Valeri Brainin


Short table of contents:

  • 1. Introduction from which you can deduce whether you need to continue reading
  • 2. The first source of understanding music: A little about boring things, or “What elements make up the language of music”
  • 3. The second source of understanding music: Musical culture, or “Why we need the language of music”
  • 4. The third source of understanding music: What is beyond the turn, or “I know you, the Mask”
  • 5. If Beethoven was deaf, how could he compose music?
  • 6. Where to learn to swim – in water or on shore?
  • 7. A few words about the “vocabulary of music”
  • 8. Composer: commander-in-chief or co-participant?
  • 9. Be more specific please!
  • 10. Let us sum up what we have learned

1. Introduction from which you can deduce whether you need to continue reading

This text has been written for parents who decide that their child needs general and, in some cases, professional musical training. This text may also be useful to those who are interested in issues of music teaching for personal interest. If you are a colleague, a teacher of music, then I hope that you will also discover something new. This text has been written for non-specialists, so, dear colleague, you can omit all the explanations of terminology and the like. In the course of more than forty years of pedagogical practice, I developed an integral course which I call “Development of Musical Intelligence”. What is this? What is it necessary for? In what way does it differ from other musical training systems, and how I see things from another angle? These are the questions I will try to answer.

We will need to distinguish clearly between two concepts: “method in general” and “teaching technique”. This is the method in general that I will discuss here, i.e., a principal approach to training, and not specific “tricks” (i.e., skillful actions) which usually constitute teaching technique. Of course, I have noted these “tricks” too, but it is impossible to describe them briefly. In order to read this text it is not necessary to have any musical education, and I will try to explain all the necessary terms casually.

2. The first source of understanding music: a little about boring things, or “What elements make up the language of music”.

In order to understand music, two three things are necessary; two of them are obvious, while the third one is not.

The first obvious requirement is the ability to distinguish the elements of the language of music aurally – volume or dynamics, timbre, rhythm, melody, harmony, polyphony, and structure. Do not be scared off by these terms: it is not that complicated. Note, I only wrote this explanation for inquiring minds.

Dynamics are the most obvious ones. Music can be soft or loud; the sound can grow or die out gradually.

Timbre elements constitute the difference between the sounds of various musical instruments. Even if we have minimal musical experience, we will be able to distinguish the sound of a piano from that of a violin. Roughly, we may agree that timbre is something that helps us to recognize various sources of sound – the sound of a flute and the sound of a harp, the mother’s voice and the father’s voice.

Rhythmic elements, in their simplest description, are the correlations between the duration of sounds. Music exists in the temporal dimension, and some sounds last longer than others.

Melodic elements are the correlations between pitches of sounds produced in turn, not simultaneously. If it is not quite clear to you what “pitch” is, here is a simple explanation. In order to produce a sound, a sounding body must be present– a bell, a string, an air column in a pipe (flute, organ pipe, etc.). The sounding body vibrates with some frequency (e.g., 100 or 500 vibrations per second). We know that the more vibrations per second, the higher the sound. Even so-called “tone-deaf” people (though such people are practically non-existent, it is common to refer to them as such) can distinguish between “heavy” and “light” and “dark” and “bright” sounds. Melodic elements form the principal pitch differences between sounds.

Harmonic elements are also correlations between pitches, but this time the sounds are produced simultaneously, not one after the other. Harmony deals mostly with chords composed of more than two.

Polyphonic elements implicate the simultaneous production of two or more melodies rather than just two or more single notes.

Structural elements are those where music resembles language and literature. In a musical composition one may hear separate musical “words”, “phrases”, “paragraphs” or “chapters”. However, it does not mean that musical “words” may be translated into a normal language as we translate from English into Russian for example. Nevertheless, the music flow is not continuous, it is divided into segments, both small and large, and this division can be discernible.

Now, when I start talking about dynamics, timbre, rhythm, melody, harmony, polyphony, and structure – you will have an idea what I am talking about.

