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On Playing by Ear Author(s): Lars Lilliestam Reviewed work(s): Source: Popular Music, Vol. 15, No.

2 (May, 1996), pp. 195-216 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 26/04/2012 03:51
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Popular Music (1996) Volume 15/2. Copyright (

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The vast majority of all music ever made is played by ear. To make music by ear means to create, perform, remember and teach music without the use of written notation. This is a type of music-making that has been little observed by musicology, which has mainly been devoted to notated music. Even in the research on folk and popular music, which has expanded in the last twenty or thirty years, questions of musical practice when you play by ear are rarely treated: how do you learn to play an instrument, how do you make songs, how do you teach and learn songs and how do you conceive of music theory? We do not even have a generally agreed term for what I call 'playing by ear'. Terms like 'folk music', 'improvised music', 'orally transmitted music', 'un-notated music' and 'notation-independent music' all have their weaknesses and do not cover the same meanings as 'playing by ear'. A term like 'un-notated music' leaves it all too clear that Western thinking about and definition of music emanate from the assumption that music is something that is written down in notes. When we speak of the by far most common type of music-making we have to negate the exception! Musicologist Peter Jeffery elaborates on this: Oral transmission is not a particularfeature of some music at certain times, but rather a universal characteristic almost all music at almost all times. What we call 'oral transmisof sion' is what most human beings throughout history have known simply as 'music' something to play or hear ratherthan something to write or read. We modern Westerners are the ones who do things differently, and our preference for writing is our handicap. (Jeffery1992, p. 124) This article is a summary of some of the most important ideas in my book, published in Swedish, Gehdrsmusik.Blues, rock och muntlig tradering (Playing by ear. Blues, rock and oral transmission) (Lilliestam 1995). The book is the result of a research project that I have run for three years for The School of Music and Musicology in Goteborg. The aim of the book is to present existing research on playing by ear and to analyse how playing by ear really works. The analyses and examples in the book mainly come from rock and blues, but parallels are made to both Swedish folk music and jazz. The musical practice is illustrated with examples from guitar playing and numerous quotes from rock and blues musicians. The practice of playing by ear differs somewhat between different genres or music worlds (for instance jazz or rock), but there are basic similarities. Rock music, then, should be seen as one example of music made by playing by ear, but musicians from other genres will surely recognise both the argumentation and the problems. 195



There are many reasons why there is so little research on playing by ear. One is that there is a tendency both in research and journalism to observe the exceptional and the spectacular and look away from the trivial and obvious activities of the everyday. Playing by ear is, generally, equivalent to folk or popular music, and these forms of music have been disregarded by musicology; they have been outside the traditional academic sphere of knowledge cultivated in schools and universities - what anthropologists sometimes calls the 'big tradition' - but instead been a part of the 'small tradition' of popular non-literary culture (Burke 1978, pp. 23-6). Sometimes the music has been looked upon as 'too simple', 'not worthy of research' or maybe 'uninteresting'. This is also a consequence of the fact that musicologists, to a great extent, have been recruited from stratas of society where 'music' has been equivalent to 'art music' ('classical music'). In recent decades this has changed, and many present day musicologists have been brought up with popular music as their backgrounds and fields of interest. The research on the practice of playing by ear, however, has not grown to any appreciable extent. It is still a kind of music-making that is overlooked. This is surely a result of what Leo Treitler (1986, p. 39) has called 'the paradigm of literacy', the dominance of writing in the Western cultural sphere. In music this is manifested in what Philip Tagg (1979, p. 28) has called 'notational centricity' - the fact that we equate 'music' with notated music. It is a common practice to say that we 'write music' or 'write a song' even though we use neither pen nor paper, notes nor letters to write down what we compose. The norms for 'music' - how we listen to it and think about it, how 'normal' music is considered to be, etc. - emanate from notated art music. Accordingly it is a common notion that knowledge of music means that we can read musical notation and master traditional Western musical theory. What one then does not realise is that speech and song are primary to writing and notation: just as we can speak without being able to write or know grammar, we can sing and make music without being able to read or write notes or know musical theory. Another consequence of notational centricity is the idea that notation contains the final truth about music. In (bad) pedagogic situations people should 'play as it says in the notes'. The Norwegian musicologist Jon Roar Bjorkvold has paraphrased The Ten Commandments in the following way: 1. You shall not have other musical gods beside me. (.. .) 3. Rememberto keep holy the notated picture (. . .) 5. You shall not play the wrong notes. (. . .) 9. You shall not covet your neighbour's playing by ear. (Bjorkvold1991, p. 229) It is also a fact that musicologists usually have to transcribe music that is played by ear, namely write it down in notation, to get a grip of the structure and form of the music. Practically all of today's music pedagogy is formalised in writing. Music theory is to a great extent formulated with the help of notation in books and normative analyses. Music pedagogy is founded in notated music, and a pedagogy of playing by ear is developed very little. The lack of research on oral music may also be due to rock and folk musicians' reluctance to speak about their music-making and the difficulty they find in doing so. Because researchers and journalists do not observe this side of music-making it remains hidden.1 I will return to this problem. The differences between playing by ear and by notes is also a field that is filled with preconceptions, misunderstandings and jealousies. If you are a good

On playingby ear


music reader you are jealous of someone else's ability to play by ear and vice versa. Such attitudes are unconstructive. Playing by ear or from notation are just different musical behaviour and practices, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

Orality and literacy

There is today an extensive research on questions of orality and literacy but it has developed in other disciplines than musicology and ethnomusicology. A central work is Albert Lord's The Singer of Tales (1960), where he describes and analyses illiterate Serbian and Croatian epic singers' methods of remembering and performing hour-long poems and epic songs. Unfortunately, Lord treats the lyrics not the music. More recently Walter J. Ong's Orality and Literacy (1982) has been widely discussed. Ong's book is mainly a summary of existing research on the subject, and its main thesis is that when writing is introduced in a culture basic changes follow in the way people think, create concepts, shape information and interpret the outer world. One can, accordingly, speak of orality, 'cultures with no knowledge at all of writing', and literacy, a culture that is 'deeply affected by the use of writing' (Ong 1982, p. 1).2 If writing does not exist, information (a song, a poem, a story) must be repeated and engrained in human memory to survive. What is not repeated does not survive. Writing partly eliminates the limitations of human memory and 'freezes' information in a stable form. Although this is not the place to present and discuss Ong's argument in great detail, some of his conclusions are based on a frail foundation. The opposition between orality and literacy ought not to be seen as an opposition between two conditions, as a dichotomy, but rather as a continuum where cultures have different degrees (as well as types) of literacy.3 Moreover the opposition orality-literacy is only one factor that explains the shape and practice of a music. Ong, along with many other scholars writing on the issue, tends to ignore historical and social situations, material conditions and ideology. The introduction of writing does not automatically lead to specific changes. Writing always exists in a historical and cultural context, which makes the significance, design and influence of writing itself strongly variable. Nevertheless it is a fact that today's hard practicing and ambitious heavy metal guitarist faces the same problems that the Swedish folk fiddler Hjort-Anders faced a hundred years ago, and that musicians who play by ear always confront: how do you identify and copy what someone else is playing, how do you remember a piece of music and how do you get your fingers to do what you want them to? It is important to understand that in a highly developed literate culture both oral and literate techniques are used to convey information. Naturally people do not stop talking when they start to use writing, and speech is, in a literate culture as well, a basic way of communication. Today it may be more relevant to discuss information in terms of oral or literate strategies,4which we use for different aims and that work more or less well for different purposes. In music, this means that there are both rock musicians who are not familiar with Western musical theory and cannot read music and those with a solid, traditional music schooling. When it comes to making music both chose to play by ear, without the use of notation.



