Can you tap your foot to a tune? (Congratulations — there may be hope for you as a dancer…)
If not, try humming Row, Row, Row your Boat. The singer is waving his arm on the “beat”. The tune goes like this, where every bullet point is a beat, and the tempo is like walking, taking a step on each beat.
- (1) Row,
- (2) row,
- (3) row your
- (4) boat,
- (5) gently
- (6) down a
- (7) stream.
- (8) (pause)
- (1) Merrily,
- (2) merrily,
- (3) merrily,
- (4) merrily,
- (5) life is
- (6) but a
- (7) dream.
- (8) (pause)
If you have insurmountable difficulty with this, try saturation. Keep playing the video over and over and make some part of your body move back and forth for each “tick”, even if you’re sitting down.
We humans use rhythm to entrain our physical actions when we need to move together. You see this when marching in step or in work activities like hauling on a line. It’s not just a matter of coordinating our movements. It’s something that goes deep into the muscles — the metrical, even, pulse of a rhythm that sinks into our bodies. We don’t coordinate with each other directly — that might require looking at each other and delaying our response — instead, we each match ourselves to an external rhythm, and that’s what we pay attention to.
In music, rhythm is everything. It’s fundamental. Even if you can’t carry a tune you can pluck a bass note or tap a drum to a beat, or make a twitchy counter-rhythm to accompany someone else. If you’re learning to play an instrument and you’re too slow to play a melody with someone else, you can still play individual notes on the beat (skipping all the others) and make a useful contribution to a group effort.
You don’t have to be a singer in order to play music, but it helps. Now, you can have a terrible cracked smoker’s raspy voice with a narrow range, and no wants to listen to it, but if you can still manage a recognizable tune underneath it all, well… you’ve got what you need. It doesn’t have to be pretty — just functional.
What do I mean by “functional”? I mean representing the melody to yourself so that you can remember it. As long as you can recognize the tune (or parts of the tune) when you hum or sing it, even if no one else can, then you’ve got a way of representing it internally that will let you play an instrument, and let that instrument sing for you, even if your voice can’t.
Musicians use various “cheats” for trying to learn a new tune in real time (while it’s being played). Some can just sing or play along with the performer. Some tap their fingers in the air to represent higher and lower notes as a sort of initial mnemonic. Either way, they usually concentrate first on the rhythm, and then the melodic profile (is the next note lower or higher?). The actual words (if it’s a song) are usually the last thing they worry about. They want to digest the contour of the tune, how it moves up or down, where the unexpected leaps might be.
(Of course, if you have printed music and you’re proficient with your voice or instrument, then you can read along with the performer, but we’re talking about basic tools here.)
One thing to remember: unless you have perfect pitch (also called “absolute pitch“), and few do, the specific key or range of a melody makes no difference to learning just the melody itself in your head. You can sing a melody in any key you want to. Now, if you also play an instrument, the positions of your hands on that instrument will be different for the same melody in different keys, and if you learn it on your instrument, there will be muscle memory involved. Many amateurs learn a new melody using some form of singing, and then turn to their instrument to figure out what key they want to play it in and how their fingers should move. Others learn a new melody, especially one demonstrated on an instrument, on the same instrument, and can use the visual cues of what fingers are doing what by the performer as an extra crutch to help them understand what the melody is doing (in other words, they can match their finger movements to the performer while their ears are following the actual melody).
And why does learning the rhythm first help you learn the tune? Because as your body starts to move to that rhythm, the notes you’re hearing become matched to that movement, phrase by phrase. You’ll find you can botch the second phrase of a tune, but come back in on the third phrase — that’s the mechanical memory of your body that is entrained by rhythm working part by part to aid your memory of the melody. Body language is your friend — use it (at least when no one’s looking at you in public).
Learning a melody is made easier by a lot of repetition, and by slowing it down (while keeping the same relative rhythm). The more familiar you become with a musical genre, the more shortcuts your brain will absorb as it digests the conventions of the genre: the typical melodic phrases, the typical rhythms. The more tunes you know in a genre, the easier it is to learn more. (Then the trick becomes to remember how to tell the close “relatives” apart so you don’t start with one tune and end up on another.)