The Importance of Inner Hearing by Becky Welsh

Essay written by Becky Welsh’s as part of her double bass studies at Trinity College of Music. Reproduced here with her kind permission.

‘Discuss the Importance of the Inner Hearing to a musician and describe the ways in which Kodály musicianship develops this.’

In my opinion developing our inner hearing is o­ne of the most important and valuable things we can do as musicians. The ability to inner hear enables us to develop our musicianship skills; in particular our listening, aural and ensemble playing or singing skills. Music education through the Kodály method develops inner hearing skills through singing and associated exercises. As the Kodály method is mostly taught through use of the voice, this immediately means that our inner hearing is being accessed and therefore developed, as the two are inextricably linked.

As I understand it, inner hearing is basically the concept of being able to hear notes or music inside our heads without the need to play or sing. If a musician is looking at a piece of music they should be able to accurately hear how it sounds inside the head (if their inner hearing skills are good), with no need to play or sing it. Included in this, is the ability to pitch intervals inside the head, thus making sight singing much easier. This skill is developed predominantly through singing and the use of the voice, which is strongly emphasised in the Kodály method of teaching.

For a performing musician the development of inner hearing is extremely important. Not o­nly does the ability to inner hear improve sight reading skills, it is also essential for orchestral or ensemble playing. o­ne of the most important things an orchestral musician has to do is not o­nly to be able to play as a section, but also o­n a larger scale, they must be able to blend with the rest of the orchestra. This must be achieved through good intonation, as well as solid rhythm. Without being able to hear in our heads how the music should sound, it is impossible to play it in a professional way. If o­ne or more members of the orchestra are not using their inner hearing skills, the chances are they will be out with the rest of the orchestra, either rhythmically or harmonically. This means that the overall performance would lack polish and finesse. It is therefore essential that each member of the orchestra (or any other group of musicians i.e. choirs, chamber groups, strings quartets) is aware of what they are playing and how it is sounding at all times, and they can achieve this through inner hearing how the music should sound.

In addition, as a solo performer, inner hearing is also a very valuable skill. In my opinion, through inner hearing we can achieve relative pitch. This means we are able to hear accurately how a particular note should sound, with regard to intonation. I find that as a string player it is especially important to have a good awareness of pitch. As we are required to ‘find’ the notes o­n our instrument it is necessary to hear what we are aiming for. There would be little point in trying to find a note o­n a stringed instrument if we did not know how it should sound. If our inner hearing (and therefore relative pitch) is well developed, it is much easier to play with good intonation, and therefore to play more convincingly as a solo performer.

Zoltan Kodály developed a system of music education in order that inner hearing could begin to be developed in children from a young age. His theory was that if children began their musicianship training using his method from an early age, by the time they reached adulthood the system would be so ingrained in them that it would be second nature. Sightreading or sightsinging would not be a struggle, nor would difficult enharmonic keys. Memorisation would be taught from an early age, first through simple folk songs, so that later it became a natural progression of learning music. Pitching any note or interval is also simplified, as the musician will be able to hear inside the head how it should sound.

The musical education system that Kodály used and taught consists of many different elements. Predominantly the system is taught through the use of the voice. This is because Kodály believed that the natural way children express their musical ideas is through the voice. Therefore many of the ideas taught in the Kodály method involve singing, for example singing games, sightsinging and improvising. The use of the voice automatically accesses the inner hearing skills, so through the development of singing, inner hearing is also being developed. In recent studies there has been increased musicality in the children taught using the Kodály method.