Rock music is in its whole character a music that is played by ear, and it is rare, and only in very specific contexts, that notes are used. Unfortunately there are few discussions and analyses of how music and musical practice change when notation is introduced.5 Does the form of music and the way music is made change? Do note-reading musicians think about and conceptualise music differently than those who do read and write music? Changes in these respects undoubtedly do appear, but the question is which changes and how do they come about? (Ong, incidentally, does not have one word about music!) One obvious difference is in the way we conceive of a musical work. In an oral culture there is no original and there can be no original. A song, a poem or a story exists only in performance. There is no tool, apart from human memory and its limitations, to preserve it. An orally transmitted folk song does not have an 'Urtext', it cannot be a physical object, a musical work,6 that is owned and copyrighted. Obviously there are changes in how music is created as well. Notation sets a framework, presenting a composer with both possibilities and limitations. The Swedish composer Jan W. Morthensson (1993) speaks of 'the offerings of notation': notation confines the options of a composer to what can be expressed in some kind of notation. Notation is a tool for remembering music, and it is used in the teaching and learning of music as both an instruction for what and how one should play and as a tool for analysis.' But sound and timbre, micro intervals and 'blue notes' and rhythmic subtleties cannot be captured by notation, as has been discovered by many collectors of folk music. Ethnomusicologists have often been unable to grasp either the musical sounds themselves or folk musicians' theory, aesthetics or practice. There is, for example, much evidence of the consternation experienced by British blues musicians when they began playing with older American blues singers (Brunning 1986, p. 99). They had totally different views of the nature of a twelve-bar structure, when to change chords, what a chord is. The white guitar player David Fahl (1993) describes how the black bluesman Pops Overstreet tried to teach him his way of playing the blues. In Pop's blues there were neither twelve-bar patterns nor regular lines of lyrics: He started off on the E-chordagain and I joined in. After a while he changed to the A and stayed on it. Back and forth in a pattern that had no regularityI could hear, except for a slight change of emphasis that seemed to foretell the change. Even with that clue I wasn't always getting it right ... In Pops' blues a given line may be repeated one, two or ten times before resolving or moving to another verse. The readings of the line may change, or he may simply be responding to what the other musicians are doing. There are songs I've heard nearly a hundred times, and still find some lines a surprise, usually because they'll be new, or pulled in from another song and used to keep a jam going. (Fahl 1993, pp. 21-2) Whether Pop's way of constructing the blues has to do with the fact that he is a self-taught, non-reading musician from a partly oral culture in the American south is an open question, but it is very likely. It is a fact that the patterns used by black as well as white blues musicians of today - regular twelve-bar choruses with even phrasing, distinct chord changes etc. - do not occur as frequently in the work of older bluesmen, who often employ irregular choruses and diffuse chord changes (Lilliestam 1995, pp. 52-127; see also Lilliestam 1988, pp. 158-61). Regular twelvebar patterns, so obvious to jazz and rock musicians, were gradually introduced

On playingby ear


among black blues musicians in the 1930s and 1940s before becoming a new norm.8 I must stress, however, that this is a field where much more research is needed as the causal connections are difficult to map.

Tacit knowledge
Playing by ear can be said to be what Michael Polanyi has called a 'tacit knowledge', the unverbalised knowledge of skills that manifest themselves in actions but are not dressed in words, that are not formalised, theoretisised, systematised, pedagogised or summed up in textbooks and manuals. The concept of tacit knowledge is, however, controversial and has been given differing meanings. The Swedish philosopher Bengt Molander (1993, pp. 44-6) claims tacit knowledge to have three different meanings: 1. Knowledge or skills that cannot be expressed in words alone. Words do not exhaustively describe reality. This is the case with practical skills: you cannot read about what it is like to ride a bicycle or how to play a guitar - we must learn these skills by doing them ourselves. Another example is private memories and associations to phenomena in our past. A third example is knowledge of the familiar, like the sound of a clarinet - we cannot really describe it in words, but we can learn to recognise a clarinet when we hear it.9 2. Another form of tacit knowledge is 'the silent requisites', 'the implicit' or 'what everybody knows'. This is background knowledge and everyday knowledge that we learn in socialisation, when we internalise the culture in which we live. This type of knowledge is mostly not verbalised but remains silent. We learn to greet a foreigner by shaking their right hand, but we seldom reflect on or verbalise why we do so - we just do it. 3. A third kind of tacit knowledge is, according to Molander, 'that which has been silenced' - that has not got a voice or been allowed to have one. This is knowledge that for ideological or political reasons has been oppressed or constricted, but also knowledge that we just do not recognise as knowledge. Playing by ear can be said to be a tacit knowledge in all these respects: it is an activity that cannot in its totality be explained in words, it is an obvious knowledge that we do not have to verbalise, and it has not been acknowledged as a special kind of knowledge or skill. Typically enough the collectors of folk music in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were, in general, content to write down their informant's tunes, but they did not interview the musicians regarding their thinking about music, or their music theory. They did not take an interest in musical practice. Today's researchers of popular music are not very interested in these questions either. Mick Jagger says of The Rolling Stones' way of working: Musicians are not all known for their great verbalization. They communicate in musical terms. A lot of grunting goes on. The thing about being with a band for twenty years is that you do know a lot about them ... You don't have to have total verbalcommunication. The musical communication is enough, that you know what this guy can do, what his limitations are ... You don't have to talk but gestures are very important. It's like in dancing. That's always been my thing ... And that's very important. Communicationin



