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What to Listen For In Music

Listen to Music

When I listen to music, “What should I be listening for”?

This is a common question people ask. On the one hand, EVERYONE knows “how” to listen to music – we all do it all the time.  But the person asking this question suspects that there is more. And there is!

Professional musicians loathe “elevator music” – the music played in the background, softly (so you can hardly hear it) yet loudly enough that its presence is perceived. Elevator music is not only for elevators. You can “hear” it (barely) waiting for the dentist or in a grocery store. Why do we “loathe” it? Not because it is not good quality music (it often is). We loathe it because a) it is played softly, prohibiting people from really hearing it, and b) it teaches people to “ ‘tune’ out” music – the very thing musicians DO NOT want people to do. Elevator music makes the experience of music a mindless activity, with no mental or emotional engagement.

I do realize that there can be a useful function of music to “calm the soul” (“white noise” can do the same, but Gregorian chant is scientifically proven to therapeutically be the best), or to “set the mood”, as for a party or even (and especially) during a movie, where the soundtrack skillfully guides (“manipulates”?) the emotional experience of the observer.

But back to our original question…

I do have a great answer. It is not mine; it is from Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer. Mr. Copland wrote a book entitled What To Listen for in Music. This is a small, inexpensive paperback which every serious lover of music (of any style) should read. I know of no other such resource to address this topic so well, despite the publication of hundreds of books on “music appreciation”!

Cutting to the chase, Mr. Copland outlines early in his book (1st paragraph of chapter 2) three separate planes for us to consider:

  1. The sensuous plane,
  2. The expressive plane, and
  3. The sheerly musical plane.

I will only briefly outline these planes, allowing you to read more, if you are so inclined, in his book. 

Plane 1 – the sensuous plane – is the simplest manner of listening, intended to experience the “sheer pleasure” of sound, allowing it to wash over our ears without serious analysis. Unfortunately, many professional musicians fail to enjoy this sensuous plane by immediately jumping to a highly critical and analytic experience of listening. 

Plane 2 – the expressive plane  – deals with “what music ‘means’”. This can be problematic as the “meaning of music” is often taken to be highly or even exclusively subjective: what “one” understands music to mean can be opposite of what “another” understands the same music to mean. And yet, we do believe that music “has” meaning [I will address this topic in a separate article in the coming months]. This second plane seeks to uncover “what this music is trying to express”. It is a creative and revelatory process. It engages many aspects of a person’s psyche and frame of reference. It encourages dialog and debate – with self and with another. It begs the question of “composer intent” (What did the composer intend this music to “mean”?) versus what the listener takes away, irrespective of composer intent. This is the stuff of juicy conversations.

Plane 3 – the sheerly musical plane – attempts to experience the music “in terms of the notes themselves”. This is a more analytic level of hearing. It requires some knowledge of the fundamental building blocks of music (the “elements” of music, again, will be the topic of future articles – which include elements as melody, form, rhythm, etc.). The remainder of Mr. Copland’s book serves the listener in addressing these various elements in quite simple terms. He provides the eager listener additional tools to use when “listening” to music.

Mr. Copland himself says that a true listening of any piece of music must occur both over several listenings (hearing something once does not really afford a full “listening”) and while utilizing all three planes (NOT just one!). “Lay” persons have a seriously reduced experience of listening to music due mostly to limiting their experience to plane 1. “Professional” musicians have a seriously reduced experience of listening to music due mostly to limiting their experience to plane 3.  We all can grow our listening experience both in number of planes and in depth of experience of each of those planes.

WOW! That’s a lot of listening! So – What to listen for in music??? That would take a lifetime to explore. The best way I know is to choose now to intentionally listen to music and slowly add more and more to the experience. Music never disappoints; it gives endlessly to those who desire to explore music and to enrich the depths of their souls.

Footnote: Several years ago, I was awarded a presentation at an International Conference held here in Milwaukee by the International Listening Association. I spoke about the methodologies of listening to music. Admittedly, I was previously unaware of this amazing association, comprised of professionals of many diverse disciplines including doctors and nurses, teachers and clergy, psychologists and coaches. I highly commend this association to those who are deeply interested in “listening”.

Postscript: regarding the logo above – “listen to the music” – that Doobie Brothers song is one of my favorites!