mashup/photo art by Benjamin Kall
Several years ago, I presented a series of musical workshops at The Southern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (S.U.U.S.I.) with the above title. In my many years as a musician, I have noted that there is a relatively small percentage of humans who have innate sensitivity to the musical element, harmony.
The four basic elements of music are rhythm, melody, harmony and timbre (tone color.) The most primal of the four is rhythm. Everyone is affected by a beat, which is the most basic part of rhythm. Obviously, there is much more to it (meter, tempo, syncopation, accents, etc.)
Next of the elements, in terms of its universal familiarity, is melody, which could be defined as a "meaningful series of tones." A simple melody involves varied pitches of differing durations. Thus, a basic example of combining melody and rhythm would be your whistling YANKEE DOODLE in time to your jaunty footsteps as you happily walk to the friendly O.T.B. (no money left for gas.) Also, the sound of your whistling itself has a particular timbre (quality.) Thus, you involve three of the elements of music as you're off to the races.
If you happen to be playing your guitar as an accompaniment to your whistling stroll, you would be involving the element of harmony (in the form of rhythmic chords.) The timbre of your guitar's sound would tell listeners what instrument was being played
Here's where I'm going with this:
A casual listener would notice if you whistled a wrong ("sour") note in Yankee Doodle. If you walked and whistled this dear old tune in a herky-jerky way, a listener who was also watching you would be doubly perplexed by your lousy rhythmic sense. Moreover, if your guitar was a "cheapy" and had a strident and unpleasant sound, that terrible timbre, too would be noticed.
BUT, if you played an occasional wrong CHORD in your jaunty rendition, relatively few would notice.
THIS IS THE POINT! Harmony is the musical element that a large percentage of humans are least sensitive to.
Generally speaking the terms "an ear for music" -or- "a musical ear" allude to an individual's ability to hear chord changes (progressions.) This is a factor that is vitally important in the area of jazz, because the players are improvising melodic materials that are based upon "the changes" - as they are called.)
There are various degrees of talent involved here, because not only must a good player relate improvised materials to the chord progressions, but his playing must "swing."
To a person who has a truly sensitive harmonic ear, beautiful chord changes are nothing less than thrilling! Such a listener may not only be thrilled by beautiful harmony, but put off by players who butcher the chord changes.
Another vital element involving the chord progressions is their "voicings," which involve doublings and spacings of the tones. When a player plays wrong chords in music, he or she is said to have a "tin ear."
Here, we must be reminded that we are speaking of individuals who are playing without written music.
Many fine players are true artists, who rely on written music. Then there are those who have "tin ears," playing out of tune - sometimes with almost vulgar ardor.