hands, dance, whatever. You don't have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes the movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat. (Flanagan1990, pp. 179-81) The guitarist Helena Nygren in the rock band Dilemma from Goteborg says: We have a naturalway of working, we hardly have to say anything and then we do what the other one means. We have a unique language together, and I think many bands have, but due to the fact that we don't know any musical terms we have shaped our own expressions and our own rules that we follow. It is difficult to explain, but it is something that you build up like a common consciousness when you are in the rehearsingroom. I think it is fantasticworking together as closely as you do when you work out a song. (interview) And Eric Clapton describes how he composes songs in the following words, that say everything to the initiated but very little to anyone who does not understand what it is all about: 'How do you formulate a song? You don't really. You just play around on the guitar. And it formulates itself' (Turner 1976, p. 44). terminology and vocabulary From what is said two conclusions could be drawn: musicians who play by ear do not talk about their music very much and they do not use concepts of music theory when they do. Both conclusions are, however, too hasty and wrong. Even if musicians do not always like to talk about their craft to outsiders, within a group there is a vocabulary, a musical terminology that is usually connected with a genre or style but in extreme cases may work only within a small group or a band. You can use both established and traditional music terms and terms you invent yourself. It is, however, definitely not common that rock musicians say that a tempo is 'allegro' or that you should play 'pianissimo' (or for that matter 'fortissimo'). Some terms used by jazz or rock musicians - for instance, 'riff', 'boogie', 'groove', 'lick' and 'walking' - are well established and widespread, but terms may be quite personal. The important point is that even if terms are well known and even 'established', they are still not usually recorded in text books. Of course many folk and rock musicians also use traditional Western musical concepts, but sometimes in novel ways. According to Al Wilson, the bluesman Son House and other musicians in the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s called finger positions on or below the fifth fret on the guitar 'major', while positions above the fifth fret were 'minor' (Titon 1977, p. 45). Rock guitarist Dickey Betts says: 'I know what a ninth chord is, but I don't know technically where you should use it, I just use it where it sounds good!' (Brooks 1975, p. 20). The Swedish music ethnologist Dan Lundberg once asked a Macedonian folk musician about the name of a certain scale: That is a major, he answered. But this one, I said, and showed another scale that also contained a majorthird. That is also major. But if you play together, how are your friends going to know if it is the one or the other scale if you only say that it is major? - Well, they hear it, don't they ... (Lundberg1994, p. 14) On the cover of her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) Joni Mitchell thanks her drummer for showing her 'the root of the chord' and 'where 1 is'. As long as she played alone this was no problem, but when she played together with other musicians she had to make these things clear both to herself and her playing Musician's

On playing by ear


companions. Joni Mitchell also frequently excels in unusual guitar tunings. She explains that she can change a chord by moving one finger, but if she had to describe the chords she makes they would have 'very long names' (Flanagan 1990, p. 275). What is easy to play can be very complicated and even obscure when it is dressed in words. Helena Nygren from Dilemma says: There is so much in the books of musical theory that is obvious to me, but it is described in a very advanced way. I can sit down and look in a book and read a lot of insurmountable things, and then I have to think for 25 minutes. Then I realize that I know this already!If I had explained it I would have done it differently. (interview) There is also among rock musicians an aversion to show or acknowledge that you actually know musical theory. It is part of 'rock mythology' and 'authenticity' that you should not have musical schooling, but come 'directly from the street' and spontaneously play your heart out. According to this mythology you should not practice either (or admit that you do) or reflect on your playing - 'feeling' is enough. Quotes from Carlos Santana and Neil Young can illustrate this: I very rarelythink of what chords or what notes or where I put my finger ... I don't think musicians who can really play think of music like that . . . to make it your own requires street learning. You cannot learn that in Harvardor Berkeley- that you have to learn from the streets, and that's my approachto music. The street universityis very important,man. (CarlosSantanain Rotondi 1993, pp. 60-1) First of all it doesn't matter if you can play a scale. It doesn't matter if your technique is good. If you have feelings that you want to get out through music, that's what matters. If you have the ability to express yourself and you feel good when you do it, then that's why you do it. The technicalside of it is a complete boring drag as far as I'm concerned. I mean I can't play fast. I don't even know the scales. A lot of the notes that I go for are notes that I know aren't there. They're just not there, so you can hit any note. I'm just on another level as far as all that goes. (Neil Young in Obrecht1992, p. 55) Folk and rock musicians are often suspicious of traditional musical schooling. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits: It's extremely foolish to have all these music schools create opportunitiesfor talented kids how to do technical things unbelievably well, when they don't understand where the hell it's coming from. (Widder-Ellis 1992, p. 38) Remembering music

Notation is a way of storing music and also a kind of mnemonic aid, but most musicians who play by ear remember music by other means, and have to do so as they cannot read music. So: how do you remember music if you do not use notation? There are four, possibly five, different kinds of memory that can be used: auditive, visual, tactile-motoric and verbal. These kinds of memory work in combination with each other when we learn a piece of music. Auditive memory means that we perceive the music by our hearing and are able to remember what we have heard and later recreate it with our voice or with an instrument. Visual memory means that we remember what it looks like on the instrument when we play a melody or a chord. A scale, a melody or a chord can be seen as patterns of finger positions on the neck of the guitar or violin, on the keyboard or on the keys of a flute or a saxophone. Visual memories are shapes, forms or



patterns that can be shown in chord charts and fingering charts for different instruments.10 A tabulature is also a kind of visual memory. David Sudnow (1978) describes the piano keyboard in terms of a 'topography' or 'geography'. Tactile and motoric memories mean that we remember how it feels to play. A melody or a chord becomes a series of movements or a pattern of finger positions that are stored as muscular memories. A musical piece is thus stored both as visual figures and as tactile-motoric patterns. When we learn an instrument we learn scales and chord shapes as finger routes, which are programmed into the brain and set frames for what we can play. Music that employs movements that lie outside these finger routes can be hard to play and demand an extra effort. With the help of verbal memory we name different phenomena like songs, musical pieces, chords, tones, shapes, etc. A special kind of verbal memory are the imitations of instruments, rhythms and sounds that musicians sometimes do, for instance when demonstrating a drum roll or drum pattern with the voice. To this should be added that we often remember music in the form of 'mental maps': when we hear music, we make our own mental pictures of it in our brains. These mental maps, which may be very personal, can be produced when we play and, together with the other four types of memory, work as a mnemonic aid." It is a common experience among musicians who play by ear to remember music by using these means. The Swedish blues musician Peps Persson claims: I think that knowledge and skills are stored not only in the brain but in lots of different places. There are certainthings that I can't do, but my fingers can: runs, chords, distances on the fingerboard.I don't have to burden my consciousness with all that, it's the hand, the fingers that have acquired that skill, not the conscious side of me. And many times when I play I discover:'Wow, what happened, what did my hand do?' Thatkind of learning is automatic, and it may even be quicker if I don't strain myself and don't involve my consciousness. (Niklasson 1993, p. 32) Consequently you can play very well without being able to verbalise and explain what you do and without being conscious of having names for the chords and notes you use. The practical starting point for playing by ear is the instrument or the voice. The instrument itself makes certain things possible but also sets limitations. Some things are possible to play or sound good on one instrument but not on another. This is sometimes called instrumental idiomacy. A consequence of this is that a song is coloured by the instrument that it is composed on. Paul Simon: There are piano cliches as well as guitar cliches and I don't advocate one instrument over the other for popular music. The guitar dictates a certain kind of melody and pianistic songwritersare differentfrom guitarwriters. Even though I use a guitar, the way I compose is closer to the piano because I am working with bass lines and leading tones a lot, and I know where I am going harmonically; am not just strumming. My hands always want to I go to certainchords that I love, and certainhand positions just lay themselves out perfectly on the guitar. For example, if I can get an open E string on the bottom I will be happy, so I try to get into the key of E if I can or A, or something similar. (Martin1983, p. 70) A musician may sometimes choose to compose on an instrument he does not know very well precisely to look for new effects. Keith Richard of The Rolling Stones says: I'm not a piano player, but I like to write songs on piano because I don't know the instrument as well. With the guitar you know it so well you don't get those accidents that I find give birthto the most interestingsongs, the ones that become the reallybig records. (Santoro 1986, p. 58)

On playing by ear


It is quite common for self-taught blues and rock musicians to use unorthodox playing techniques, chordings and fingerings. This is sometimes forced by necessity, as when left-handed guitar players instead of restringing the guitar, play on a 'right-handed' one upside-down. The bluesmen Albert King and Otis Rush did this. Musicians also use many different types of device to modify their sound. One technique is to retune the guitar to an 'open chord'. This means that for each tuning you have to adjust the chord shapes and fingering. By using open tunings you get new chords, sounds and options, and quite often things played with open tuning are impossible to play on a guitar with ordinary tuning. It is also a common practice in blues (and in rock) to play guitar with a slide, which means that you intone by sliding a glass tube or a steel bar usually on the little finger of the left hand. Slide guitar is usually played with open tunings. In concert a musician like Keith Richard will switch guitars for each song because they are tuned differently (Santoro 1986, p. 34). Ry Cooder and Joni Mitchell both have unique styles of playing which are largely due to the way they tune their guitars. Many of the modern style grunge groups (Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) also use open tunings (di Perna and Gore 1992).

