How to Listen to Music

October 27, 2006

Listening is an art. It requires close and accurate attention, sympathy, imagination and genuine culture. Listening to music is an art of high degree. Many derive exquisite enjoyment from it, for music is potent and universal in its appeal. To listen intelligently to music is an accomplishment few have acquired.

A great painting presents itself as a completed whole before the observer’s eye. It holds on the canvas the fixed place given it by the master from whose genius it proceeded. No intermediary force is needed to come between it and the impression it makes on the beholder. Music, on the contrary, must be aroused from the written, or printed page to living tone by the hand or voice of the interpreter, and but a fragment at a time can be made perceptible to the listener’s ear. Like a panorama, it comes and goes before the imagination, its kaleidoscopic tints and forms now sharply contrasted, now almost imperceptibly graduated one into the other, but all shaping themselves into a logical union, stamped with the design of a creative mind. Properly to inspect the successive musical images, and grasp their significance, in parts and as a whole, demands keen mental alertness.

Many are content to listen to music for the mere sensuous impression it creates as it wraps itself about the inner being, lulling a perturbed spirit to rest, or awakening longing and aspiration, joy and sadness, according to the nature of the music and the hearer’s mood. Some even take pleasure in formulating into words the sensations evoked by the ebb and flow of the tonal waves, and fancy they are thus deriving intellectual profit from music.

From both ways of listening helpful results may accrue, but by no means the greatest. Music is far beyond words, and in attempting to translate it into these we miss its musical meaning, the best that is in it. As listeners we derive our highest ćsthetic and intellectual satisfaction from the ability to follow, even anticipate, the composer’s intention, now finding our expectations fulfilled, now being agreeably disappointed. Failure to catch the opening phrase and preliminary rhythms of the composition makes it impossible to appreciate the tonal forms into which they develop. Nor may the mind linger over any one
part, if we would grasp the work as an unbroken whole. That musical creation alone can afford the noblest delights that prompts and rewards the act of thus closely following the composer’s thought.

An instance of absolute knowledge of music appears in an anecdote told of Johann Sebastian Bach. When he was present at the performance of a fugue and one of his two most musical sons was with him, he would, as soon as the theme was heard, whisper what devices and developments he thought should be introduced. If the composer had conformed to his idea of construction he would jog his son to call attention to the fact. Otherwise, his exceeding modesty and reverent comprehension of the difficulties of the art made him the most lenient of critics.

Few have reached the luminous heights this master of masters trod. Even a well-cultivated ear and taste may often be baffled by the intricacies of a fugue, symphony or other great work of musical art heard for the first time. The best listener beyond the pale of genius will at times feel as one astray in a labyrinth of beauty to which for the moment no clue appears. A single representation will rarely suffice to reveal the full worth of a masterpiece of music. By hearing it often, by  admitting it, or some reproduction of it, to our own fireside, we will become familiar with its contents and learn truly to know it.

Those who are fortunate enough to have been surrounded from childhood up by the choicest gems of the tonal language, and whose minds are of the deceptive order, will insensibly attain a refinement of taste and delicacy of perception no learned dissertation on music could afford. At the same time, an acquaintance with the materials and elements of which the art is composed and with the laws that govern them, is essential to enable even one who has heard much to gain the complete enjoyment that comes from understanding. Confident as we are that Prometheus captured his fire from Heaven, we ought to learn something of its attributes before we accept it at his hands, that we may be able to distinguish a true spark of the divine flame from a phosphorescent will-o’-the-wisp.

The idea so largely accepted that music is an unfathomable mystery, like all half truths has wrought much mischief, and has greatly retarded musical progress in social life. Behind the Divine Art, as behind Religion, lies the inscrutable mystery of Life, and in both there is a Holy of Holies only the consecrated may enter. Before the portals of this are reached there is a broad, fertile field for intellectual activity that all may work to advantage, preparing the way to the inner sanctuary.

The musician is continually confronted with fresh evidence of the  popular ignorance, even among students of music, in regard to the outward form and inner grace of what is conceded to be the most popular of all arts. In a roomful of professed music lovers a definition of counterpoint was recently called for, and no one present could give an
intelligent answer. This led to a discussion of musical questions which resulted in the disclosure that not one of the company could define melody, harmony or rhythm, or had the slightest conception of the meaning of the simplest component parts of the art in whose service they were making plentiful sacrifices. Some knowledge of these things is
absolutely imperative, not alone to the student, but to one as well who would listen intelligently to music.

Sound and motion constitute the essence of music. Its raw materials are an infinitely rich mass of musical sounds that bear within themselves the possibility of being molded into form. By the musical builders of the past they have been carefully considered, mathematically calculated, and have finally resolved themselves into a recognized
scale, composed of tones and half tones. These are the composer’s plastic resources. He shapes them precisely as the sculptor fashions the apliable clay with which he strives to bring his ideal to realization.