Let us remember that, as mentioned above, three things are necessary for understanding music, and until now, we have discussed only one of them – the ability to distinguish the elements of the language of music, by ear.

This is all you need to understand for now.

3. The second source of understanding music: Musical culture or “For what purpose do we need the language of music”.

We need languages like Russian, Spanish, or English, for exchanging information, including emotional information. When we speak about the language of music, we first of all mean the emotional information. This information is created by the composer, transmitted by the performing musician and received by the listener.. All this emotional information forms the basis of the musical culture. Therefore, the second requirement for understanding music is the knowledge of musical culture. As a rule, this means knowledge of composers’ names, names of previous and current performing musicians and musical genres (opera, symphony, sonata, etc.). For the purposes of this text, when we speak of the “musical” culture we will imply knowledge of music by ear. In the same way, from childhood days, we build up a vocabulary of our native language when communicating with other people and when reading books. We build up a vocabulary of the language of music when listening to music. Certainly, it would be good to know the authors of this or that composition, but it is much more important to recognize the composition, to be able to say to yourself, “I have heard that”. Musical “words” and musical “grammar” learned from one composition will help us to enjoy other compositions (and this is actually “understanding”).

The process of studying the language of music is similar to studying your native language. On the one hand, a child instinctively learns his/her native language; on the other hand, the moment comes when at school, conscious study of the native language begins. Here the child is taught (theoretically) to derive special pleasure from reading books in the native language. Those who have not learned to read will have a limited vocabulary, sufficient for common communication when shopping but hardly sufficient to enjoy literature.

Something of this kind happens with the language of music. Nowadays music is ever present– on TV, in the supermarket or on mobile phones. This music varies in quality, the same as speech we hear around us. Thus, be it good or bad, a person perceives a certain number of musical “words” but they are similar to the language of an illiterate one. Therefore, the acquaintance with the best samples of musical culture requires certain well-directed efforts, i.e., some education. And the aim of this education is not for the professional future of a child prodigy, but training a qualified consumer of music, training for readiness to enjoy music as much as possible, in other words, training for a happy person.

4. The third source of understanding in music: What is beyond the turn, or “I know you, the Mask”

Let me remind you once again – as mentioned above, three things are necessary for understanding music, and the third one is not so obvious. This third requirement is the main peculiarity of the system I have developed. Without its comprehension, the acquaintance with the musical culture and ultimately with the process of understanding music will be difficult. The third component is present in other musical pedagogical systems, but in an unconscious way, which means that its potential cannot be effectively released. Moreover, even if the third component is present, it is not the objective, but a sort of side effect arising by itself, without any special pedagogical efforts aimed at its formation. I noticed this component in my youth, when I was busy with very different things: mathematics, linguistics, semiotics, systems theory, and other sciences with impressive names. These sciences suggested that it was possible to borrow their ideas for musical education. When I looked at this third component, I applied it to my teaching practice for the effective perception of the elements of thelanguage of music (see above – the first component). What does this mean?

Imagine the following game. I set a word in a native language, say “globe”. If I give no information about the word, then your chance to guess is approximately 1 to 40,000 – this is the number of words in Penguin English Student’s Dictionary. However, if I tell you the first letter, i.e. “g”, your chances grow, but they are still minimal because there are too many words beginning with this letter. Nevertheless, if you want to say the second letter at random, there will be more chances, because not so many letters may follow the letter “g” in the English language. If you do not guess the second letter and I tell it to you, your chances will grow considerably but
still, you will have to try quite a few words, because there are around 50 words beginning with “gl”. After the third letter, your chances grow even higher: in the Penguin English Student’s Dictionary there are 17 words beginning with “glo…”. After the fourth letter, the chances grow even higher (only 2 words beginning with “glob”…). This letter would give a 50% opportunity to guess the word.

