Captain’s Log 6,046
I think I need to set the record straight. I play music by ear because I cannot read music. I cannot read music because I cannot read it. It is not for lack of trying. It is not for lack of sitting through hundreds of hours of classes trying to learn the notes. It is not for lack of lessons and coaching. It is not for lack of attempting to learn key signatures and scales. I went to a Catholic school, so of course I was immersed in music.
And I could never learn to read it. Never. I still can’t read it. My brain simply does not compute those little dots and swirls on lined paper. And don’t even start with the bass clef. I have a hard enough time with the treble.
I used to sit and marvel at my friends who got it so easily. So what did I do? I sat and listened to them. I watched their fingering. And then I played. And I played better than they did. Not bragging, just truth.
I took my clarinet home at age 9 and figured out how to play it before I got to my first lesson. I kid you not, I did a passable rendition of My Blue Heaven before I was even supposed to open the case. And what did the teacher do? He told me to stop fooling around and to get serious with the real study of music. I wish I had been able to say FUCK OFF, ASSHAT to him, but I was only a kid.
I hated every minute of lessons, the band, the practice. All of it. It was an exercise in futility. I did it to please my parents. All I really wanted to do was get my hands on a guitar and create CHORDS! How I loved chords! I did not want to be bound to key signatures and time signatures because I could not do it! It was like trying to dance the polka without any feet.
When I got into advanced choir, the director realized I couldn’t read. She didn’t try to force me because she understood the problem. So, instead of putting me through hell, she taught me the songs. She taught me to be comfortable with what I was doing. And, sometimes I heard things that were not part of the “official” music. She always let me show her what I was hearing. She validated my efforts. Every now and then she would actually re-score a piece to include something I changed.
I moved on to the guitar. Then the mandolin. Then the banjo. All of them self-taught and using only my innate music sense. Then, I decided to tackle the piano. The chords! Oh! The chords! Once I figured out the hand positions for the chords, I was all set. Ever since, the piano has been my choice for composing.
Ray Charles couldn’t read music. Paul McCartney can’t read it OR write it and he is an amazing composer. Elton John can’t read music either. I rest my case.
Not to brag, but I would say I can hold my own with people who teach music theory. Yes, it is a mathematical formula. There are only so many places music can go before it sounds dissonant and awful. I approach it as a sensual formula. Not sexual. Sensual. To know when a song needs a breaking chord or a passing walk-down in an unexpected place means I put the music under my skin. Music has become a language to me. It is not something I do. It is something I am. And I use my senses to make it work.
I honed my skills working with people who had never seen a piece of music before them in their entire lives. And they created the most amazing songs and arrangements using what they heard and felt.
So how do I compose? When it has to be for “real” and people are going to need a score, I work with someone who watches my hands and writes down everything I am doing. It’s painstaking. But it works. We lay down the right hand and then I am asked what I hear for the low end. That comes next. In terms of other instrumentation, I usually sing it.
I am so grateful for my ear.