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The Dumb Tune Game

'I play what I hear' is a statement that many aspiring guitarists have heard from players they idolize. A goal worth striving to attain would be the fingers performing sounds which the improvising soloist hears, but many guitarists often overrate their ability in this area.

As a guitar teacher, and having taught ear training at the college level, I've given some thought to what constitutes an instrumentalist's ear. Often, when a student claimed the ability to play what was heard, it usually indicated an ability to recall rehearsed ideas or licks. When presented with an opportunity to hear and play back ideas that were played by me, the results were typically quite different.

The intent of the exercise was not to stump anyone, but to test the actual ability to remember a new idea; to sense the actual control the student had to reproduce an idea vocally and to play it, without fumbling, on the instrument.
The ability to recall and sing a short melodic phrase was, in most instances, strong. The skill needed to play back the same musical idea without errors was often much weaker. The throat and vocal chords can shape sounds with ease. The fingers are not vocal chords and require some practice in order to develop a relationship with a musical instrument before they can begin to imitate the ease that nature provides the pitched human voice.

A formal education in ear training or solfege is most often taught without an instrument in hand, which makes sense. The ability to "hear the page" has value for a reading instrumentalist or composer but what value does it have for the non reader.

Wouldn't it be important for any guitarist to hear the instrument through the fingers? In improvisational music the ability to hear and express oneself is extremely important. There are guitarists who are proud to claim a knowledge of guitar that is not based on being able to read or even knowing the note names. Some players even demonstrate a reverse snobbery to an educated instrumentalist's confidence to being literate. When asked, "Can you read?" The reply has often been, "Not so much that it interferes with my playing." Perhaps that is why, more than any other family of instruments, there are so many fretted string players who claim pride in not knowing their instruments, or music, in conventional terms.

There is a way to connect both the academic approach and informal ways of learning by consciously relating 'ears' and the fingers. As a process, it can be used to develop skill in finding melodies and perhaps then lead to an awareness of all formal music skills. As a teaching technique, an instructor should include exercises that link ear-finger games, and standard music instruction. This would include learning to read music notation by writing down what the fingers hear. Lacking a better term for this method, I call this exercise the 'dumb tune game'.

A great deal of what we regard as ear is the ability to remember a given melody or tune. A melodic idea could be what has been heard from a CD, tape, or the recollection of a simple well known tune. Our heads are filled with diatonic melodies from the past which can be a resource for ear and finger coordination.

Diatonic tunes are those which can be found within one scale. These melodies are the basis for the dumb tune game. A scale could be defined as what is left over after all the interesting stuff has been deleted from a melody. The 'ups and downs' that make a melody interesting and identifiable have been removed, and what is left is a series of notes ascending by steps, like a ladder.

When a spoken word is written down, the pen records a curving line that has a recognizable meaning in a specific language. That is if the code is understood by the reader. Is it French, Spanish, etc. If the pen merely moves at an angle on the page, it has direction but lacks word meaning. The ups and downs of a melody also produce a curve that makes it recognizable and memorable.

Melodies make music, not scales. Scales are for analysis and study, tunes are interesting and fundamental to music.

The physical nature of any musical instrument creates different challenges. The guitar is not an easy instrument to hear. It does not have a symmetric repetition in the tuning. The tuning in fourths is broken by the inclusion of a third between the third and second string. The violin is tuned in perfect fifths so there is a repetition and regularity in the tuning that the performers' ear can use. Viola, cello, and string bass in the orchestra are all symmetrically tuned. In the fretted string instruments the mandolin and even the tenor banjo use the predictable regularity of the constant fifths tuning.

In addition, the guitar has six strings as compared to the instruments previously mentioned, which all have four. This means guitar has more physical locations to produced the same pitch in the same octave. In the middle register the same note can be found on a number of different strings. This leads to more choices with regard to which fingers can perform a melodic idea. Fingering choices are not a fundamental challenge for the saxophonist because the fingering of a given note is typically under the hand and played in the same location over and over. There is a link between sound and fingering which becomes second nature for the performer.

Even the piano, which has to include different fingering choices for the same pitch, has the logic of a repeating layout for each octave. The guitarist has to work at hearing the finger board because of the structure of the instrument, and the tuning, so it is important to develop a relationship between melodic fingerings and the ear.

Here's the game >>