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Saturday morning quotes 5.50: Intuition

April 30, 2016

Einstein fiddle“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”

– Albert Einstein in correspondence with Shinichi Suzuki, 1969. “Nurtured by Love. A New Approach to Education”, p90).

As any informed person knows, the study of music is essential to the development of a creative, inquisitive and balanced mind. Study of the science of music requires the ability to apply the framework of hard numbers to the ephemeral realm of musical tones, and develops both logic and intuition.  But in our increasingly austere global economic picture, music education is a forlorn hope—always the first victim when short-sighted bean counters begin their barbaric exercise in budget slashing.  Sadly, it is particularly so in already underfunded schools that serve financially-challenged populations, further advancing the elitist rep of “classical” music as the playground of the well-off.  But in a bit of irony, the more important skill of developing musical intuition is frequently overlooked in better funded music programs that are more focused on conventional classical music.

A distinguishing feature that separates “classical” musicians from the vast world of other musicians working with great distinction in many genres of music, is not technique but the skill of reading music.  While sight-reading and intuitive musicianship need not be mutually exclusive skills, the technical ability to rapidly reproduce information in a musical score tends to force other important skills—like musical intuition—to take a back seat.

For those of us who first learned to play by ear and then learned to read music, the very idea of sight-reading skills taking precedence over intuitive musicianship is ludicrous.  Musicianship is developed by learning nuance and detail by ear from recordings of great players and/or playing music by ear with other highly skilled players. Imagine any successful jazz or pop artist being judged by how well they read a score rather than their ability to compose, improvise and render sometimes stunningly complex music in an effective and entertaining manner from memory.  We call score readers paper-trained musicians.

Since there are no surviving recordings of Josquin or John Dowland, effective interpretation of early music begins with reading the source material and gaining an understanding of archaic musical notation as an interpretive tool.  But effective interpretation reaches perfection with a complete understanding of the details of ancient but enduring performance conventions that can only be gained by getting off the page and into the context of original performance styles; indulging in the risky give and take of informed instrumental improvisation and spontaneous vocal ornamentation.

Early music seems to be dominated by paper-trained musicians who might deliver clean and accurate performances, but frequently sound as though they are nearly quaking in mortal fear of getting it wrong.  The trick is to spend enough time in a particular genre of music from a particular place and time period in order to absorb the musical conventions, and then learn to respond to a highly developed and informed musical intuition.  Focus and commitment required.



  1. geoffgaherty permalink

    Funny anecdote about Einstein’s violin playing. He used to play violin sonatas with Artur Schnabel, and one time Schnabel stopped in frustration and said, “What’s the matter, Albert, can’t you count? One two one two.” Then he remembered who he was talking to!

    Something worse than cutting music education has just happened in Newfoundland, where the government just brought down a budget taxing books and closing half the libraries in the province.

    • Thanks for your anecdote and comments Geoff. The sad news concerning closed libraries in Newfoundland seems to follow an unfortunate trend here in the US. Closing libraries is a well-worn tactic local governments employ to prod their constituencies into approving new tax levies. But one senses a move afoot to eventually erase the printed word altogether, to be substituted with online content produced by those with questionable motives.

  2. I remember my piano teacher’s face when I wanted to learn improvising and playing by ear as a child. She had obviously never tried it herself. As far as I can tell, my renditions only come alive when I put scores aside after internalizing them. For me performing feels a bit like dancing, not thinking, just feeling my fingers move by themselves along with my sentiments. By the way, can anyone imagine a dancer sight-reading his choreography while performing?

    • Brilliant analogy, J. There is a reason that playing music from memory is often called “playing by heart”, which reflects the transformation of printed information from the score into something compellingly human.

      • geoffgaherty permalink

        Bruno Walter once said: “A conductor must have the score in his head, not his head in the score!”

  3. It seems that the criticism is geared mostly to the Early Music performers, as classical musicians’s soloists are always playing from memory. However, there are instances in the classical realm that musicians also have the score opened, chamber and orchestral music comes ready to mind. As we all know the score is not the music, so just playing the written page will never be enough (Bruce Haines has many insights into this matter). In order to put the music in its right place we need the help of some kind of interpretation. In this case it doesn’t matter if you learn a piece by ear or through a score, the result has to be an artistic one. A person may have learned a song by ear and sound terrible (bad musicianship), the opposite being also true.

    If playing by memory is the ideal performance, all chamber music (classical) could be regarded as poor performances, not to mention orchestral and opera concerts. In Early Music performers (solo and chamber) most often play with an open score and in our case open tablature. I see no problem with this. it still leaves room for good interpretation (whatever that means) and open possibilities for the improvisation of ornaments and diminutions. Could it be played without the open tablature? Yes, of course. And again, you can play a whole concert form memory and sound equally terrible. The heart of the matter is not how you learn the piece (by ear or through a tab) or how you perform it (with or without a score), but how deep is your knowledge of that repertoire, plus your technique, musicianship and artistic presence. Well, that’s pretty much what you mean in the article.

    In my view the most distinguishing feature between classical and popular music is precisely the freedom the latter has towards the act of performance, which includes the possibility of improvisation. The Early Music is in a very special position as it seems to fill the gap (improvisation and freedom) left by the classical heritage.



    • “The heart of the matter is not how you learn the piece (by ear or through a tab) or how you perform it (with or without a score), but how deep is your knowledge of that repertoire, plus your technique, musicianship and artistic presence.”

      Your statement really sums up the blog post. I have to admit that the topic is aimed more directly at singers than at instrumentalists, although it applies to both. Since we both sing early music, the topic comes up often because there are many singers who lack that essential deep understanding of repertoire, have indifferent technique, display questionable musicianship and unappealing artistic presence – but they seem to carry on solely because they are good sight-readers.

      Good sight-reading skills are a helpful component of a musician’s toolkit, but we always prefer artistic musicality over basic mechanical adequacy. I find that musicians who excel in singing or instrumental performance tend to internalize their music.


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