5

I notice that when I whistle or hum to a song I can always "jam" along and I'm almost always in the key. I think this trait is built into humans or something as I could do this since I was a kid, and I'm sure everyone else can. Irrespective of understanding keys or theory.

So my question is, is studying keys really just a "hack" to get to a point where you can "whistle" with your fingers when playing piano. Just like we innately know the key with our mouths without having to study theory? And at that point all theory becomes meaningless?

  • Actually most humans can’t do that. I’m surprised you’re so confident that everyone can. I knew how to play in a key on piano many years before I could hum on key or even whistle at all. I had to practice for like a year before I even knew how to make single note when whistling. – Todd Wilcox Jan 3 '18 at 3:35
  • most people can hum. my point is, if you play any song for them say off youtube, they'll be able to hum along with it irrespective of key. for example, take the "canon in d major" on youtube. I would suspect most people, once they hear the song once, won't have a problem humming along with it. and they can do it with whatever key you throw at them without knowing anything about theory. – foreyez Jan 3 '18 at 5:49
  • 1
    This sounds like the Levitin Effect (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levitin_effect). – Dekkadeci Jan 3 '18 at 6:07
  • 1
    @ToddWilcox - having taught thousands of kids in choirs, and in ordinary classes, where most would have little or no theory, I agree with Foreyez that most people can sing in tune, whilst being blissfully unaware of which key they're in. Most - not all ! Don't see how theory knowledge helps anyone sing in key, particularly youngsters. – Tim Jan 3 '18 at 8:22
  • @Tim I wonder if the classes you taught were mandatory or voluntary. If voluntary, there could have been a selection bias. Most adults I know have a hard time hitting the right notes when singing songs like “Happy Birthday”. Maybe it’s just bad luck in my social circles. – Todd Wilcox Jan 3 '18 at 13:06
5

If you are talking about hearing a note and being able to hit the key on the piano blindly, no, most people cannot do that, unless they have perfect pitch, which seems to be something you are either born with or not.

If you are talking about hearing a song and being able to know what the chords and intervals are and how you would play them (once you have figured out what key it is in), this does require a certain skill sometimes referred to as "relative pitch" (as opposed to perfect). In conservatory we took classes ("aural skills") to develop this ability; a certain minimal ability to transcribe music by ear was required for graduation. Most musicians can develop this skill over time.

Is studying keys really just a "hack" to get to a point where you can "whistle" with your fingers when playing piano.

All forms of practicing an instrument are a "hack." The reason we practice scales is to train our hands so they become second nature. One of the reasons we study theory and listen to music is to train our ear so that we can hear harmonic motion and musical structure as a second nature as well. It can help your performance to know which notes are leading tones or which voice is the suspension.

And at that point all theory becomes meaningless?

I wouldn't say that. Music theory has other applications too, e.g. in musicology or composition, and having a common language helps you communicate ideas to others in your ensemble.

2

You are confusing music theory and proficiency. We don't learn grammar in order to talk, but in order to be able to analyze talk. While the study may also lead to a bit of literacy as a side effect, the principal aim is on analysis rather than synthesis.

Scale exercises may be concocted using music theory but their execution has rather little to do with it: it's a means for gaining proficiency in "talking" through a keyboard.

2

I notice that when I whistle or hum to a song I can always "jam" along and I'm almost always in the key. I think this trait is built into humans or something as I could do this since I was a kid, and I'm sure everyone else can. Irrespective of understanding keys or theory.

I think many people can, but I've met plenty that have some difficulty in confidently repeating or following a melody. Nevertheless I think you're right to conclude that for most people, the ability to know what a melody sounds like, and predict and generate a melody, isn't something that derives primarily from studying theory.

So my question is, is studying keys really just a "hack" to get to a point where you can "whistle" with your fingers when playing piano..?

Any scale patterns (including those implied by keys) are abstractions - a way of looking at something from a certain angle by considering only a certain amount of the information at any one time - in this case, the set of notes being used by a piece of music.

Abstractions are useful to help people notice relationships between things, classify things, and remember them. The idea of using abstractions is a hack that we all use every day to do (some) things better than we did yesterday.

In the case of music, learning scale patterns can help us learn how to whistle or play an instrument, because it gives us the chance to make more mental connections between the things we observe.

We all make up our own abstractions even in the absence of formalized theory, but the advantage of using agreed, formalized abstractions is that it also helps us to communicate with others.

And at that point all theory becomes meaningless?

Depends what you mean by 'meaningless', I guess! Is a hammer meaningless once you've used it to put up a fence and then put it away in the toolbox and forgotten it? Arguably it is, until your fence blows down in a storm and you need it again. We need musical knowledge to be able to do music, and formalized theory can be an important part of that knowledge.

1

Yes, you can develop excellent 'busking' skills, where a known song just 'comes out of your fingers'. Or you can develop excellent sight-reading skills, where a sheet of music seems to go straight from eyes to fingers, with little conscious intervention from the brain! Or you can even scan a music sheet, recognise the musical content and play something appropriate to the musical situation - but NOT the literal notes on the page. In fact, I often have to pull myself up for doing this - play what it SAYS, don't paraphrase it!

But why do you feel this makes theory meaningless? Rather it's the practical application of one aspect of music theory.

  • because if I could do with my piano or guitar as I do with my whistling I'd be considered a prodigy. yet I could whistle since I was a kid without knowing any theory whatsoever. I could even hum the harmony as well. I do think theory is important and interesting though. but I think it might be a crutch for muscle memory. meaning, if you can produce what your brain wants to "hear" with your fingers that's about all that's needed. I think the brain already knows what's needed though. – foreyez Jan 3 '18 at 16:21
  • Not a progidy, just a reasonably accomplished musician, with an ability to 'play by ear'. Not every good player has this, but it's not an unusual skill. – Laurence Payne Jan 3 '18 at 22:42
0

I find in my own experience, that any type of information is only useless if I don't know how to use it. And if I don't know how to use it, I probably need more information. I personally enjoy the process of learning about music, how to understand it, how to play it, the variations available to me when I'm playing it, all of it. It all adds to my enjoyment. It's work that I thoroughly enjoy, and when I'm doing other things, it's something I'm still thinking about. I still go about my other activities, but music and it's study are something that contributes to my enjoyment of my life. It may be a hack to some folks, but I don't think of it that way.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.