In the literature on orality and literacy a central concept is formula, which is often used but seldom or never defined. In his analysis of the Serbian and Croatian epic singers, Albert Lord (1960, p. 30) defines 'formula', but only for literary analysis. The fact that there is no common definition of musical formula is rather remarkable and a symptom of the condition of the research.12 Spoken languages are built up not only by letters and separate words but also by idiomatic phrases and constellations of words. It is the same with music it is built not only from separate notes, chords and rhythms but also from readymade combinations of elements, phrases and formulas that can be mixed and varied. Strictly speaking our everyday existence is filled with formulas, in the form of spoken phrases as well as more or less fixed schemes or patterns of behaviour in given situations, for example when we meet someone for the first time. Examples of such formulas can be found in cooking, in the way fairy tales or detective stories are constructed, and in the running orders of the news on radio or TV. These examples are built on variations of a basic theme, on a kind of formulaic pattern. All creative acts have formulas as points of departure. You never start with a 'white paper'. All possibilities are not open. We are bound by the conventions, patterns or formulas of our culture even if this is not always evident to us. Bernt Andersson is a well known G6teborg musician and he claims: Composing or arrangingis like making food. A compositionis no new invention. You have to take the ingredients that are there, mix them, dare to try new things and trust your 28 imaginationand feeling. (G'teborgs-Posten, December 1992) I define a musical formula as a characteristicmusical motive or pattern, which has a recognisablecore even if the exact performanceof the formula can be varied within given cultural frameworks.13 Formulas are points of departure for composing and improvisation and basic building blocks of music. All forms of music, notated music as well as un-notated,


Lars Lilliestam

build on formulas. Some formulas are strictly tied to a particular musical style, others can be found in many forms of music. Formulas are requisites for musical communication and they make it possible for musicians to play together because they provide a common musical language. When you play by ear formulas are entirely central because they are important mnemonic devices. When the American rock guitarist Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers Band relates how he learned to play rock by learning musical motives (formulas), always combining them in new ways, he describes a method of learning that was just as valid for the epic singers that Albert Lord studied and is perhaps as old as man: I would learn, say for instance, the lead, note-for-note, from Chuck Berry's 'Roll over Beethoven'. When I would go and play with a band, they would do something like 'Whole lotta shakin' ' and I didn't know how to play my own stuff from inside me, so I'd play the lead I had learned from 'Roll over' to some other 12-barchange. I had all these leads that I'd learned from different 12-barblues, and I'd switch them around. Then I started cutting them in half and piecing them together, and then, before I knew it I was making up stuff of my own and adding that to my repertoire.Now I've just got a catalogue of things and, of course, now I don't have certainlicks, I just have whatever's in me. (Brooks1975, p. 20) Musical formulas are found in all parameters of music, and consequently we can speak of melodic formulas, chord sequences, rhythmic formulas, patterns of accompaniment ('grooves'), riffs, formulas for the construction of musical form, lyrical formulas, matrices for the construction of lyrics, etc. This can be illustrated by some examples. Suppose that we, for some reason, want to do a version of 'Hound Dog'. All of us who are playing are familiar with the Elvis Presley version of the song, but we want to do our own version and not just copy Elvis. All of us also know that the song is a twelve-bar blues. How do we do this? One way is to decide on a basic beat, a drum pattern, that the drummer sets in motion. On top of this the bassist plays a bass riff, that he makes up himself or picks out from his memory, but fits to what the drummer is playing. The guitarist and pianist also find riffs and figures that go together with drums and bass. You might take a riff (a formula) that you have used before. Maybe you play it 'as you always have' or you change it a little, adjusting it to the groove played by the other musicians. This can be done rather easily and quickly - provided that all of us playing are familiar with the stock of formulas and the stylistic idiom we ought to be using. The vocal is added, and the singer sticks mainly to Elvis's melody and lyrics, perhaps adding some modifications depending on his own style and the context of the performance. Bingo! We have a new version of 'Hound Dog'. Every musician in a tradition based on playing by ear knows a number of songs that can be said to constitute his repertoire. But in addition to whole songs you also learn riffs, solo phrases, chord sequences and rhythms. You acquire a repertoire not only of songs but also of formulas and building blocks that can be used in various contexts. Every musician is thus a carrier of a repertoire of songs and formulas that is more or less unique and dependent on the style(s) the musician is working within. If you change a musician in a band you change not only their playing style, sound and personality but their personal repertoire of formulas as well. And a switch of a musician will affect the sound and style of the whole ensemble too. A store of formulas and playing styles are, as previously said, starting points when you compose new songs. Say that one member of the band has come up with a song and he presents it in the form of a melody, an accompaniment on

