Friday, April 4, 2014

Playing It By Ear

My wife and I, cutting-edge people that we are, are watching this hot new show called Lost. (I know, I know -- no cable, plus Netflix...) It's pretty cool, I guess. I have never finished an episode and thought, "Wow, that's brilliant." But I have also never been bored. The show is what a former Romanticism professor of mine used to call "chewing gum for the brain;" chewing gum with good, long-lasting flavor, but no real nutrients in it.

But that's not the point. Here's the point: Dominic Monaghan's character is a former rock star; a guy who was in a really low-intellect, poppy-punk kind of band called "Driveshaft." Or, as the character Hurley's friend puts it: "Driveshaft? More like 'Suckshaft'."

Charlie playing in a less than ideal acoustic environment. 
In an episode we recently watched, Monaghan's character, Charlie, is at the piano writing a song. And you know what he is doing? He is writing down notes. Do writers and people in general really think rock musicians and pop musicians write their music down like classical composers? Let me illuminate through summaralysis. (Yeah, I made that up.)

Classical and orchestral composers write their music down. This is so that a hundred or more musicians all play things that sound good together. Big band arrangers do this too, when you can find a big band.

There are schooled musicians who are paid to write out piano music. They listen to a Justin Timberlake tune, which has never been written down, and they listen to the simplistic chords and write out the melody and accompaniment so that people who have had piano lessons when they were six can play the songs in their living rooms. 

It also used to be that musicians like my father wrote down (and read) music for night club acts, but that crop of musicians is all but gone. (Those musicians were the best readers of all, I think -- they would sight-read an entire act without rehearsal, sometimes. Many of them were better sight-readers than classical musicians. And they did this under high-pressure, when, say, people like Sinatra would come through.) Acts would come through with their "book" and the musicians would read the music. 

Studio musicians -- musicians who are hired by artists to support them on recordings -- can also read music and arrangers still write things out for them, sometimes -- but even that is getting more rare. (So are recording studios, for that matter.)

But rock musicians? They simply don't write stuff down. Probably 98% of them can't and 95% of them don't bother. Why? Because the music is simple. A few chords and a melody to remember. Some rock is more complex -- like progressive stuff -- but even those musicians don't typically write their music down; they just have excellent musical memories.

Over my years of playing music, probably about 75% of the guys I have worked with haven't been able to read music. (By that I mean really read -- I don't mean just identifying a "C" on the scale and knowing a quarter note versus a half note.)

Why do I bother to mention this? I dunno. I play by ear -- always could; and I read music well, after years of lessons. But it annoys me when people say: "He plays by ear..." with an awed sense of reverence when, most of the time, what is being played by ear is simplistic and when that act is far less impressive than what my father and his pals used to do.

All of that said, a good musician is a good musician. Reader or not. I just wanted to get the facts straight.


  1. I always played by ear if I could. My piano teacher caught me out once, saying, "Well, that was quite good, but the music you just played isn't the piece in front of you."

    As for Charlie, the flashbacks in "Britain" caused a great deal of amusement in my house. But we still kept watching, because Lost was curiously addictive.

    1. I still find it difficult, Steerforth, with my classical guitar studies, to avoid predicting what the composer was going to do (or, more egotistically, what he should have done). I often wind up playing it as my ear thinks it should be, regardless of what is written. A good ear can be an obstacle, sometimes.

      As an Englishman, you'd think Monaghan would have contributed some kind of expert quality-control when it came to depicting British life... Ah, well. You're right, though. "Curiously addictive" is a great way to describe the show. My wife and I devour three or four at a time.