How We Listen to Music

Everyone who writes on understanding music is agreed about one point:

You can`t develop a better appreciation of the art merely by reading about it.

If you want to understand music better, you can do nothing more important than listen to it. Nothing can possibly take the place of listening to music.

Everything that I have to say is said about an experience that you can only get outside this article. Therefore, you will probably be wasting your time in reading it unless you make a firm resolve to hear a great deal more music than you have in the past. All of us, professionals and nonprofessionals, are forever trying to deepen our understanding of the art. Reading may sometimes help us. But nothing can replace the prime consideration – listening to music itself.

Thankfully, opportunities for hearing music are much greater than they ever were before. With the increasing availability of good music on radio and phonograph [now CD], not to mention television and the movies, almost anybody has the chance to listen to music. In fact, as a friend of mine recently said, nowadays everybody has the chance not to understand music.

It has often seemed to me that there is a tendency to exaggerate the difficulty of properly understanding music. We musicians are constantly meeting some honest soul who invariably says, in one form or another:

“I love music very much, but I don`t understand anything about it.”

My playwright and novelist friends rarely hear anyone say, “I don`t understand anything about the theater or the novel.” Yet I strongly suspect that those very same people, so modest about music, have just as much reason to be modest about the other arts. Or, to put it more graciously, have just as little reason to be modest about their understanding of music. If you have any feelings of inferiority about your musical reactions, try to rid yourself of them. They are often not justified.

At any rate, you have no reason to be downcast about your musical capacities until you have some idea of what it means to be musical. There are many strange popular notions as to what “being musical” consists of. One is always being told, as the unarguable proof of a musical person, that he or she can “go to a show and then come home and play all the tunes on the piano.” That fact alone bespeaks a certain musicality in the person in question, but it does not indicate the kind of sensitivity to music that is under examination here. The entertainer who mimics well is not yet an actor, and the musical mimic is not necessarily a profoundly musical individual. Another attribute which is trotted forth whenever the question of being musical arises is that of having absolute pitch. To be able to recognize the note A when you hear it may, at times, be helpful, but it certainly does not prove, taken by itself, that you are a musical person. It should not be taken to indicate anything Ignore than a glib musicality which has only a limited significance in relationship to the real understanding of music which concerns us here.

There is, however, one minimum requirement for the potentially intelligent listener. He must be able to recognize a melody when he hears it. If there is such a thing as being tone-deaf, then it suggests the inability to recognize a tune. Such a person has my sympathy, but he cannot be helped; just as the color-blind are a ” useless lot to the painter.” But if you feel confident that you can recognize a given melody – not sing a melody, but recognize it when played, even after an interval of a few minutes and after other and different melodies have been sounded – the key to a deeper appreciation of music is in your hands.

It is insufficient merely to hear music in terms of the separate moments at which it exists. You must be able to relate what you hear at any given moment to what has just happened before and what is about to come afterward. In other words, music is an art that exists in point of time. In that sense it is like a novel, except that the events of a novel are easier to keep in mind, partly because real happenings are narrated and partly because one can turn back and refresh one`s memory of them Musical “events” are more abstract by nature, so that the act of pulling them all together in the imagination is not so easy as in reading a novel. That is why it is necessary for you to be able to recognize a tune. For the thing that takes the place of a story in music is, as a rule, the melody. The melody is generally what guides the listener. If you can`t recognize a melody on its first appearance and can`t follow its peregrinations straight through to its final appearance, I fail to see what you have to go on in listening. You are just vaguely being aware of the music. But recognizing a tune means you know where you are in the music and have a good chance of knowing where you`re going. It is the only sine qua nan of a more intelligent approach to understanding music.

Certain schools of thought are inclined to stress the value for the listener of some practical experience of music. They say, in effect, play Old Black Joe on the piano with one finger and it will get you closer to the mysteries of music than reading a dozen volumes. No harm can come, certainly, from pecking the piano a bit or even from playing it moderately well. But as an introduction to music I am suspicious of it, if only because of the many pianists who spend their lives playing great works, yet whose understanding of music is, on die whole, rather weak. As for the popularizers, who first began by attaching flowery stories and descriptive titles to make music easier and ended by adding doggerel to themes from famous com positions – their”solution” for the listener`s problems is beneath contempt.

No composer believes that there are any short cuts to the better appreciation of music. The only thing that one can do for the listener is to point out what actually exists in the music itself and reasonably to explain the wherefore and the why of the matter. The listener must do the rest.

How We Listen

We all listen to music according to our separate capacities. But, for the sake of analysis, the whole listening process may become clearer if we break it up into its component parts, so to speak. In a certain sense we all listen to music on three separate planes. For lack of a better terminology, one might name these:

(1) The sensuous plane,

(2) The expressive plane,

(3) The sheerly musical plane.