On playingby ear


guitar and lyrics. The final arrangement and the structuring of the song, however, is made by all the members together, and then the particular skills, imaginations, experiences and stocks of suitable formulas of each member may be of great importance. In her book Rock Culture in Liverpool,Sara Cohen depicts a rehearsal with the local band The Jactars: Dave has come up with an idea for a new song and plays it to the others on his bass. It comprises a short sequence of notes (a 'riff') which he plays over and over to enable the others to get the feel of it. Trav tries out a few chords on his guitar before playing along with Dave. Garybegins to beat out the rhythm on the rim of his snare drum and then joins in on the whole drum kit followed by Tog on keyboards. Dave repeats the riff while the others experiment with different chords and beats. They stop for Trav to check over some chords with Dave and identify which notes he has been playing. Dave suggests that Tog plays some 'deep' notes on keyboardsto complementTrav'schords. Again they begin this process of repetition and experimentationusing the same short riff as their base. Dave thinks the sound may be too 'dirty' and decides to drop one note of his riff in order to fit in better with what Trav is doing. He and Trav confer, watched by Gary, while Tog continues playing keyboards. They begin again, stopping for Trav to retune his guitar. Later,Dave demonstratesa second riff he has devised to accompanythe first to Trav, who watches with intense concentration.There is a thoughtful pause. For several minutes they then try out various notes and riffs to accompany the second riff before returning based around it. Trav again to the first and the process of experimentation/improvisation suggests that Tog concentratemore on the top keyboardbecause the sound is too mellow. Tog is reluctantbut Trav says it would 'make a change and would be quite sparse as well wouldn't it? [to Dave] which would be quite interesting'. By now Trav has developed his guitar part into something completely different from that which he started off playing. Dave, echoed by Trav and Gary, complements Tog on the new keyboard sound and he and Trav agree that the composition has potential. (Cohen 1991, p. 136) Bob Dylan says that when he composed 'Like a Rolling Stone' in 1965 'it started with that La Bamba riff' (Crowe 1985), referring to the chord sequence (in C) C - F - G, which he used in the chorus of the song. The name 'La Bamba' originates from the Richie Valens' song from 1958. This chord sequence has been used in a large number of songs through the years: 'Twist and Shout' (The Isley Brothers and The Beatles), 'Good Lovin' ' (The Rascals), 'Hang on Sloopy' (The McCoys), 'Louie, Louie' (The Kingsmen), 'Wild Thing' (The Troggs), 'Badlands' and 'Born to Run' (Bruce Springsteen). The basic beat (the groove) and the tempo of the chord changes may vary, but in these songs you can easily detect the 'La Bamba' chord sequence. 'La Bamba' is thus a good example of a musical formula. There are, of course, many other chord sequences that can be seen as formulas, for instance, the vamp C - Am - F - G or C - Am - Dm - G, or the sequence, G - F - C, that perhaps is especially associated with 'Sweet Home Alabama' by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Both these formulas are used in thousands of songs that may be very different because all the other parameters of the music can be so varied. When musicians speak of these formulas they may give them different names. It is a common practice to name a formula after a well known song where it is central. 'La Bamba' and 'Sweet Home Alabama' both bear witness of this. The vamp may in a similar vein be called 'Stand by Me', 'Oh Carol' or something else. Not all formulas have names, but all are, in short, patterns and motives in different musical parameters that a musician uses within a musical tradition or style.14 Learning to play Albert Lord (1960, pp. 21ff.) describes how the Serbian and Croatian epic singers learned their craft, and he discerns three stages in their learning. In stage one the


Lars Lilliestam

singer listens to other singers, memorising songs and formulas. During stage two he practises, maybe under the tuition of an older singer. In the third stage he is ripe to perform himself in front of an audience. Even if the learning of rock musicians of today takes place under other and different circumstances Lord's basic model is still valid. An important reservation is, however, that the three stages rarely follow in line but more or less coincide or follow each other cyclically. A musician learns new things and develops his craft his whole life through and picks up ideas and influences from other singers. The descriptions of how a folk or rock musician who plays by ear learns to play and master his instrument are usually confined to cliches like 'it is a hard, time consuming and tiring labour that takes its toll of bleeding fingers'. Imitation, Alan Merriam (1964, p. 147) points out, is basic in the learning of music and 'may well be a universal first step in the process'. There are, however, few detailed descriptions of how this is really done. The bluesman John 'Son' Thomas relates how his father drew chalk marks on the neck of his guitar where he was supposed to put his fingers. Guitarist Roy Buchanan describes how he programmed the 'geography' of the guitar neck into his brain: BasicallyI learned through dividing the neck into positions, where the chords were in their various forms. It's a good way to practice.Take E, for example, and find the chord in each of its forms all the way up the neck. Then learn the scale in each position to go with it. I see everything in visual patterns in my mind. But it was always the chord that came first. For example, when I practice, I'll play major, minor, diminished and augmented scales. I really don't know the technical names for them, and I don't know what half the chords I use are. But I know for every chord there has to be a scale that fits it. And I find those notes on every position on the neck. You do this enough, you'll get the whole neck programmed into your mind. Playing by ear really is a feeling. But it only comes with the knowledge of the neck. It has to be ingrained in your mind ahead of time. (Cauffiel1993,

p. 50)

It seems to be a recurring pattern that once the interest has been awakened the learner gets instruction from a parent, a relative or a friend. Musicians describe how they have from time to time in their youth been obsessed with playing and practising, and that they have played for up to ten hours a day. Often they have had a particular musical idol that they have tried to copy. Eddie van Halen claims that to this day he can play every solo by Eric Clapton as he has copied them all (Obrecht 1993, p. 67), but he also stresses that you have to move on from the simple copying and make something of your own: 'I learned from Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Beck - but I don't play like them; I learned from them and did my own thing out of it' (Obrecht 1993, p. 67). Ry Cooder says: I would sit there for days before I got something right ... I would work on a Blind Blake because I could see that there was six months to do just to get yourself song for six months ... not to imitate him, but to learn to physically find a way for your body to do what he was expressing. So I used to sit there and play six to seven hours a day. (Scoppa1988,p. 21) A feature that distinguishes today's rock musicians from the folk musicians of yesterday is that they have access to recordings to learn to play from. Recordings are, of course, a main source of songs and formulas for all rock musicians. 'I'm just really drumming off memories of drum parts, memories of other records', says the American drummer Roger Hawkins (Weinberg 1984, p. 57). Learning to play from records, however, has its particular advantages and drawbacks. The teacher, that is the record, certainly has an infinite patience and repeats the phrase

On playingby ear


as long as the student wants without getting tired, but on the other hand there is no demonstration or explanation of what is happening. With a living teacher you not only hear what they do - you can also watch the fingers and ask if you do not understand. The recording, on the other hand, merely repeats its message again and again. Identifying and copying what a musician on a recording really does, which fingering is used, in what position is played or which tuning is used can be very difficult. Recordings are, by the way, not only models you can try to copy, you can also play along with them and use them as accompaniment for your own playing. There are sharp differences between the kind of learning that rock musicians (and folk musicians) usually describe and how music is taught traditionally in schools. The guitarist Jimmy Page, from Led Zeppelin, says: The good thing abut the guitarwas that they didn't teach it in school. Teachingmyself was the first and most importantpart of my education. I know that JeffBeckand I enjoyed pure music because we didn't have to. I hope they keep it out of the schools. (Davis 1985, p. 16) For Jimmy Page rock music and his guitar obviously was an asylum from school and his own mental territory where school was not allowed to come in. This seems to be a common experience among rock musicians. Many young musicians today learn their basic playing skills in music schools. These skills can be used partly when playing rock - it depends on which style you are playing - but it may be necessary to adjust certain ways of playing. There are classically schooled musicians who say that they have had to relearn and start almost from the beginning when they have begun playing rock, because in rock playing you use other approaches and techniques (Bayton 1988, p. 241). There are folk musicians as well, such as the Swedish fiddler Rbjas-Jonas, who claims that his playing by ear conflicted in many ways with his classical musical training in the conservatory (Charters 1979, p. 116). An evident example of this is when Michael Frisch (1987) tells the story of how he attended a course in 'old-time fiddle' in West Virginia, USA. From the beginning and for a long time the teacher, a folk fiddler himself, heavily stressed the movements of the bowing hand. Many of the classically trained students were used to playing notated music, and they found the teacher's methods peculiar and wondered when they would at last come to the melody. In his analysis, Frisch, however, says: what I was having difficultyperceiving was a musical experiencein which these categories (rhythm and melody) simply ceased to be very distinguishable, collapsing into something else, something larger. This is why the class had so much trouble understanding that by learning to bow they were not 'not learning'to play the melody; that indeed, the more one felt the rhythm the more one could begin intuitively to sense how the tunes themselves almost 'fall out' of the bow, the hand patterns, the tunings. (1987, p. 98) Some scholars distinguish between strong and weak traditionsof learning (Rolf 1991, pp. 148ff.). In a strong tradition the relationship between teacher and student is part of a large social structure that regulates the whole teaching process. A typical example of this is the medieval guilds with masters, journeymen and apprentices. Modern teaching institutions work under similar conditions. A weak tradition of learning is distinguished by a lack of a formalised relationship between teacher and apprentice and of systematic rules and formal approval. The quality of the teaching is decided when the apprentice is accepted by colleagues, earns a



