Getting Involved with Music
How to Really Listen
Up until the twentieth century, there were just two ways to hear music: you went to a live concert or you made it yourself. Today we get our music from radio, television, CDs, videos and web sites, not to mention elevators, shopping malls and supermarkets where Muzak fills the air. Music is everywhere at the touch of a button. But are you actually listening to it or just hearing it? Let’s see what happens when you get involved and really listen.
You can listen to music purely for the surface impact of the sound alone. Let’s call this sensuous listening. It may provide a pleasant background for idle reveries, a soothing balm for jangled nerves or just an aid to digestion. This is all very well and good, but there is obviously more to music than this.
For a listening experience to be productive, we must make an effort to be more than passive hearers. We must be willing to throw ourselves into the experience with all our powers of concentration and capacity for feeling. Music can make us feel more alive, more sensitive, more in touch with the deeper levels of human feeling. In other words, we can also be attentive, active, involved listeners.
Listen For …
What are some of the aspects of a composition you can listen for? (You don’t need musical training for this, just a willingness to get involved.) You can listen for the rise and fall of a melody as it unfolds, how often the melody returns and in what manner, the points of hesitation, the sense of forward motion (or lack thereof), the buildup of tension across long spans of time, the presence (or absence) of rhythmic energy, areas of stress, conflict and relaxation, a smooth or turbulent surface, the density or transparency of texture, the speed and frequency at which musical events occur, images or emotions the music conjures up (the title of the composition may give clues) and the degree of consonance or dissonance. These are just some of the qualities that can grab your attention.
Speaking of grabbing your attention, what is it about the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, the most famous symphony in the world, that grabs and holds your attention for its entire duration? This certainly isn’t music for relaxation. It demands your emotional involvement. There is no melody to speak of. The musical substance consists essentially only of that famous four-note motif, a mere scrap of a musical idea (“Ta-ta-ta-taaah”) that is certainly not remarkable in itself. It’s what Beethoven does with it that makes this four-note motif memorable. He grabs you by the ears and shakes you for seven minutes with a continuous, savage onslaught of that one motif whose forward drive is halted just once, briefly, near the end by the solo oboe (an attention-grabbing event in itself). Here’s how one writer put it: “a potent one-celled organism which [can] grow and multiply with enormous force and logic. These notes …course through the bloodstream of the developing musical body; we feel them as the veritable heartbeat of the movement.”
The Basic Elements of Music
Let’s go back a bit and try to isolate the basic elements of music. These are melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color, density and texture.
It is generally conceded that of these, rhythm is the most basic, the most elemental and fundamental. If music started anywhere, it started with the beating of a rhythm, some cave man banging a stick or a club on a stone or rock wall. A rhythmic pattern is something so immediate and direct in its effect that we instinctively feel its primal origin. Rhythm need not be something you can tap your foot to. (Think again of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth.) Rhythm is a general term referring to the movement of notes in time. What you tap your foot to is the meter, as in a march (ONE-two ONE-two) or a waltz (ONE-two-three ONE-two-three).
Then there is melody, which we may define as a succession of musical tones which together constitute a meaningful whole. We usually think of a melody as something that can be easily remembered and sung. The beginning of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto or of the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or any of the arias in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly are perfect examples. Not all melodies are singable, however. You can’t very well sing the opening theme of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, for example, appealing though it may be, or the first subject of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (No. 1). In much twentieth-century music, themes are so jagged or angular in shape that they cannot easily be remembered.
If melody is the horizontal arrangement of tones, harmony may be considered their vertical arrangement. A single vertical arrangement is a chord; hence, harmony is the study of chords, their relationships and how they move from one to another. Western music did not always have harmony. It grew slowly out of experiments with Gregorian chant in the Roman Catholic Church. Originally, these chants consisted only of horizontal arrangements of notes. Later, the chants were sung simultaneously at two different pitch levels. Still later developments resulted in the rich tradition of harmony we enjoy today. As an example of how harmony works, let’s look at another Beethoven symphony, the Seventh. Listen a couple of times to just the beginning of the second movement. Now if someone asked you to sing this, how would you respond? Unless you had the extraordinary ability to sing several pitches simultaneously, you really couldn’t do more than repeat a rhythmic pattern over and over on a single pitch (DAAH-ta-ta DAH-Dah, DAAH-ta-ta-DAH-Dah). Boring on the horizontal level, isn’t it? Yet obviously something very interesting is going on underneath, at the vertical level. Something is changing every note or two. Those changes are harmonic progressions.
Consonance and Dissonance
As with melody, composers have been continuously modifying their conceptions of what constitutes valid harmonic practice. Consonance and dissonance are relative terms, and to say that consonance constitutes pleasing sounds and dissonance displeasing sounds is to beg the question. A chord or chord progression is consonant or dissonant according to the period in which you live, your listening experience, your personal temperament and the context of the chord in the composition as a whole. You might think of dissonance as harmonic spice. A piece with no dissonance at all is probably going to be bland and boring. Much of the development section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (No. 3) contains jarring dissonances that badly rattled the ears of early nineteenth-century listeners. Those dissonances don’t bother us nearly as much today.
Tone colour is the particular, unique sound produced by an instrument or other medium of sound production. A single note played on a violin sounds different from that same note played by a horn. A composer will often choose the instrument or combination of instruments that best expresses the meaning behind his idea. In other words, the choice is determined by the inherent expressive quality of a particular instrument. Tone colour became a significant element in music toward the end of the nineteenth century, but even as far back as Mozart we find wonderful moments where the choice of colours is notable. Listen to the brilliant result of adding horns to the violins in the opening of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, or to the central Trio of the third movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, where the clarinets come to the fore.
Density is another quality that plays a role in music. Like harmony, this is a vertical concept (not a horizontal one like melody). Think of peering down a well. Can you see clear to the bottom, or are there various objects obscuring your view? In music, can you hear everything happening beneath the surface melody, or is the texture thick with activity of another sort? Usually composers strive for clarity, but sometimes they deliberately evoke tangled masses of sound, such as we hear throughout much of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The beginning of the same composer’s Fourth Symphony, on the other hand, is clear as a bell (actually, that’s sleighbells Mahler uses there!).
Closely related to density is texture. Now we’re thinking surface again. Is the texture smooth, elegant, ruffled, troubled, sinuous, fizzy …? In some twentieth-century music, texture and density are actually more important than other elements. Claude Vivier's Lonely Child is an example where these elements take precedence.
So, there you have some ideas to think about as you listen. But don’t think too hard! Music is an emotional experience, not an intellectual one. Get involved with the music. Have a love affair with it. Don’t feel you have to like everything. (You probably don’t like every food or every person either.) All it takes is a willing ear and some small effort to listen, not just to hear. Happy listening!