The only advantage to be gained from mechanically splitting up the listening process into I these hypothetical planes is the clearer view to be had of the way in which we listen.

The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself. That is the sensuous plane. It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it in any way. One turns on the radio while doing something else and absent-mindedly bathes in the sound. A kind of brainless but attractive state of mind is engendered by the mere sound appeal of the music.

You may be sitting in a room reading this book. Imagine one note struck on the piano. Immediately that one note is enough to change the atmosphere of the room – proving that the sound element in music is a powerful and mysterious agent, which it would be foolish to deride or belittle.

The surprising thing is that many people who consider themselves qualified music lovers abuse that plane in listening. They go to concerts in order to lose themselves. They use music as a consolation or an escape. They enter an ideal world where one doesn`t have to think of the realities of everyday life. Of course they aren`t thinking about the music either. Music allows them to leave it, and they go off to a place to dream, dreaming because of and apropos of the music yet never quite listening to it.

Yes, the sound appeal of music is a potent and primitive force, but you must not allow it to usurp a disproportionate share of your interest. The sensuous plane is an important one in music, a very important one, but it does not constitute the whole story.

There is no need to digress further on the sensuous plane. Its appeal to every normal human being is self-evident. There is, however, such a thing as becoming more sensitive to the different kinds of sound stuff as used by various composers. For all composers do not use that sound stuff in the same way. Don`t get the idea that the value of music is commensurate with its sensuous appeal or that the loveliest sounding music is made by the greatest composer. If that were so, Ravel would be a greater creator than Beethoven. The point is that the sound element varies with each composer, that his usage of sound forms an integral part of his style and must be taken into account when listening. The reader can see, therefore, that a more conscious approach is valuable even on this primary plane of music listening.

The second plane on which music exists is what I have called the expressive one. Here, immediately, we tread on controversial ground. Composers have a way of shying away from any discussion of music`s expressive side. Did not Stravinsky himself proclaim that his music was an “object,” a “thing,” with a life of its own, and with no other meaning than its own purely musical existence? This intransigent attitude of Stravinsky`s may be due to the fact that so many people have tried to read different meanings into so many pieces. Heaven knows it is difficult enough to say precisely what it is that a piece of music means, to say it definitely, to say it finally so that everyone is satisfied with your explanation. But that should not lead one to the other extreme of denying to music the right to be “expressive.”

My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music has a certain meaning behind the notes and that the meaning behind the notes constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about. This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking,

“Is there a meaning to music?” My answer to that would be, “Yes.”

And “Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?” My answer to that would be, “No.”

Therein lies the difficulty.

Simple-minded souls will never be satisfied with the answer to the second of these questions. They always want music to have a meaning, and the more concrete it is the better they like it. The more the music reminds them of a train, a storm, a funeral or any other familiar conception the more expressive it appears to be to them. This popular idea of music`s meaning – stimulated and abetted by the usual run of musical commentator – should be discouraged wherever and whenever it is met. One timid lady once confessed to me that she suspected something seriously lacking in her appreciation of music because of her inability to connect it with anything definite. That is getting the whole thing backward, of course.

Still, the question remains, How close should the intelligent music lover wish to come to pinning a definite meaning to any particular work? No closer than a general concept, I should say. Music expresses, at different moments, serenity or exuberance, regret or triumph, fury or delight. It expresses each of these moods, and many others, in a numberless variety of subtle shadings and differences. It may even express a state of meaning for which there exists no adequate word in any language. In that case, musicians often like to say that it has only a purely musical meaning. They sometimes go farther and say that all music has only a purely musical meaning. What they really mean is that no appropriate word can be found to express the music`s meaning and that, even if it could, they do not feel the need of finding it.

But whatever the professional musician may hold, most musical novices still search for specific words with which to pin down their musical reactions. That is why they always find Tchaikovsky easier to “understand” than Beethoven. In the first place, it is easier to pin a meaning-word on a Tchaikovsky piece than on a Beethoven one. Much easier. Moreover, with the Russian composer, every time you come back to a piece of his it almost always says the same thing to you, whereas with Beethoven it is often quite difficult to put your finger right on what he is saying. And any musician will tell you that that is why Beethoven is the greater composer. Because music which always says the same thing to you will necessarily soon become dull music, but music whose meaning is slightly different with each hearing has a greater chance of remaining alive.

