Spiel nach Gehör auf der Violine
Wie beeinflusst musikalische Vorerfahrung die Imitation kulturell vertrauter und fremder Melodiemuster?
Playing by ear on the violin
What is the impact of previous musical experiences on the imitation of culturally familiar and foreign melodical patterns?

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Anja-Maria Hakim
Claudia Bullerjahn


Playing by ear is the most fundamental, though often neglected, musical (sub)skill which, according to the model of mental representations in music performance, is based on “goal imaging” and “motor production”. In playing by ear, the goal imaging of what the music should sound like is based on the aural musical information stored in working memory. Research findings show that musicians with a background in folk music, jazz or popular music genres have better skills in playing by ear than musicians with training in classical music. Violinists who have had different cultural experiences, especially in jazz and classical music, have not yet been investigated in scientific studies. Furthermore, no research could be found on the melodic imitation of stimuli from culturally familiar and unfamiliar musical genres. We tested violin/viola college students (N = 29) in their abilities to play by ear with two unknown melodies from three different familiar musical genres (Western, jazz, and Indian music). All the students were grounded in Western art music; half of them had additional experiences as jazz musicians. Indian art music was the least familiar to our subjects. Participants were asked (a) how many years they had had experiences in jazz and filled out a questionnaire on (b) how many hours of deliberate practice they had accumulated as an indication of skilled motor production. They were then tested on (c) goal imaging by having to name the notes of an unknown melody by ear. Thus, our method of testing goal imaging measured the integration of melodic retention and analytical hearing – of implicit and explicit musical knowledge. The subjects’ performances in playing by ear were rated by experts. The influence of musical experiences on playing by ear in three different familiar musical styles were investigated by the use of regression analyses. The three independent variables (a) to (c) were not correlated. Our results showed that in the familiar Western context, the best predictors of good performances for playing by ear were accumulated deliberate practice, followed by goal imaging, while experiences in jazz were irrelevant. In the context of jazz melodies, the subjects’ years of experiences as jazz musicians and, second, goal imaging were most important for playing by ear. Consequently, jazz violinists train the motor production they need for playing by ear by participating in activities that are typical for jazz rather than only practicing by themselves. In the less familiar Indian context, goal imaging showed by far the strongest impact on playing by ear. Across the genres, goal imaging and the total accumulated number of practice hours had a greater impact on the performances in which the subjects played by ear than the subjects’ years of experiences as jazz musicians. Our results showed, furthermore, that goal imaging led to advantages in playing by ear and especially in participating in cross-cultural settings. Classical and jazz musicians gained the motor production needed for playing by ear long-term in culture-specific ways and could retrieve it more easily in familiar musical genres. Thus, Western music education has to focus more strongly on the integration of aural playing and musical understanding, especially on ear-hand-coordination in varying contexts. This enables participation in a broad variety of musical cultures and creative practices. Future research should explore further predictors on the important, foundational skill of playing by ear, which has an essential influence on the development of a comprehensive musicianship and the continuing motivation to play a musical instrument.

By-ear playing; imitation; cross-cultural; music education; accumulated deliberate practice; violin; Indian art music; Western art music; cultural familiarity; Jazz; goal imaging

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