living from his craft, etc. The learning processes of folk music and rock are obvious examples of a weak tradition of learning. Another view has been presented by the Swedish music teacher Tomas Saar (1993) who discerns a difference within orally transmitted music traditions between vertical and horizontal teaching. A typical feature of vertical teaching is that 'an older and more experienced bearer of the tradition teaches the music and the instrument' and this is common in folk music: The craft is defined by its representation of specific persons or places. In the centre of teaching there is a repertoire,for instance polskas from Rittvik or tunes in the traditionof Hjort-Anders. The musical dialect, the expression, the rhythm, the sound, is, like the teaching method, implicit. To play the polska as it should sound you have to play it in the correctway. With the correctbody position, fingering, attacketc. (Saar1993, p. 16) The teaching of rock, on the other hand, is horizontal, which means that 'you develop together with your friends who are mostly in the same age as yourself'. This means that you have to learn the form of the music at the same time as the skills must be anchored in one's fingers and body. The group has to, if it is going to work, learn to learn together. (Saar1993, p. 19) Thus there are many reasons for the opposition between music training in schools and the teaching of rock or folk music, namely music that is played by ear. This is a field where there is much to do in research, experiment and the search for new pedagogic methods."5

Composing and rehearsing

There are many accounts of how rock songs have originated, but most of them deal with the contents of lyrics or what has inspired the lyrics and/or the music. There are few accounts of the creation of the music itself. As Paul Simon says: When people write about songwriting they tend to write about lyric writing. It's very hard to write about music. What do you say about it? Music is a nonverbalexperience.It's easier to address words ... The music part of songwriting is much more potent and powerful than the lyric part. But it's harder to write about. (Flanagan1990, p. xi) The songwriters of rock - and for that matter almost everyone who makes music do find it difficult to describe what they do. For the insider it is quite obvious what happens and there is nothing much to talk about; for the outsider it remains a mystery and unexplainable. I once asked a 13-year-old aspiring rock player what he and his friends do when they compose their songs. The answer was: 'You just sit down and play and sooner or later something comes out!' Here is what some more well known musicians - Keith Richard, Bono and Pete Townshend - say: With songwriting - you're more of a receiver- you sit around with an instrumentand you put your finger up in the air and songs come through you. You're more of a medium in a way. I don't think many people would really say, 'I sat and wrote this song' 'cause you don't really know where the hell it came from. I think songs are all around us. It's really a matterof being receptiveand ready to pick 'em up. 'Causemost songs just write themselves once you've got the initial thread of it. Once you startit off it's an irreversibleprocess. You just help it along, you follow it, but you can't really control the song . . This song came to me and demanded to be written, and for better or worse, there it is. (Keith Richardin Flanagan 1990, pp. 206ff.)

On playingby ear


Songs arrive at your doorstep and all you do is give them an airing, make it possible for them to exist. (Keith Richardin Flanagan1990, p. xii) It feels like the songs are already written, but our songs are too human for me to be so arrogantas to claim they were written in the air. (Bono in Flanagan1990, p. xii) Ideas for songs come from an innerthing. You have a need to share, to communicatefor some reason. What you write about comes from what you see and what you do. It doesn't come from space. If you're short of ideas for songs get your ass up and go walk around in the city. You'll get an idea in fifteen seconds. There's no mystery to songwriting, I don't think. (Pete Townshend in Flanagan1990, p. 187) We are not all that much wiser! The explanations by Keith Richard and Bono echo the mythical and mystical conceptions of the origins of music that perhaps are as old as mankind. Lots of other musicians think in the same way and have had similar experiences (Boyd 1992). Pete Townshend's explanation is more down to earth and materialistic: the music you make is shaped by your experiences. But the details of the craft is still missing. As in all artistic activities the actual creation of music is concealed in a 'black box'. We know the conditions around the creative act, the prerequisites, the surrounding traditions, etc., and we hear what comes out, but how the moulding itself has come about, which choices have been made and why is unknown. Why does one use a particular chord sequence and not another, why did the melody turn out the way it did? Musicians usually cannot or do not want to talk about this, in the same way as a painter cannot say why he chooses a certain colour he just does because it feels right. A recurring story is how you suddenly are 'attacked' by a song, how the music and/or the lyrics appear as a bolt of lightning or in a creative storm (Boyd 1992). Sometimes this may be triggered by another song, by a casual remark or by something else. Sting says that he wrote Police's hit 'Every Breath you Take' 'in five minutes' (Flanagan 1990, p. 300). Lyrics or chord patterns scribbled on a hotel bill or a napkin are remnants of such creative moments. But song writing can also be a tough and strenuous work that takes a very long time. Leonard Cohen says that some of his songs have taken years to find their final form (Nilsson 1993). Even if the most common practice in connection with rock is that composing is done by a single individual or possibly a pair, where one makes the music and the other the lyrics, it is also usual to make songs collectively. A band may improvise together and make songs out of 'jams'. Someone may come up with a basic idea that is elaborated by the members of the group. In instances like this it may not always be clear who has done what and who ought to be regarded as the composer of the final song and entitled to royalty. Sometimes a whole group stands as composer. The contributions to a song from band members or anonymous studio musicians are often much larger than one thinks. Collective composing is a way of working that, even if it is obvious to those who practice it, has been observed and studied very little by musicologists and pedagogues. In reality collective composing is common in folk music as well as in rock, whereas it is a practically unknown phenomenon in art music. Jimi Hendrix has described how his song 'Voodoo Chile (slight return)' was made: With 'Voodoo Chile (slight return)'somebody was filming when we starteddoing that. We did that about three times because they wanted to film us in the studio, to make us [imitates



a pompous voice] 'make it look like you're recording, boys' - one of them scenes, you know, so 'OK, let's play this in E; now a-one and a-two and-a-three',and then we went into 'Voodoo Chile'. (Berks1988, p. 9) Pertinent to the point is that The Jimi Hendrix Experience the day before had recorded a song called 'Voodoo Chile'. When the film makers showed up in the studio the players started another jam that took off from the material they had worked on before. The musicians were familiar with the musical material, a 'song', a collection of formulas that they played around, varied and moulded in different

This is an account of the composing process in the heavy metal group, Def Leppard. Singer Joe Elliott says:
We sit around in a circle - Mutt, Steve, Phil, Sav and me ...

somebody says I've got this idea for a verse, and somebody says it would be better as a chorus. So we'll put that aside and try this bridge with that chorus. Or something else. Then everybody disappears for a little while to write something, or we leave it for a week and try something else. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. Ego is never a problem because we all understand that songwriting is the most important thing. Everybody'sgot a piece of the publishing, so it's just a matter of the best idea wins. (Young 1987, p. 80) Garth Hudson of The Band has described how he and the group in 1967 worked with Bob Dylan on the songs that eventually, in 1975, were released as TheBasement

