The Homeric Answer: How By-Ear Learning and Improvisation Enhance the Musicianship of Classical Performers
Franz, Gwen Ellen
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Throughout the history of non-Western music-making, and common to most art music in cultures around the world, musicians have shared the fundamental practice of learning, transmitting, and composing their art by ear. For many centuries, Western European art music also took part in this practice. However, as a highly sophisticated notational system evolved, and through-composed music was prioritized, an emphasis in Western classical music on learning to play primarily by reading notation was established. Ironically, this has resulted in causing many classical performers today to find themselves with a limiting handicap: formally trained in an aural art, they often feel incapable of playing music unless they are provided with notation to read. They also have difficulty playing music of their own invention. In contrast, due to the different means by which the brain processes music learned by ear, musicians from oral or oral/ written traditions simultaneously nurture their potential to create their own original music through embellishment, improvisation, and composition. In this paper I shall examine the chronology of Western art music’s progression from an oral to a written tradition, discuss shared characteristics between oral traditions of Homeric poetry and music, and propose a means for emphasis on oral learning practices in classical music pedagogy. I shall consider the benefits of ear-based learning within a literate tradition, as well as a variety of thriving learning environments that nurture the original creativity of musicians.
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