Now imagine that you had to guess a whole phrase rather than a single word, e.g. “Globe Theatre founded by Shakespeare”. It is obvious that guessing the letter “t” after the word “globe” would be less probable. With every coming letter, the probability will rise again. After guessing the word “Theatre”, the participant who had heard about it earlier would begin to guess the letters with higher probability than with the word “Globe”. Most probably, after the words “founded by” the participant would guess the end of the phrase with about 100% accuracy.

Now imagine that the participant was a foreigner who did not speak English and was not at all interested in drama and history. Then he/she would have to guess every letter and would not know that “Globe” and “Theatre” were two different words. In this case, the occurrence of each letter would be equally probable for him or her, and the whole phrase would be discovered letter by letter, each one being guessed with a probability of 1/26.

In general, it is clear that the completion of this phrase perception by a foreigner would differ greatly from its perception by a learned native speaker. While the native speaker’ perception would be full of active expectations, the foreigner’s perception would be passive,and would simply follow the incoming information without any active attempts to pre-empt it.

This insight into the language perception will help us to understand what “active perception and understanding of music” is. When we listen to a musical composition without any suppositions concerning on what will come next, we are like people listening to a message in a foreign language. If from time to time we make chaotic guesses on the text to follow, we are like foreigners who know some words from the language of the message. When making such suppositions in a “wave-like” way, with interposed breaks, we are like people listening to a message in their native language, without having a strong enough cultural background: they cannot make suppositions at the moment when one word has already finished, but the next one has not yet started. Finally, if we make suppositions all the time – regardless what part of these suppositions comes true – we are like a cultured person who perceives the message in the language he/she knows very well.

Why does it happen sometimes that these suppositions do not come true even in this last, ideal, case? Because the author of the message, like an author of a criminal story, has done his best to maintain our interest and not to bore us.

5. If Beethoven was deaf, how could he compose music?

It seems clear now what supposition in a language means. However, what is supposition in music? Does it mean that we should guess the names of notes, chords and the like? No, it does not. In comprehending a language, we do not guess separate letters but whole words or even phrases. When speaking about comprehending music we will also be aware of whole sets of sounds, for example, melodies. What does “guessing a melody” mean? When we speaking to a person who stutters, we unconsciously wish to complete the words for him/her. In the same way when listening to an “understandable” melody, you want to finish it in your mind before it actually ends. Therefore, “making suppositions” in music means “pre-hearing”. In order to make it possible, a developed inner hearing and rich musical experience are necessary. The musical experience is the musical compositions, which you perceive as well known to you. The inner hearing is a specific skill that allows us to imagine this or that sounding.

Non-musicians would hardly be able to understand how Beethoven could compose music being deaf. The matter is that Beethoven was deaf only to external sources of sound, but he heard the sounds generated by his imagination much more clearly than many of us can hear real sounds. You may think it to be something mystical. Well, you are not alone. I heard a statement from a professor of psychology at one of German Conservatoires which shocked me: “The so-called inner hearing is a fiction”. I cannot understand what the professor meant, because the inner hearing undoubtedly exists. It is a medical fact. Not only the experience of Beethoven and other composers who lost the sense of hearing (Bedřich Smetana, Gabriel Fauré) proves that the inner hearing is a real thing, but also the experience of many musicians including my personal experience. I know for sure that the inner hearing is not fiction. Moreover, its development is not a privilege of the selected few. In my pedagogical practice, the inner hearing appeared to different extents in all students, without exception.

6. Where to learn to swim – in water or on shore?

Now, in order to understand music it is necessary to be able to pre-hear, and for pre-hearing, the inner hearing is required. Still, the inner hearing alone, as previously mentioned, is not enough. Musical culture is also necessary. In this respect, three principal approaches are possible, like in teaching someone to swim:

The first approach: throw a person into the water: swim or sink. Concerning music: let a person listen to all sounds consecutively and either benefit from a pleasurable experience or feel an intense dislike for the sequence of sounds.

The second approach: teach the correct swimming movements on the shore and then in shallow water. In terms of music: develop the inner hearing using special teaching technique and then become familiar with musical culture.

