Aug 9, 2017
Near the middle of my sophomore year at University of Miami, I approached one of my professors with a question during a rehearsal : “How do you learn songs by ear?”
His answer was simple: listen for the bass, find the melody, fill everything else in.
“Oh,” I said.
I wish all of my problems could be solved with such a simple set of instructions. It was a profound lesson in setting parameters for a problem, identifying the variables, and sleuthing toward the final answer via trial and error. At least, that’s how I interpreted his response.
Of course, it took me several years to master the process; even the most straight-forward of problem solving techniques take habituation, but it has worked for me ever since.
In my business endeavors, I learn by studying the successes of those around me. I’m hungry - like a vacuum for disorganized information. I don’t always find the fastest route to sorting out the pertinent from the irrelevant, but by absorbing that information in an active and mindful way, I am usually able to proceed to the next couch cushion for another round of “the ground is lava” — aka LIFE.
I spend the majority of my time seeking creative ways to get my music into the ears of new people. A large segment of that time-pie is spent learning and analyzing songs that I enjoy, so that I may bite off a piece of the magic to be used at a later jingle. It’s like how I imagine engineers spend countless hours studying the blue prints of historic buildings; from their ground-breaking (literally, sorry) foundations to the effects of air-flow at their highest points and everything in between.
Listen for the bass, find the melody, fill everything else in.
As a voice teacher, I tend to distill concepts into three component parts — I errantly refer to it as the Pairing of Threes, which makes it sound like it’s a thing.
I tell my students that the human voice is powered by three component parts: the breath (duh), the voice box (duh), and the mask (like the 1995 Jim Carry movie? No, the structure of bony mass in your face, duh). Understand the bottom (breath, in this duct-tape-of-a-metaphor), determine how it affects the top (the mask, aka where sound comes out), work on everything in between.
Similarly, I tell my students that the human voice has three distinct registers: the chest or belt, which is every conceivable sound up to the point where your voice cracks, the crack itself, which is commonly referred to as the mixed voice, and anything above where your voice cracks, which is referred to as the falsetto or head voice.
We work on consistency from the bottom of the vocal register to the top in order to make the entire range sound like one consistent instrument; not, say, a french horn at the bottom and a bassoon at the top *student giggles or DOESN’T*. Learn what powers the bottom to inform the top, and everything in the middle will be revealed.
When I sit down to learn a song, I start by cat-pawing at my piano until I find a tone that sounds like the bass (the lowest-played note). This usually gives me an idea of what key the song is in, but all is not yet revealed. Next, I identify the melody, which is a series a notes that usually confirms my suspicions of what key the song is in, but still, all is not yet revealed. It is then that the real work happens: I try different combinations of chords, single notes, short harmonized lines, pedal tones, repeated patterns, and different chords to hone in on the true nature of the song. After guessing, confirming, second-guessing, and confirming again in as many repetitions as my back side can handle sitting on the piano bench, I have Learned A Song By Ear. Thank you, college professor :)
As an entrepreneur, I use a similar strategy when I sit down to strategize the release of my band’s new album, EP or single. I look up the release of a modestly successful local band, and I retrace their steps.
Listen for the bass. “How did they announce their release? Did they partner with a label? A brand? Who premiered the first single?”
Find the melody. “What is the tone of the pitch to their audience? Is it consistent? How does their branding match the sound of their music?
Fill everything else in. *gasps for breath* “Why did they choose to wear green outfits? Who took their photos? Why did they choose to premiere using a YouTube video instead of SoundCloud link? How many people did they message privately to get their daily plays to that number? Who built their website? What makes them so good?
Entrepreneurs are expected to absorb their surroundings and read between the lines; to extract answers where there aren’t any clear answers.
Competitive businesses will attempt to disguise their process —leaving you to dust for prints in an open metal container the size of one hundred football fields, squared and rounded up.
How can you break this cycle?
Listen for the bass; find the melody; fill everything else in.
What is your process for learning from those around you? Please leave a comment below.
_Andrew Vait is a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and educator. He currently lives in Seattle, WA and performs and records with his pop band, SISTERS — _www.sisterstheband.com.