Hearing Multiple Voices

Question: How is it possible to hear two or more voices at the same time, e.g. each voice in a fugue, with the so-called inner ear? I was once told that one can internally hear everything one can sing. Since I can’t sing many voices at the same time (I don’t think many people can…), how am I supposed to hear a rich, polyphonic texture in my head?

Albert’s reply: Hearing multiple voices in your head is something you already do. If you can recall a song – any song that is very familiar to you – you hear in your mind’s ear not only the melody, but also the accompanying instruments and other voices in some detail.

One of the keys to learning music effectively is hearing voices in advance of playing them. This is a skill that can be acquired through regular practice and ear training.

The best way to acquire this skill is by sight singing. The sight singing method that I recommend is called “fixed do” solfège. (“do” is pronounced not like the verb but rather “doe” – hence the Rogers and Hammerstein song “Do Re Mi” with its lyrics “Doe a deer.”) In this method, the solfège syllables – do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si (or ti) – are fixed to specific notes, independently of key. This means that any C (or C-sharp or C-flat, etc.) is always sung with do, D with re, etc., no matter what key the music is in at any given time.

I don’t recommend starting with complicated contrapuntal music such as fugues if you wish to acquire this skill. Instead, begin with homophonic music, in which one harmony is played at any given time.

Test your inner hearing by trying to sing each voice in a chord. Only then should you play the chord.

If you’re having difficulty with this exercise, play any chord in any key and, while holding the chord, try to sing each note. In the beginning you’ll likely have difficulty, especially with the inner voices.

After completing these exercises regularly you’ll be able to hear multiple voices in your mind’s ear without too much difficulty.

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