Listen, if you can, to the forty-eight fugue themes of Bach`s Well Tempered Clavichord. Listen to each theme, one after another. You will soon realize that each theme mirrors a different world of feeling. You will also soon realize that the more beautiful a theme seems to you the harder it is to find any word that will describe it to your complete satisfaction. Yes, you will certainly know whether it is a gay theme or a sad one. You will be able, in other words, in your own mind, to draw a frame of emotional feeling around your theme. Now study the sad one a little closer. Try to pin down the exact quality of its sadness. Is it pessimistically sad or resignedly sad; is it fatefully sad or smilingly sad?

Let us suppose that you are fortunate and can describe to your own satisfaction in so many words the exact meaning of your chosen theme. There is still no guarantee that anyone else will be satisfied. Nor need they be. The important thing is that each one feel for himself the specific expressive quality of a theme or, similarly, an entire piece of music. And if it is a great work of art, don`t expect it to mean exactly the same thing to you each time you return to it.

Themes or pieces need not express only one emotion, of course. Take such a theme as the first main one of Beethoven`s Ninth Symphony, for example. It is clearly made up of different elements. It does not say only one thing. Yet anyone hearing it immediately gets a feeling of strength, a feeling of power. It isn`t a power that comes simply because the theme is played loudly. It is a power inherent in the theme itself. The extraordinary strength and vigor of the theme results in the listener`s receiving an impression that a forceful statement has been made. But one should never try to boil it down to “the fateful hammer of life,” etc. That is where the trouble begins. The musician, in his exasperation, says it means nothing but the notes themselves, whereas the nonprofessional is only too anxious to hang on to any explanation that gives him the illusion of getting closer to the music`s meaning.

Now, perhaps, the reader will know better what I mean when I say that music does have an expressive meaning but that we cannot say in so many words what that meaning is.

The third plane on which music exists is the sheerly musical plane. Besides the pleasurable sound of music and the expressive feeling that it gives off, music does exist in terms of the notes themselves and of their manipulation. Most listeners are not sufficiently conscious of this third plane. It will be largely the business of this book to make them more aware of music on this plane. Professional musicians, on the other hand, are, if anything, too conscious of the mere notes themselves. They often fall into the error of becoming so engrossed with their arpeggios and staccatos that they forget the deeper aspects of the music they are performing. But from the layman`s standpoint, it is not so much a matter of getting over bad habits on the sheerly musical plane as of increasing one`s awareness of what is going on, in so far as the notes are concerned.

When the man in the street listens to the “notes themselves” with any degree of concentration, he is most likely to make some mention of the melody. Either he hears a pretty melody or he does not, and he generally I lets it go at that. Rhythm is likely to gain his attention P next, particularly if it seems exciting. But harmony and tone color are generally taken for granted, if they are thought of consciously at all. As for music`s having a definite form of some kind, that idea seems never to have occurred to him.

It is very important for all of us to become more alive I to musk on its sheerly musical plane. After all, an actual musical material is being used. The intelligent listener must be prepared to increase his awareness of the musical material and what happens to it. He must hear the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies, the tone colors in a more conscious fashion. But above all he must, in order to follow the line of the composer`s thought, know something of the principles of musical form. Listening to all of these elements is listening on the sheerly musical plane.

Let me repeat that I have split up mechanically the three separate planes on which we listen merely for the sake of greater clarity. Actually, we never listen on one or the other of these planes. What we do is to correlate them – listening in all three ways at the same time. It takes no mental effort, for we do it instinctively.

Perhaps an analogy with what happens to us when we visit the theater will make this instinctive correlation dearer. In the theater, you are aware of the actors and actresses, costumes and sets, sounds and movements. All these give one the sense that the theater is a pleasant place to be in. They constitute the sensuous plane in our theatrical reactions.

The expressive plane in the theater would be derived from the feeling that you get from what is happening on the stage. You are moved to pity, excitement, or gayety. It is this general feeling, generated aside from the particular words being spoken, a certain emotional something which exists on the stage, that is analogous to the expressive quality in music.

The plot and plot development is equivalent to our sheerly musical plane. The playwright creates and develops a character in just the same way that a composer creates and develops a theme. According to the degree of your awareness of the way in which the artist in either field handles his material will you become a more intelligent listener.

It is easy enough to see that the theatergoer never is conscious of any of these elements separately. He is aware of them all at the same time. The same is true of music listening. We simultaneously and without thinking listen on all three planes.

In a sense, the ideal listener is both inside and outside the music at the same moment, judging it and enjoying it, wishing it would go one way and watching it go an other- almost like the composer at the moment he composes it; because in order to write his music, the composer must also be inside and outside his music, carried away by it and yet coldly critical of it. A subjective and objective attitude is implied in both creating and listening to music.

What the reader should strive for, then, is a more active kind of listening. Whether you listen to Mozart or Duke Ellington, you can deepen your understanding of music only by being a more conscious and aware listener – not someone who is just listening, but someone who is listening for something.


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