Finally, the third approach is a combination of the previous two, namely, the development of the anticipative, “guessing” ear, combined with the study of the musical culture. It is the third approach that I consider the right one. However, studying the musical culture should be systematic rather than chaotic.

What does this mean? At first glance, everything is simple. Music has its history. For example, it is possible to start becoming acquainted with the music of ancient times and gradually, century after century, arrive at the music of our current times. It would be a chronological systematization. Another possibility is to systemize music by forms and genres. That means starting with the simplest forms, e.g., songs, no matter when these songs appeared. Then proceed with folk dances, sonatas, symphonies, opera, etc. This approach might seem quite logical. Nevertheless, I propose a completely different way. I call it the “gradual build-up of an intonation vocabulary”. The term “intonation vocabulary” may be not quite clear for an English reader. In the Russian tradition, the word “intonation” (in addition to its meaning of “a musician’s realization of pitch accuracy, or the pitch accuracy of a musical instrument”), also refers to a semiotic concept. Intonation may be understood as a sign forming the basis of a musical expression and manifesting itself as the smallest significant turn of music speech. Here I use the word “intonation” as “a meaningful melodic cell”.

7. A few words about “vocabulary of music”

“Intonation vocabulary” is rather a complicated notion but in the first approximation, it means the following: take a completed fragment from some composition. “Completed” means that it may be understood in its entirety as a fragment. This fragment consists, say, of three notes. The three notes in this fragment have certain interrelations with one other. Suppose we do not know what these interrelations are, but that they still exist. These interrelations (understood as combinations of two and more sequential sounds in the fragment) will be the first “words” of our “intonation vocabulary”. Let us designate these notes with symbols K, L, M, and the whole fragment as, say, K-L-М / K-L-М. The slash will designate the end of the motive. Then “words” for us will be the following combinations: K-L, L-M, K-L-М, K, L, and M. Now imagine that we take another fragment where the same sounds make other combinations. In this way, our “vocabulary” will grow. Let us add one more notes to these three. Our vocabulary will grow again. And so on.

Actually, under the “intonation vocabulary” I understand something different and more complicated which I will not be able to explain to an unprepared reader without being boring. However, the proposed model gives one some idea. With this approach, the development of inner hearing and acquaintance with the musical culture proceed simultaneously.

In order to get the effect of pre-hearing, however, inner hearing alone is not sufficient. In what way can we foresee what someone is going to tell us? For this purpose, the knowledge of words and grammar is insufficient. Remember how we “guessed” the word “globe”. The nearer to the end of the word we moved, the higher the probability was of certain letters appearing. What we anticipate is not the occurrence of any signs but the occurrence of the most probable ones in our opinion. But how do we know which signs are most probable? We know it because we have had other experiences using these signs.

What does it mean in terms of music? It means that even a chaotic acquaintance with a very large number of musical compositions, eventually develops hearer’s intuitive image of the probability of these or those soundings. Some sounds are more frequent, some are less frequent. Now imagine that we were to study a foreign language. The most rational way would be, on the one hand, to immerse into the verbal environment of native speakers. On the other hand, we deliberately start with studying the most commonly used words and expressions, progressing to those used less frequently.

The same path should be taken when studying the language of music. On the one hand, good music should be heard at home, on the other hand, most probable “music words” should be studied with a teacher and become stereotypes of the inner hearing. Then these stereotypes should be replaced thanks to learning less probable sound combinations, which, in turn, should also become inner hearing stereotypes; these will then also be replaced. Such “music words” provide us with different combinations of the elements mentioned at the very beginning, namely dynamic, polyphonic and structural elements, but primarily used at the beginning of music education – rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements of the language of music.

Therefore I proposed the following principal approach to mastering the language of music, and to developing music perception and thinking:

Music language is a probabilistic system, and its learning is training the inner hearing to recognize the elements occurring in the learning process by the decreasing probability of their use in the music language. Any intermediate knowledge should be brought to the level of stereotype. (i.e. to 100% probability). Thereafter, the stereotype is broken in order to enhance the idea of probability.

