Download How to Listen to Music Richard Wagner noted that, “What music

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How to Listen to Music
Richard Wagner noted that, “What music expresses is eternal, infinite, and ideal.” Truly,
music does express a wide range of universal emotions. Yet as our text points out, we
often use music as a background activity. Shopping malls and grocery stores use music as
a way to relax us so that we will feel more comfortable and thus buy more of what
they’re selling. Hence, most of us only seriously listen to music that we like whether it’s
on the radio, in concerts, our CDs, or in a spiritual setting. The rest we simply tune out of
our conscious minds.
Therefore, we are not equipped to really listen to music in a way that will help us
understand and appreciate it. This is especially true if the music is unfamiliar or of a
genre that we have decided we don ‘t like. Therefore, there are strategies that we will use
in this class to aid us as we attempt to seriously listen to music that may at first listening
be strange, puzzling, or complicated. The music you will be listening to is on the CD that
came as part of your textbook. The CD contains an incredible variety of listening
opportunities for you as a humanities scholar. We need to remember that when we are
dealing with all fields of the humanities, we have to work on keeping an open mind. This
may not be easy for you as you listen to Indian or Arabic music or Stravinsky.
The strategies we will utilize include:
1. Before you begin listening to the music, think about some questions.
• • What is the historical context of the music? Was it composed for an elite
or a general audience? For liturgical or secular purposes?
• • Did the composer write the music to be performed in a certain kind of
setting? For example, a Gothic cathedral or opera house?
• • With what forces is the music to be performed? This would include voices
and/or instruments.
• • If the work has text, read through it first if it is available.
• • Are their sections in the work? For example, parts of a mass or
movements of a symphony.
• • From what you know about the music, what do you expect the music to
sound like?
2. While you are listening to the music:
• • To concentrate as completely as possible, fix your eyes on some detail
near you whether it’s a book cover, a painting, or a mark on the wall.
• • Try to analyze what you are thinking. What do you hear? Are there
different instruments, melodies, or rhythms? In what ways is the composer
trying to achieve a specific effect? You will probably have to listen to the
piece more than once to hear everything the composer intended you to hear.
3. After you have heard the music, think about these questions:
• • Which characteristics of the music gave you hints about the period of its
composition? Was it the style, the voices, the instruments, or something else?
• Think about the construction of the piece. Was their repetition or a
change of mood in the piece?
• What kind of melody did the composer use? Was it one long, continuous
melody or several shorter phrases? Was the melody always there in the piece,
or did it reappear during different parts of the piece?
• If there was text, how did the music relate to the lyrics? Would the piece
have been the same without the lyrics?
• In what ways does this music reflect the characteristics of other literature
and visual arts from this time period?
• How does the music reflect the times in which it was created?
• What did the music express?
• What does the music tell us about being human?
While there are explanations of music terminology in the Starter Kit in your textbook, a
further explanation of a few concepts might prove helpful for you as you attempt serious
Line – Line involves the progression in time of a series of notes that we know as a
melody. A melody is a succession of tones related to one another which in turn creates a
total musical thought. Melodies usually set the general character of a piece of music.
Texture – Texture can be thin or thick depending on the number of voices or instruments
used by the composer. During the Middle Ages, plainchant had a single line which
means the texture was quite thin. Large orchestras with their many instruments,
choruses, and soloists are known to have a thick texture. Texture can shift in a work; for
example, a composer can use a thick texture with full orchestra and quickly move to a
thin texture with a single oboe solo.
Color – Often called timbre, color is determined by the means employed by the
composer. Color can be bright if the composer uses trumpets or dark with the use of a
cello or ethereal with the use of strings.
Medium – This term refers to the way the piece is performed. Is the piece performed on
an organ, played by a string quartet, or requires a complete symphony orchestra? Music
needing large combinations of instruments and voices tend to be performed less than
those on more simple combinations.
Like the other visual arts and literature, serious analysis of music takes time, patience,
and the willingness to learn and utilize the necessary strategies. However, the rewards for
our efforts will be rich indeed.