cannot stress this enough: It is imperative that you find a great teacher to take lessons from if you haven’t yet done so. Doing this and being a good student will save you a lot of headaches and give you the guidance you need to make your journey with music as painless and fulfilling as possible.
That said, one way in which you can train your ear for this is to actively and intently listen to music which has many voices or melodies at the same time. If the music has four different voices, listen to it at least four times. Do your best to focus and listen to one voice at a time each time you listen to it. Then, listen to the whole thing one more time and try to focus on all voices at the same time.
Repeat the process until you can easily notice all the voices and how they play off each other. If the music is very complex this could take a long time, so you may sometimes put a song ‘on hold’ and come back to it after a few days.
Here are a few examples for you to get started with. I will include both older examples and more contemporary examples:
- S. Bach – “Inventions no.1-5” (Starting simple with only two voices.)
- The Beatles – “Blackbird” (Still relatively simple: Only two voices on guitar plus one for the vocals.)
- Muse – “Resistance” (There are many different voices in the intro and verse. Listen to the synth, piano and vocal parts.)
- Palestrina – “Kyrie” (Try to keep track of all the different choir parts. There are six, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right away.)
Have fun with those and when you are finished, continue with even more music! When you start getting the hang of it, you will have a whole new world of music to listen to. You will notice parts in your favourite music that you didn’t hear before. You will gain a better understanding of what makes all these pieces of music so good.
Best of all, you will get more enjoyment out of music!
About The Author
Hello, I am Jere Toikka, a guitar teacher from Turku. I live here and have the privilege of teaching awesome students how to make their own songs. Many of them have never made their own music before and it brings me joy to know that I have helped them achieve something that they get a lot of joy and fulfilment out of.