The language of music is a generalization of regularities that take place in musical texts, i.e. in musical compositions whose aggregation is what we call musical culture. Mastering the musical culture is built on the principle of gradual expansion of intonation vocabulary, which allows combines the two processes of becoming acquainted with the musical culture and developing the inner probabilistic hearing simultaneously.

All this together allows the development of intuitive predictive perception without which adequate understanding is not possible.

8. Composer: commander-in-chief or co-participant?

I call my course “musical thinking (intelligence) development”. Until now we have been speaking about hearing, perception, culture and language, but not about thinking. It is not easy to define the term “musical intelligence” because there is no common understanding of the term. Usually, “intelligence” is contrasted to “sensuous perception”. This “sensuous perception” provides the thinking with material for further processing. This processing is performed with the aid of language. Supposedly there is no thinking outside thoughts formulated in natural language. It is impossible to think “in general”, without using words. According to this point of view, musical thinking proceeds as follows: first we get an auditory impression from a musical composition, and then we perform intellectual analysis of the composition, formulating our thoughts with words in our spoken language. We divide the composition into parts, compare similar and different units, compare the composition to other compositions by the same composer, and to other composers’ works in the same genre (e.g., a waltz by composer N to a waltz by composer M). In my opinion, however, it is “thinking about music” rather than “musical thinking”. Musical thinking – and here I propose a strange, contradictory term “sensuous thinking” – does not need a verbal envelope. Thanks to predictive perception, we perform all the said operations intuitively. Moreover, we do not only “analyze” but also “synthesize”. This means that in the process of predictive hearing we are trying constantly to guess not only the coming information but also the final result. We are trying to conjugate the gathering information with the ideal “whole” which we are intuitively constructing in our imagination. We are competing with the composer, “co-composing”. We are kind of ordering the seemingly chaotic sound material offered sound by sound by the composer. While intuitively ordering the seeming chaos, we gradually reconstruct the composition already written by the author, which cannot be perceived in one moment (in contrast to the visual image). It is this process that gives us a pleasure of understanding.

The greatest pleasure of music is in the degree to which we can correlate what we heard with our emotional experience, and respond to music as if it were not just sounds, timbres and rhythms, but our own life. Nevertheless, “what we heard” does not arise by itself, but it arises as having been pre-heard and musically comprehended by us. Therefore:

It is impossible to correlate what we heard with our emotional experience without hearing.

To hear means to pre-hear and pre-compose.

It is only possible to pre-hear and pre-compose if one knows the system of the music language probabilities.

The system of probabilities arises from the crossing of mastering culture and stereotype formationdestruction. To master culture, one must gradually enhance the intonation vocabulary.

9. Be more specific, please!

How does on form and destroy stereotypes and make it interesting and effective for a child? What should be contained in the intonation vocabulary? Answers to these questions are given by the teaching technique. Until now we have spoken about a method in general. Regarding other methods, many things described here can be found elsewhere, and I am greatly obliged to other authors.

The characteristic feature of my method is the orientation of each exercise to developing the inner predictive hearing and constructing the whole building of the musical culture on the foundation of gradually growing intonation vocabulary.

I have tried to describe the essence of my method in a way, hopefully simple for a reader who knows nothing about the music theory or other methods, but has been willing to read the text to this point. I am not sure that I have managed to do this. I often found out that I have not been completely understood or understood completely incorrectly. In a Russian textbook for music teaching students, I read the following about the essence of my method:

V. B. Brainin thinks that grouping by phrases is the key action for musical thinking. In his opinion, the point, ending the music phrase, sheds light to what was inside it. The nearer the end of the phrase, the easier the probability of further movement is anticipated, because final intonations often use stock phrases; on the other hand, the beginning of the musical movement, in general, predetermines the type of ending. In Brainin’s method of developing the musical thinking at ear training lessons, much attention is paid to this ability, namely, to pre-hear the ending of the musical phrase with obligatory intellectual covering of the whole musical phrase.