Somebody says start and

We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditionalsongs, some were alreadywrittenby Bob and Richard,but others Bob would make up as he went along ... ['Sign on the cross'] would have been a real good one, but Bob never finished it. We'd play the melody, he'd sing a few words he'd written, and then make up some more, or else just mouth sounds or even syllables as he went along. It's a pretty good way to write songs. (Heylin 1991, p. 181) A similar mode of action is used when songs are rehearsed. In fact, it is evident that when you play by ear the difference between composing and rehearsing is unclear and may cease to exist. Even when rehearsing non-original material the contributions of the sidemen can be crucial for how a song comes out. Often there is no musical director or leader at all and the musicians make up their own parts without being told by a leader what to play. The bass player of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Noel Redding, has recalled: We rehearsed casually, never resorting to 'This riff goes like this' or 'Play these notes'. When Jimi had a new idea, he gave the basic chord structureand tempo and within that frameworkwe each found our own parts and a song and arrangementemerged. Luckily our concepts meshed. What a relief from copy-learning songs I sometimes hated just because they were in the charts. We whipped through vague blues and songs Jimiremembered - Land of a 1000 dances, Have Mercy and one of my all-time favourites, Johnny B Goode - just to get used to each other. (Redding and Appleby 1990, p. 26) When it comes to the learning of songs demo recordings are often used. This means that the composer of a song makes a recording that the other players can copy from by ear and/or develop. This is a method that has been used since the 1950s but it has become more frequent because of the development of advanced and cheap portable recording devices and MIDI-technique. Musicians like Peter Gabriel and Sting frequently use demos to show their ideas and intentions to their band members. Demo versions of well known songs are a kind of acoustic record

On playing by ear


or sketch, which bear witness to the compositional process. Who could imagine that Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone' started out as a waltz?"7 The use of demo recordings can be seen as a modern form of oral transmission of music and a method for playing by ear in a high technological cultural context. This is, of course, the case to an even higher degree when it comes to the new computerised music technology, where a single musician with the help of synthesizers, drum machines, computers and MIDI in his home studio is able to create not only demo recordings but highly advanced musical productions.

Building on tradition
Every pop musician is a thief and a magpie ... We would listen to a currentrecord, get a good idea from it, use it, and because the Attractions played it all differently anyway, nobody would ever detect it. (Flanagan1990, p. 241) Elvis Costello's depiction of how new songs are made is honest and straight to the point. You get inspired by something you hear, and - consciously or unconsciously - make something new of your own out of it. Many musicians - like Mark Knopfler, Keith Richard and Ry Cooder - heavily stress the significance of tradition for their own music making. Eric Clapton has said: Maybe I've been handed something to lead on, to carryon in this generation. I often feel a very strong sense of responsibilitytoward that, as if it's something not really to do with me. It's like carryinga torch. (Boyd 1992, p. 117) If I'm building a solo, I'll startwith a line that I know is definitely a FreddieKing line, and then, though I'm not saying this happens consciously, I'll go onto a B B King line. I'll do something to join them up, so that part will be me. (Coleman 1985, p. 233) The Swedish singer and composer Peter LeMarc: You carrycertainthings with you as a luggage. The first thing that knocked me out when I was small was The Beatles - and since then their melodies are always there. Then I was struckby that whole packageof soul, and you can obviously hear that in the music I make Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Marvin Gaye. Through The Stones and all those groups I discovered the blues and that kind of roots. All this has moulded me and everything I do. (interview in the Swedish radio programmeMusikjournalen, February20 1990) The tradition of rock looks, however, very different depending on where you live and your age. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits places his roots not only in rock but also in blues, gospel and country from the 1920s onwards and in Celtic and Irish music (Widder-Ellis 1992, p. 38). Bono, the singer of U2, says that he was quite depressed after a night of jamming with Keith Richard and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. While Keith Richard played song after song from the blues and country traditions Bono himself had nothing to contribute, as he had never learned any old songs. His record collecting - and accordingly his musical roots started with the Patti Smith album Horses in 1976 (Flanagan 1990, p. 450). In a similar way the tradition does not look the same from the point of view of a Swedish rock musician as from that of a British or American musician. You can only get inspiration from what you hear and experience. Another question is how you use the music tradition you belong to. Keith Richard says: 'You don't go out of your way to lift songs, but what you play is eventually the product of what you've heard before' (Santoro 1986, p. 78). Rock musicians have often described how they have been inspired by or borrowed



elements from other songs. The following is a conversation between Boy George from Culture Club and a reporter: 'Listen',George touches my elbow when the opening Motown beat of 'Churchof the Poison Mind' belts out. He grins, waits for the cue and then sings Stevie Wonder over the top: 'Uptight, everything is allright, outta sight .. .'. It fits perfectly. Jon, sticking his head over the top of a nearby seat raises an eyebrow. 'I'd keep quiet about that if I were you.' But George has no intention of doing any such thing. He points out a bit of the melody of 'It's a miracle'that comes from GilbertO'Sullivan. When the flute comes in at the beginning of 'Stormkeeper',he smiles and says 'that sounds like Men at Work'.George is not ashamed of borrowing. Farfrom it. He seems positively proud. As we listen on, the names of those to whom CultureClub have accordedthe sincerestform of flatterycontinues to tumble out. (Rimmer1985, p. 80) And Per Gessle of Roxette claims: It is inevitable to borrow. I think everybody borrows from everybody. It turns into a hodgepodge. There is a very thin line between borrowing and 'paying tribute' . . . I love The Beatles, and obviously that is audible. 'Churchof your Heart' is really a typical Tom Petty rip off, 'Fading like a Flower' is a typical American power ballad. It could be by anyone, Bryan Adams or Foreigner. I like that. So it is nothing strange that I write that kind of song. (Gren 1992) Keith Richard says that occasionally he has had to ask his friends and neighbours if they recognise a song that he has made or if it really is a new song of his (Santoro 1986, p. 78). Paul McCartney reveals that he 'stole' the bass line to 'I Saw Her Standing There' from Chuck Berry's 'I'm Talkin About You': 'I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fitted our number perfectly' (Flippo 1988, p. 181). McCartney has also said that: John and I ... were quite happy to nick things off people, because .. you start off with the nicked piece and it gets into the song . . . and when you've put it all together . . . of course it does make something original. (Moore 1992, p. 81) In Western art aesthetics one of the corner stones is the idea that a work of art should be original and unique. Creating something on the basis of what someone else has done is not very good, and if the copy is too apparent it is plagiarism, which is even a punishable offence. It is in this view of a musical work as an original creation that we can see one of the more distinct conflicts between the practice of folk and art music, or, put another way, between thinking based in orality and literacy. The idea that you could own a piece of music was totally foreign to folk musicians of older generations, be they Swedish fiddlers or American bluesmen. Consequently there are an abundance of examples where, for instance, blues players have been cheated of money that was rightfully theirs from the point of view of copyright. Rock musicians' view of this is somewhat ambivalent. Many have a rather relaxed attitude to 'stealing' music, some may even be flattered, while others take it more seriously. But a pragmatic and undogmatic attitude is common, like Chuck Berry's: 'That riff comes from ideas that influenced me. Somebody else influenced him. It all comes from somebody else. I've been stealing all these years, man' (Flanagan 1990, p. 85). And Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits says: I learn a new lick from Chet (Atkins) or from Paul (Franklin,Dire Straits'steel guitarist), he goes off and uses a lick he learned from me. There's a lick in 'When it comes to you' that I learned from Chet a few months ago, stole it and put it straight into the song. On

On playingby ear


the Hillbilliestour I'd learn a lick from Paul Franklinand stick it into my improvisations.I hope to always be able to steal a lick and add it to my little bag of tricks. That increase in vocabularyis just a potent thing. There's no point in trying to mystify. It's how you use it! (Flanagan1991, pp. 37ff.)

