Tonal Exercises 

I practice piano nearly every day. After my stroke, I initially used the instrument mechanistically, as a vehicle for regaining left-hand movement and dexterity.  I still use the piano in that fashion, but my focus has shifted. Rather than trying to achieve technical expertise (a quixotic dream, to be sure), I work to experience tone’s possibilities. The great majority of my piano “practice” time is spent listening to and conceptualizing pitch.

I have a practice routine, but because it revolves around unfolding musical intuition rather than technical studies, every practice session is different. Exercises are constantly evolving as I gain new insights and understandings.

Observing my practice sessions from the outside, it might appear as if I were doing nothing more than plunking out a tone or two every now and then.  But I am listening intensely, then conceptualizing to the best of my growing ability. This is hard work. Depending on the particular goal, it may require several minutes to digest of the implications enfolded within a single pitch.

I generally begin my practice sessions by pressing and holding down a single key, so as to listen to its rich overtone structure (and part II).


Through this exercise, I have learned to identify nuances that previously went unnoticed, even though my ears were younger and far more sensitive. (I could write at length about this experience, but it is most valuable to do the exercise oneself.)

Instead, I will describe an open-ended exercise that, by engaging the same material from multiple perspectives, strengthens my ability to conceptualize pitch relationships. Again, I begin by playing a single tone on the piano. But now, rather than focusing on the overtone structure, I infuse the tone with function by imagining it as one of the seven pitches that make up a major scale. Contextualizing in this way gives the tone a certain character, stability or movement tendency, and emotional quality.

A scale’s first degree (“do,” also known as the tonic) is the home tone, and is generally considered to be the most stable. That is where I usually begin. (Various music theory treatises describe scale-degree characteristics, but it is best to discover them by intuitive listening.)

The major scale has seven tones (do – re – mi – fa – sol – la – ti – do). After establishing my sounded tone as the tonic, I conceptualize the tone through the other six degrees. (Depending on your musical background, this may take some time and tenacity.) With each conceptual shift in scale degree, the sounded tone will be imbued with a different complexion.  Also with each shift in scale degree, the collection of imagined scale tones that make up the tonal palette will change. With practice, one can switch back and forth between different scale degrees, their characteristics, and their attendant tonal palettes with the same ease one inverts a Necker Cube (see “Ambiguity,” posted on July 3, 2014). In this case, however, there are many more possibilities and the effects are more subtle.

This is already a lot to conceptualize, but it’s only the beginning. There are endless possibilities to develop exercises in tone-based perspective.  One can follow the same procedure with minor scales and modes, for example.

Like a skilled juggler, one can also put lots of objects into play.  Here are two additional exercises. Both require considerable mental energy.

1. Go through the above progressions while sounding two pitches simultaneously, each representing a different (or perhaps the same!) scale degree.

2.  Sound a single pitch, but conceptualize it as simultaneously representing multiple scale degrees.

Of course, all of these exercises might be done without the aid of a piano, with the mind alone. I need the piano to keep me on track, to keep my undisciplined mind from wandering, and to provide a stable foundation for listening. The piano also allows me to “correct” my conceptualizations and to sound the combinations I cannot hear without assistance.

For me, these exercises provide a matrix to develop aural perception. Importantly, they can be undertaken by anyone who is recovering from a stroke, almost no matter what the extent of physical disability.

Finally, innate musicality may be irrelevant. Many of my musical colleagues (I suspect most), have aural skills superior to my own. I will never learn to hear like Art Tatum, but by following my intuitions I am learning to hear in a manner that is uniquely my own. I am learning to create a “symphony” in my mind.

Could one ask for more?

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