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When listening to a piece of polyphonic music, I can only hear the soprano part, but not the other voices, because the soprano part is making it difficult to hear the other voices. So, I can only transcribe the soprano, not the whole piece, and I'd like to know what kind of practice should I do to start listening to each individual voice of the music, so that I can transcribe all of it.

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    One tip: Try different playback devices to make sure you’re getting the best chance. I’ve often listened to a familiar track on a different device than usual and heard parts I hadn’t noticed before. Use the highest fidelity audio possible, not something highly compressed. You can of course then progress to experimenting with EQ to try to isolate individual parts, but even before doing that, experiment with what’s making the audio in the first place. Nov 23, 2023 at 15:44
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    @AndyBonner indeed, and different recordings. This reminds me of taking the music GRE -- the listening questions included one asking us to identify the inversion of a chord, but we were sitting around a conference table in a seminar room and the tape was being played on a Panasonic Slimline cassette player with a single 8 cm speaker. I, at least, couldn't hear the bass part, so I could only guess at the answer.
    – phoog
    Nov 23, 2023 at 15:58
  • Do you sing/play an instrument? If you learn how to play the other parts, you'll gain some skill in isolating it. I myself am a violinist and have had experience playing in both an all-strings group and an orchestra. Those experience helps with my listening a lot.
    – Nelson
    Nov 24, 2023 at 0:41

3 Answers 3

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Start with two parts. Find a piece for which you have both a recording and sheet music. Listen to the recording while following the lower part. Sing along if you can, sometimes, and sometimes just listen and follow in your mind. If you play an instrument, play along once in a while. It's best to experience the second part in as many different ways as you can.

If you play piano or any other instrument where you can learn to play both parts at the same time, definitely do that, too. Better still: play one part and sing the other. This takes practice! But it's a great way of stretching your ear and your mind to hang on to multiple independent parts simultaneously. Once you can sing one part while playing the other, switch.

Above all, don't do only one of these things; do as many of them as you can, and mix them as much as you can. The point is to experience the music in as many ways as possible, to get to know the second part as an independent entity as thoroughly as possible.

Once you've done that, try it again with a different piece. You should find that each time you do it, you reach your goal more quickly.

As you become comfortable with these exercises in two parts, begin moving to larger numbers.

If you experience this problem particularly with polyphony, try starting with more homophonic pieces and moving to more polyphonic ones. A good link between the two is probably the late Renaissance, where many pieces are mostly homophonic in conception, but not strictly so, so you'll find different rhythms in one part just for a measure or two.

Pick up an exercise book on score reading. These are largely about learning different clefs and transposition, but the good ones I've seen also address part independence.

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I think this is quite common, Gabriel. We're used to listening for the tune, and in a great deal of music that's often the highest part and it's often the loudest. But with practice you can learn to focus on any part.

I'd suggest you get hold of both the sheet music and a recording of a 4-part choral piece and practice (or practise if you're British!) singing or playing each part in turn.

You could start with this 'air' by John Dowland:

What If I Never Speed (Sheet music here)

Maybe start by playing or singing the bass part along with the clip.

Then - this is what you're aiming for - don't play or sing anything: just listen to the piece, paying attention to the part you've been playing. If you can't hear it, try imagining it. Then see if you can hear it!

Then work your way through the tenor and alto parts, doing the same.

Finally, as you listen, see if you can switch your attention from one part to another.

Here's another piece to try. It's from three centuries later and is a little more dissonant, but it's slower and therefore maybe easier. It's by Charles Villiers Stanford.

The Blue Bird (with vocal score.)

Let us know how you get on.

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  • Nice. When I mentioned the late Renaissance I was thinking of some German pieces but also of Dowland's "Fine Knacks for Ladies" -- in particular the way the tenor here sings "still on sorrow" with eighth, eighth, half, quarter while the others have quarter notes. There, the same rhythms appear on the words "money can not" and (if I remember correctly) it is the alto that takes the role given here to the tenor.
    – phoog
    Nov 23, 2023 at 15:49
  • Good point! The difference in the rhythms may help to identify the individual parts. I remember singing that Fine Knacks For Ladies when I was a treble. But I could have sworn we sang the first four of the trebles' bars and the next four bars of the altos'! It makes a better tune than that of the trebles alone! Perhaps Dowland did it deliberately: moving the tune around spatially. Nov 23, 2023 at 19:23
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Practice transcribing music where two musical lines are quite separate in both character and sound, e.g. the melody and the bass line in a pop song. Progress to 2-part exercises using the same sound. Then SATB hymn tunes.

I could waffle on. But you get the idea. Set up a structured scheme of study, starting with simple material, then progress.

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