This article is but a scrape of the surface of a huge and complicated subject: playing by ear. The subject is treated in more depth in Lilliestam (1995). But it really is remarkable that there is so little research on playing by ear and oral transmission, that knowledge of this is so superficial, and that musical practice has been so little observed. Admittedly there are a few studies, but the discontent that Charles Seeger (1950) and Bruno Nettl (1981) have expressed over the lack of systematic knowledge in the field is as justified today as when their studies were written. There is a great need of further research. And, even if this has its difficulties, which should be obvious from this article, there are theories and methods that can be used and developed, even if only few musicologists have done this so far. Several themes for research have been implied in this article. I would like to see work on how songs are made, how people learn to play an instrument, how songs are taught and learned, how musicians think of and theorise on their music - in different types of music played by ear. A further issue now is how the new music technologies are affecting music, music-making and the way we conceptualise music. I challenge others to take up research on these important subjects.

1 I am surprised when I read magazines like Guitar Player, Musician, Guitar World, etc. that I sometimes have to read hundreds of pages to find one fact or a quote related to playing by ear or musical practice: composing, learning to play your instrument etc. Facts of this kind are just as rare in biographies of musicians. 2 Ong (1982, p. 11) distinguishes between two types of orality: 'primary orality', cultures which do not know of writing at all, and 'secondary orality', by which he means 'present-day high-technology culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print'. One could add phonograms and computers. Ong points to something very important here: the influence of modern information technology, but he is very vague on this and his terminology is directly misleading, which is unfortunate, because it is now frequently used. 3 Critical discussions of the research on orality and literacy can be found in Graff (1979), Street (1984), Feld (1986), Finnegan (1988), Goetsch (1991) and Lilliestam (1995, pp. 22-9). 4 Strictly speaking even this division is not satisfying. Information can be transmitted through medias and codes that are neither oral nor literate, like gestures and body language. Perhaps it is better to speak of information technologies. 5 I discuss these problems in Lilliestam (1995), especially in chapter 2. 6 The concept 'musical work' is defined by the Swedish Sohlmans Musiklexikon as 'the idea of the individual composition as a well defined whole as created by a composer'. 7 There is also in connection with notated music an element of oral information, transmitted from teacher to student that cannot be expressed by notation alone. This is usually called performance practice. 8 The bluesman Robert Lockwood, who in the 1930s was a companion of the famous Robert Johnson, sometimes found it difficult to play with Johnson because he often played irregular choruses while Lockwood himself kept 'perfect time'. Lockwood also characterised the young B. B. King's timing as 'ape shit' (Palmer 1981, pp. 180, 207). Even blues musicians like Son House and Robert Pete Williams saw it as important to play regular choruses of twelve


las', which are repeated verbatim (or 'tonatim'), and 'formulaic elements', which are recurring similar motives that are not repeated verbatim. I do not make this distinction however. Lilliestam (1995) contains a substantial number of detailed analyses of musical formulas in blues and rock. See also Moore (1992) for analyses of chord patterns in rock. A much longer discussion of this can be found in Lilliestam (1995). Both these songs are released on the Hendrix album Electric Ladyland from 1968. With 'Voodoo Chile (slight return)' eight different takes were made, and version eight is on the record. Some of the jams that preceded these recordings are also available on posthumous Hendrix' albums. This demo version was released on record in 1991 on the CD-box The Bootlegseries, Rare and unreleased1961-1991.





bars and not to be a 'time breaker' - even if they did not live up to this (Titon 1977, p. 51). Concerning the concepts of 'practical knowledge' - 'skills' and 'knowledge of familiarity', see Molander (1993, pp. 41-4). Obviously notation can also be regarded as a form of visual memory, but this is disregarded in this context. We can, of course, learn a musical piece from notation and then 'translate' the notes into the mentioned types of memories. In fact, many note-reading musicians say that this is what they actually do. But if you cannot read musical notation this method obviously does not work. The reader should disregard the rather negative connotations that concepts like 'formula' or 'cliche' have in Western art theory and aesthetics, where they imply a lack of originality. Some scholars, like Ong (1982, p. 39) and Nielsen (1982), distinguish between 'formu-


15 16


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The The The Bob Bob Beatles, 'I Saw Her Standing There'. Please Please Me. Parlophone PCS 3042. (LP) 1963 Beatles, 'Twist and Shout'. The Beatles/1962-1966. Apple E 188-05 307/08. (LP) 1963 Chiffons, 'He's so Fine'. Laurie 3152. (single) 1963 Dylan, 'Like a Rolling Stone'. Highway 61 Revisited. CBS SBPG 62572. (LP) 1965 Dylan, 'Like a Rolling Stone [demoversion]'. The Bootleg Series. Rare and Unreleased 1961-1991. Columbia 468086 2. (CD-box, p 1991) 1991 George Harrison, 'My Sweet Lord'. All Things Must Pass. Apple STCH 639. (LP) 1970



Jimi Hendrix, 'Voodoo Chile. Voodoo Chile (slight return)'. Electric Ladyland. Polydor SPDLP3 (LP) 1968 The Isley Brothers, 'Twist and Shout'. Twist and Shout. Wand 653. (LP) 1962 The Kingsmen, 'Louie Louie'. 15 Great Hits. Wand WDS-674. (LP, p 1965) 1963 Lynyrd Skynyrd, 'Sweet Home Alabama'. Skynryrdsfirst .. . and last. MCA-3047. (LP) 1974 The McCoys, 'Hang on Sloopy'. More American Graffiti. MCA records MCA 2-11006. (LP) 1965 The Police, 'Every Breath You Take'. Their GreatestHits. A & M 397 096-2.(CD, p 1990) 1983 Elvis Presley, 'Hound Dog'. Elvis Forever. RCA PJL 2-8024. (LP, p 1973) 1956 The Rascals, 'Good Lovin' '. The Ultimate Rascals. Warner 9-27605-2. (CD, p 1986) 1965 Bruce Springsteen, 'Born to Run'. Born to Run. CBS PC 33 795. (LP) 1975 Bruce Springsteen, 'Badlands'. Darkness on the Edge of Time. CBS 86 061. (LP) 1978 Big Mama Thornton, 'Hound Dog'. You Ole Hound Dog. ACE CHAD 272. (LP, p 1989) 1953 The Troggs, 'Wild Thing'. From Nowhere. Fontana TL 5355. (LP) 1966 Richie Valens, 'La Bamba'. La Bamba, Soundtrack.London 828 097-2. (LP, p 1987) 1956