Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Ear is a Mind at Work

It would take a historian of some discipline I cannot imagine to discern what happened to our respect for the ear as a mode of thought.

Yesterday a person new to me described perfectly, it seemed to me, the frustration of having been passionate about the piano as a young child yet unable to pass the tests for admission to a special arts high school.  She told me a bit of what the tests consisted of: naming intervals, singing the separate tones of a chord, etc. 

But before she told me about this past she described very much in the present her experience of listening for a specifically intense event in a Mozart violin concerto, an event she described with the clarity that only a truly alive and energized ear could muster without recourse to theory or other abstractions.

Hers is the kind of ear that musical children are born with and which is denied in most musical training by pasting over it notions about sound that oversimplify and do not apply to that other, fuller hearing.

Tones are not discrete.  Even the keys on the piano, which are discrete, though they have names, do not produce discrete sounds.  Their total resonances are magical, mysterious.  Because they defy identification we go in pursuit of them again and again.   Many children who are told they cannot carry a tune are actually swimming in a sea of vibration so powerful that they cannot break it down into component parts--a skill necessary to carry a tune or identify tones within a chord, but not essential to the enjoyment of sound in its fullest manifestations.