There are many skills taught in the Kodály approach, the majority of which start with singing (and are therefore linked with the development of inner hearing). A large part of the Kodály way of teaching involves learning songs, preferably at first by ear through a ‘call and response’ system. Later they can be sung with the music, then without music, or played o­n an instrument (in the case of our classes, the piano). The songs are taught using a system of naming the notes, or Solfa. Each note of the scale has a name, and as the ‘do’ is variable according to the tonic note of the key of the piece, the scale is the same regardless of the key. This means that there is a much clearer idea of how the music should sound, as it is simplified. For example, it is understood that the distance between ‘do’ and ‘so’ is always a perfect fifth. This idea is also important for the development of inner hearing because it simplifies the pitching of intervals. It does this through the use of Solfa. This means that when singing any interval, the singer has a guide to the sound. The interval is no longer just two notes, it has names, and owing to the concept of the variable ‘do’ or ‘home note’, regardless of the key of the piece the interval has the same names, and therefore the same sound. This should mean therefore, that the singing of the interval is no longer a guess as it is the same, however complex the key of the piece may appear to be. This means the singer should be able to ‘inner-hear’ the pitches of the notes before singing them.

In addition to this, each note of the scale has a handsign that corresponds to the Solfa name. Handsigns are useful for pitching and understanding of tonal relationships, because they are a way of visualising the pitches that are being sung. Again, inner hearing can be developed using handsign exercises. If the teacher or a member of the class is to demonstrate a song purely through the handsigns corresponding to the notes, the class would have to inner hear the notes being shown in handsigns in order to be able to recognise the piece. This exercise is invaluable in the development of inner hearing as absolutely no ‘real’ notes are being used so the inner hearing is forced into use.

As well as the notes being simplified through use of the Kodály method, the rhythms are also made clearer. This is achieved through the use rhythm names, so not o­nly do the notes have names, the rhythms do too. This idea of naming notes or rhythms gives children a much clearer indication of what they have to sing or play as they have something to identify sounds with. It simplifies the theory of music because to say the word ‘teh-teh’ is much easier for a child to understand than saying ‘the rhythm is two quavers’. This idea is used for all the basic rhythms and rhythmic patterns, so there is always a simple way of explaining the rhythms of a song.

Once the basic concepts of notation and rhythm have been introduced and mastered there is much scope for development of these ideas. As the pupil becomes more advanced many more ideas and variations can be used. Singing and playing or singing and clapping songs in canon is an extremely useful exercise that is used. This is because it requires multi-tasking and good co-ordination, and it also means the pupil has to isolate each part (by inner hearing how it should sound) in order to separate them. As well as this, multiple hearing is encouraged through practice of the Kodály method. The class will often sing o­ne part at the same time as another part is being played by the teacher for musical dictation by the class. This means that as well as inner hearing the part that is being sung the pupils must also commit to memory for dictation the part that is being played.

Once the pupils are more advanced, part-singing becomes a fairly important aspect of learning music though the Kodály method. Singing in canon is a strong feature of the method, as well as part-singing taken from musical extracts, such as the singing of Bach Chorales or other four-part songs. The concept of singing more than o­ne part at o­nce encourages good intonation in the singers, and as there is more than o­ne part going o­n at o­nce, intonation has to be even more solid than when singing just o­ne line. This strongly encourages listening and ensemble skills within the group, as well as developing the need for the singers to inner hear their parts.

Another important skill taught through the Kodály method is musical dictation. The teacher plays or sings a melody and the pupil must notate it (often the rhythm is given, so the focus of the exercise is o­n the melody). Starting with simple dictations, confidence can be built so that more complex melodies or ideas can be introduced later o­n. This helps enormously to develop inner hearing because in order to notate the music, the pupil must first be able to hear it in the head. o­nce the pupil can hear the melody in the head, they have the option to repeat the melody sufficient times in order to notate it correctly. Without be able to inner hear, the melody would need to be played by the teacher several times. As the dictations become more and more complex, the inner hearing skills are developed to be able to hear the more complicated melodic or rhythmic ideas.

In conclusion, it can be said that the learning of the Kodály method is essential to develop our abilities to inner hear, and the ability to inner hear is essential to our musicianship. Therefore, in my opinion, learning Kodály (preferably from a young age) is essential to us becoming well-rounded musicians. It enables us to access our inner hearing through singing, as well as developing these skills through regular practice of exercises taught in the Kodály method.


Choksy – The Kodály Method

Please note: Becky’s original bibliography contained a number of web addresses which have subsequently been changed or are no longer live. Only those links which remain live are included here (September 2015).