Tuesday, April 17, 2012


A friend sent me a philosophical query about perception and that got me thinking about how we listen. From many years of studying and playing and teaching, I have quite a bit of information about how we listen. But I have never really thought about it in the abstract.

Basically, although all people with normal hearing capacity can hear sounds over a wide range of frequencies (about 60 to 20,000 hertz as I recall), people have widely different listening skills. Yes, listening is a skill. Musicians, for example, undergo a course of formal ear-training that involves learning to identify intervals, harmonies and rhythms. When I say "identify" I mean be able to tell the difference between a major second and a perfect fifth and so on. Be able to recognize major, minor, seventh and diminished chords. Be able to write down rhythmic patterns and distinguish different metrical groupings. All this is essentially about musical literacy, or being able to go back and forth between heard music and written music and convert one to the other. A typical test in ear-training involves sight-singing. You are handed a short, written out melody and have to sing it without reference to an instrument--they usually give you the first note.

People with so-called "perfect pitch" are able to recognize not only all the above, but also know exactly what notes are being sounded. They have an absolute memory of pitch. This can sometimes be a drawback! A string player I know with perfect pitch went through an agonizing time rehearsing for a baroque performance because the ensemble was using the old concert 'A' of 415 hertz as opposed to the modern one of 440. Every 'A' sounded to her like a G#!

So when a trained musician/listener listens to music, they hear something rather different from an ordinary listener who, instead of hearing something in a major key, in 4/4 meter, with lots of modulation, rather hears a fluctuating mass of sound. As a teacher, I train people to develop their listening skills because if you can't hear it, you can't play it. The interesting thing is the relationship between listening skills and the way you enjoy music. Listeners are aware of the expressive qualities of the music they are hearing, whether or not they are aware of any of the details. To pick a simple example, the opening of Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra which was used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey sounds like this:

This kind of large brush musical gesture is pretty easily heard whether you know anything at all about music. Everyone can hear a bold, brassy, stark, rising theme answered with some harmonies. But if you have a trained year you hear this: a very low C pedal, followed by trumpets playing C G C, outlining the boundaries of C but without specifying major or minor. Then the whole orchestra comes in strongly giving us E, which completes the C major harmony, but immediately crashing down to E flat, which is C minor. The next phrase reverses this, going from E flat to E natural. The question is, how much does hearing all this stuff add to your musical enjoyment? Well, some I'm pretty sure! But if we ask how much does it add to your musical understanding, the answer is hugely.

Some music only becomes clear--expressively as well as technically--if you know how to listen to it which answers the question why some famously 'difficult' composers are highly regarded in some circles and scarcely known in others. Have a listen to this piece for an example:

Even highly trained listeners are not going to pick up what is going on there right away! This is a twelve-tone composition by Anton Webern that is full of symmetrical interval palindromes. The piece mirrors itself in a couple of dimensions. What does a naive listener hear? I think that quite a few hearings would be needed to pick up on much of what is going on there, even on the level of expression. Pieces like this challenge our aesthetic perceptions...


Nathan Shirley said...

Human hearing ranges from about 20 to 20,000 Hz, but most adults can't hear nearly as high as 20,000 Hz.

As a trained musician I have to say I don't listen to music the way you describe. I listen to it much the same way a non musician does, but perhaps I pay more attention and retain more of it.

I can and sometimes do analyze the music I'm listening to (major, minor, deceptive cadence, etc), but I usually don't. Any musically illiterate person can FEEL the full intended effects of harmonies, rhythms, melodies, dissonances, dynamic changes, rubato, etc, etc. If you listen ACTIVELY, always trying to hear every subtle layer in the music, and always trying to remember what you just heard and anticipating what you might hear next... if you practice this sort of "active listening" enough, then as long as you were born with a good ear you can appreciate music just as well as a trained musician... you just won't be able to read music, or play an instrument, or know the correct terms for what you are hearing.

Does a duck need to understand the mathematical principals of drag, lift and thrust in order to enjoy flight? No, it simply feels these forces and reacts to them.

Knowing that you are hearing a perfect fifth or a diminished arpeggio and seeing the notes on the score as you listen might very well enhance your appreciation of the music, but ONLY because in so doing you are unconsciously boosting your active listening. But it simply is not necessary.

The Webern example opens a whole other can of worms... I'll just say this- As a trained musician I have memorized many 12-tone compositions, every note, and analyzed their structures. In so doing I could hear all these things. However, the music simply lacks interest, there is usually very little or nothing there (and when there is even a trace of some interest it's usually a coincidence, or the performer is killing themselves to get SOMETHING out of the music). Music written by following rules arbitrary to aesthetics will never lead to anything great. The great composers of the past composed much like ducks fly, they felt the music, heard the music, and wrote it down.

Remember, a lot of great music was composed long before music theory was ever invented.

Joel Lo Observador said...

Ok... I'm a not-musician. And i'm just making a coment to prove what Nathan says hehehe. I consider myself an active listener. I think otherwise it's not possible to feel passion for classical music. I can't read a score, but I can taste every change of chord, I can feel all the ups and downs of the melodies I can... you get the point. However, I have to admit that I have more knowledge of music theory than let's say a... Justin Bieber fan. I have found that that thing they say "The knowledge increases the enjoyment" it's true.But that knowledge it's not suposed to be cold, mathematical, theoretical stuff, rather maybe history and some vocubalary that every one could handle.
YES active listening is indispensable for classical music, and not so much people want to get into it, because they don't need it (whit the "normal" listening they enjoy rock and hip hop and they're happy). May be the active listening and the knowledge needed its not the same for the non-musicians (not technical), but it's possible. It is hard to find, because normal people don't want to lose time reading. Well I'm one of these non-normals. Greetings from Mexico.

Bryan Townsend said...

I always seem to get great comments! I think both of you are making the same point: that the 'poietic' and 'esthesic' aspects of music are different, but co-exist. Blogger is underlining both those terms in red, so I better explain. The poietic aspect is how the music is made. This is what composers are concerned with. The esthesic aspect is how it is received by the listener, which can be utterly different.

I mostly listen as you say: just to the esthesic aspect, the sheer sound of it. But little things catch my ear, like a certain harmony or a kind of melody. Then I start listening more analytically.

Oh yes, until we get to the 20th century (or later 19th, maybe) ALL music was composed before the theory was worked out. With people like Webern, the music cries out to be analyzed. As you say, it was written from the theory.

Joel, your points are great. You can listen totally intuitively and 'get' what is going on, just without the technical terms.

When I compose, I really do it intuitively, but sometimes a little theory solves a problem.