How Musicians and Pilots Are Alike – It’s in the Chords

I’ve suffered from chord envy for years.

No, I’m not talking about the chord of aircraft wings and some etymological, coincidental semblance to musical chords.

No, the problem is much more serious.

You see, I’m a woodwind player, a clarinetist to be exact, and like brass players, I can’t play chords.

A chord is a musical element with more than one note played at a time. In fact, my most loved musical elements are chords. They can be beautiful, or powerful, but I can’t play them.

Music for Bb clarinet.

With my instrument, I’m stuck with playing one note at a time. And due to years of training to do that one function well, my brain will not allow me to diversify. I can only read and interpret one note at a time. If I was to write a simple chord for woodwinds, I’d have to hire three musicians to play it. But give a chord to a pianist, or guitarist, and they’re quite at home. 

I can in fact play a wide variety of chords on a piano, organ, or guitar, and I have often done just that. And of course I can read the keyboard notes. I just can’t read them and play at the same time. My brain’s not wired to do that.

Music for pipe organ

I’ve watched my wife play organ chords on the treble cleft, bass cleft, and pedals. That is, both hands and feet are playing, at the same time!

How does she do that?

If I’d started playing piano at the same time I’d started playing the clarinet, 3rd grade, I’d have no problem. My brain would have wired itself to, as we are fond of saying, multitask. I suppose if I’d started reading two or three books at the same time, in my early childhood, I could do that now. But I didn’t, and so I can’t.

So you see where the chord envy comes from?

But the other day I had an epiphany. Right out of high school I started flying very simple aircraft; a Piper 140 and a Cessna 150. In some sense they’re like the clarinet. But a long time ago I transitioned to so-called complex aircraft; Bonanza’s, Mooney’s and my beloved Arrows. They’re sort of like pianos, in complexity.

And then came the instrument rating – complexity added to complexity, and with it, a heavy responsibility. The combination of complex aircraft and instrument rating is in some ways like an organ – lots of button, pedal and key pushing, all at the right time, and in harmony with the air traffic control system.

An aircraft instrument trainee (gee, there’s another musical parallel) works hard to develop a scan of the instruments to maintain situational awareness and control the aircraft without outside visual reference. It’s tough in the beginning.

But now, with experience, I don’t even think of a scan. I simply take in the entire panel, with all its separate instruments and subconsciously perform the required control inputs to keep the aircraft headed in the correct direction, right-side up.

My epiphany is, that is exactly what a keyboardist does when they are playing six or more notes at the same time. I can’t play musical chords, but my brain has wired itself with repetitive practice to do essentially the same thing with my aircraft.

So now, when I push in the throttle and start the takeoff roll in my Arrow, it’s like the beginning of  the Fan Fare for Also Sprach Zarathustra. The engine powers up from idle (middle C, 261 Hz, C4) to higher RPM’s (G4, 392 Hz) and then full power (C5, 523 Hz). And as my bird lifts into the sky, that famous two chord sequence strikes at an even higher pitch (C major and a sixteenth note later, C minor.)

[Want to know how the frequencies of those notes roughly relate to engine RPM? Multiply by 4.]

As the chord begins dying away I’m simultaneously pulling up the gear, turning as directed, watching the engine instruments, and heading off into the skies with the reassuring droning note of the engine vibrating through our bodies. It’s that same note that reprises the quiet beginning of Strauss’s ASZ.

I can do it! No more chord envy.

As you already know, the same principle, complexity mastered through training, applies to any complex endeavor where situational awareness is vital, be it soccer field or battlefield.

[Update, I don’t know that musicians necessarily make better pilots, or vice versa, but at least they have their own association (Flying Musicians Association) and web site: http://flyingmusicians.org/]

2 thoughts on “How Musicians and Pilots Are Alike – It’s in the Chords”

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