The authors described the idea of my method correctly; however, instead of determining its main principle as the pre-hearing of the complete musical composition, they determined it as that of the endings of musical phrases only. Therefore, in the source used by the authors (and I believe, the source was my own statement) this idea was not described clearly enough.

Separation into phrases is really the basic thing, but in a different sense. When studying a foreign language, we do not learn sounds that make syllables that make words that make phrases. Sorry for this awkward structure, this way I wanted to stress what exactly is the most important in a language. We do not learn “cow”, “house”, “plate”, but “this is a cow”, “this is a house”, “this is a plate”, or “I have a cow”, etc. Similarly, in studying music language, neither sounds nor their combinations are of importance, but certain musical phrases. They are elementary carriers of musical sense. Even if such phrase consists of only two sounds, we should be able to hear that the two sounds are in a way separated from other sounds around them.

The afore-mentioned extract from the textbook gives an almost correct though incomplete description of my idea of musical intelligence. Other sources are limited to “Brainin is busy with developing perfect pitch”.

“Perfect pitch” (nothing is known about it for sure, except that it is a mystical thing) and the like belongs not to the method in general but to the teaching technique. Indeed, I pay attention to the perfect pitch development, but it is a side result of my other efforts. Another Russian textbook said:

In this respect, the experience of V. B. Brainin is of interest; he shows the possibility of developing children’s perfect pitch which evolves as a “side effect” of the development of modal-harmonic, timbre-harmonic, instrumental-timbre, vocal-positional hearing, and is aimed at free “orientation in sound space”.

Perfect pitch, i.e. the ability to distinguish by ear and determine all the notes exactly, belongs to what I call a “registering ear”.

A registering ear provides us with the information on the sounding musical world, but does not provide the possibility to anticipate what information could probably come next. This possibility is only provided by the musical ear which I call “predicting”.

Concerning the teaching technique (i.e., the sequence of specific exercises adequate to intellectual and emotional development of a child beginning with 2 to 4 years of age), it is impossible to describe briefly. The idea of any teaching technique is that there exists a detailed list of steps necessary for reaching the result. This list of steps concerns all elements of the language of music, especially rhythm, melody, harmony, polyphony and structure. Teaching rhythm and structure, I would ensure that the student learnt to pre-hear the organization of music through time. Teaching melody and harmony, I would ensure that the student learnt to pre-hear the music organization in the sound space. The teaching technique is built in such a way that each moment of learning is a system element. This means that all elements of the music language will be mastered simultaneously. If the basic exercise is a rhythmic one, it will be supported by melody, harmony and structure, though the student may not be aware of this. Reading and understanding such a list of steps requires special knowledge as well as willingness to reject some pedagogical clichés at least when reading the list. My teaching technique is designed as course study for many years, but it can also be reduced to one or two years. The further a student moves along, the more perfect and extensive his/her musical intellect will be, for both the amateur music listener and the professional listener. Nevertheless, even a short study would allow one to begin hearing in a different way, and to form predictive reflexes necessary for any (not only music) intellectual activity.

10. Let us sum it up what we learned

We learned that there are three sources of understanding in music:

  • a) music language elements;
  • b) musical culture
  • c) predictive perception (my first point)

We learned that for predictive perception, an internal music ear is necessary. We learned that to hear music means to participate in its creation, to “co-compose”.

We learned what the systematic study of music should be for a child: not a chronology and not a successive study of various forms but the gradual extension of an intonation vocabulary (my second point).

We learned that the elementary unit of the language of music is not a separate sound but a completed musical phrase. Moreover, the music language elements should be mastered, taking these units as starting points and moving from them in both directions: to complete compositions and to separate tunes.

We learned that without all of the afore-mentioned aspects, it will be impossible to combine what we hear with our own life and emotional experience, i.e., it will be impossible to understand music.

We learned something about the method in general but have not learned anything about the teaching technique because its learning requires special knowledge and its description requires much greater elaboration.

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