How Good Is Your Ear? (Part 1)

How Good Is Your Ear? (Part 1)

Having a good ear is the quintessence of a composer’s gift; but what constitutes a good ear for a composer?

Written By

Mark N. Grant

I have a colleague—a performer, not a composer—who has absolute pitch and can sight sing anything. Repeatedly, this colleague has regaled me with anecdotes from working with well-known composers who, during rehearsals, inadvertently betrayed their inability to recognize whether their own damn notes were being correctly sounded or not. They had notated complex scores, but were clueless as to whether the correct pitches were being hit in performance. For the life of them, they wouldn’t have known the difference. Who were some of these ear-challenged composers? John Zorn. Anthony Braxton. Many other respectable names you would know, others you wouldn’t. (But not Charles Wuorinen: “He hears everything.”) Zorn even asked this performer whether something in one of his scores sounded right or not. He didn’t know. Shouldn’t the well-accoladed Zorn be able to do this himself? Even the venerable Samuel Adler, who according to said singer has a superb ear, brought along to rehearsal a student with absolute pitch “just to check.”

We all have heard stories about celebrated conductors with deficient ears. But composers are supposed to be able to hear what they wrote. A composer’s ear is the quintessence of his or her gift. What constitutes a good ear for a composer? In his book The Compleat Conductor, Gunther Schuller differentiates seven different attributes of a conductor’s ear, but all seven could as well be attributes of a composer’s ear: 1) harmony; 2) pitch and intonation; 3) dynamics; 4) timbre; 5) rhythm and articulation; 6) balance and orchestrational aspects; 7) line and continuity. (For composers, I would add memory as attribute 8.)

I submit that Schuller’s attributes 1 and 2 are fundamental to what defines a composer. An ear both for discrete pitch recognition and for harmony—without that minimum competence of ear, what you have, arguably, is not a composer at all, but rather a conceptual or performance artist working in music. John Cage certainly had an original ear for sound and noise, and for timbre, but according to no less than Schoenberg and Virgil Thomson his ear was technically deficient by even modest traditional measures. Schoenberg told Cage he couldn’t be a composer because he didn’t have an ear for harmony (though he did call Cage a “genius” inventor), and Thomson concurred that “with [Cage] the original gift, the musical ear, is not a remarkable one. Neither did he ever quite master the classical elements, harmony and counterpoint—a failure that has led him at times into faulty harmonic analysis.” (Please don’t misunderstand me here; clearly many, even most Cage compositions are absolute piquant delights for the ear. Still, I view him as the exception that proves the rule.)

Of course, even the most acutely endowed ears can be fooled. In his extraordinarily perceptive memoir With Strings Attached, violinist Joseph Szigeti tells an anecdote about Richard Strauss conducting one of his works. During a rehearsal Strauss asked the violin section for an “almost inaudible” tremolo. They tried it with more bow hair, less bow hair, at the frog, at the tip, ad nauseam, but Strauss remained unsatisfied. Finally the concertmaster whispered something to the players, and at last Strauss was happy. Years later, the concertmaster revealed to Strauss that he had merely instructed the section to keep the bow just above the string without touching it. The violins weren’t playing at all. Strauss’s ear had been duped by deft pantomime.

Strauss had a phenomenal ear, but, wrote Nicolas Slonimsky, “Ravel was completely helpless in spotting wrong notes in his own compositions when he conducted. Alfred Casella told me that even Debussy let pass the most horrendous mistakes in his orchestral works, and in one instance failed to notice that the clarinet player used a clarinet in B-flat instead of one in A….Stravinsky had a very limited sense of pitch [and]…was also a poor proof-reader.” Glazounov, on the other hand, was capable of prodigious feats of ear, but Glazounov certainly wasn’t as great a composer as Stravinsky. In the last analysis, the only thing that counts in composing music is what is on the score page, not the composer’s sense of pitch.

Still, if someone other than the composer knows better than he what the notes should sound like, the composer has some deficits in his gift, in my view. And next week I will put my own ears where my mouth is to further expound on this topic.