All sounds are the result of atmospheric vibrations affecting the ear. Musical sound, or tone, is produced by regular vibrations, and differs from mere noise whose vibrations are irregular and confused. The pitch of a musical tone rises in proportion with the rapidity of the vibrations that produce it. Tones may be perceived by the human ear ranging from about sixteen vibrations in a second to nearly forty thousand, more than eleven octaves. Only about seven octaves are used in music. The science of acoustics is full of interesting facts of this kind, and is of profound value to any one who would gain an insight into
the structure of music. It is unfortunately much neglected.

The prime elements of music are Melody, Harmony and Rhythm. They are perhaps as little realized as its raw materials. Melody is a well ordered succession of musical sounds, heard one at a time, and selected from a defined, accepted series, not taken at random from a heterogeneous store. Harmony is a combination of well-ordered sounds heard simultaneously, and with suitable concord, or agreement. Rhythm is measured movement, or the periodical recurrence of accent; and signifies symmetry and proportion.

Melody, unexhausted and inexhaustible, is the initial force, or, as Dr. Marx has called it, the life-blood of music. Within itself it bears the germ of harmony and rhythm. A succession of tones without harmonious and rhythmic regulation would be felt to lack something. Melody has been designated the golden thread running through the maze of tone, by which the ear is guided and the heart reached. Helmholtz styled it the essential basis of music. In a special sense, it is artistically constructed song. The creation of an expressive melody is a sure mark of genius.

Harmony arranges musical sounds with reference to their union, and is regulated by artistic and ćsthetic rules and requirements. It has endless modes of transforming, inverting and intensifying its materials, thus continually affording new means of development. All the intervals and chords used in music had to be discovered, one by one. It often took more than a century to bring into a general use a chord effect
introduced by some adventuresome spirit. Our scale intervals are the slowly gained triumphs of the human mind. Modern music did not emerge from the darkness of the past until harmony, as we know it, came into active being.

Both melody and harmony are controlled by rhythm. It is the master force of the musical organism. Before man was the ebb and flow of nature had its rhythm. On this elementary rhythm, the one model music finds in nature, the inventive mind of man has builded the wonderfully impressive art rhythms existing in the masterpieces of music.

Melodies are made up of smaller fragments, known as motives, phrases and periods, or sentences, all of which are judiciously repeated and  varied, and derive their individuality from the characteristics of their intervals and rhythms.

A motive is the text of a musical composition, the theme of its discourse. The most simple motive, with proper handling, may grow into a majestic structure. In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony three G flats in eighth notes, followed by an E flat in a half note, form a text, as of Fate knocking at the door, which, when developed, leads to tremendous conflict ending in victory. Those notes that repeat and modify the motive and are combined under one slur constitute the phrase, which is similar to a clause in a sentence of words. A period, or sentence, in music, comprises a musical idea, complete in itself, though of a nature
to produce, when united with other harmonious ideas, a perfect whole.

A simple melody is usually composed of eight measures, or some number divisible by four. There are exceptions, as in “God Save the King,” our “America,” of which the first part contains six measures, the second part eight.

Habit and instinct show us that no melody can end satisfactorily without some cadence leading to a note belonging to the tonic or key chord. Very often the first part of a melody will end on a note of the dominant chord, from which a progression will arise in the second part that leads satisfactorily to a concluding note in the tonic chord.

Counterpoint, literally point against point, is the art of so composing music in parts that several parts move simultaneously, making harmony by their combination. During the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the masters of counterpoint shaped the musical materials in use to-day. So anxious were they to attain perfection of
form they often lost sight of the spirit which alone can give vitality to musical utterances. The great Bach infused this into his fugues, the highest manifestation of the contrapuntal, or polyphonic music of old.

Meanwhile the growth of the individual led to the growth of monophony in music, in which one voice stands out prominently, with an accompaniment of other voices. Its instrumental flower was reached in the symphony. Melody reigns supreme in monophonic music. Both the canon and the fugue form a commonwealth, in which all voices are rated alike. Viewed rightly, this suits the modern democratic instinct, and there is to-day a tendency to return to polyphonic writing. It is individuality in union. In the hands of genius it affords the most refined kind of harmony.

A thorough knowledge of counterpoint shows the mistake of regarding it merely as a dull relic of a dead past. It is a living reality that, if correctly studied, leads to a solid, dignified, flowing style, rich in design, and independent in its individuality. Counterpoint, said a
critic in the London Musical News, shows the student how to make a harmonic phrase like a well-shaped tree, of which every bough, twig and leaf secures for itself the greatest independence, the fullest measure of light and air. Composer, interpreter and listener may all profit by a comprehension of counterpoint.

From its infancy modern music has been affected by two perpetually warring factors, the Classical and the Romantic. The first demands reverence for established ideals of formal beauty; the second, striking a note of revolt, compels recognition of new ideals. As in all other departments of art and life, progress in music comes through the continual conflict between the conservative and the radical forces. A position viewed as hazardous and unsuitable in one age, becomes the accepted position of the next, and those who have been denounced as musical heretics come to be regarded as musical heroes. Very often the untutored public, trusting to natural instincts, will be in advance of the learned critic in accepting some startling innovation. Old laws may pass away, new laws may come, but the eternal verities on which all manifestations of Truth and Beauty are based can never cease to be.

“The scientific laws of music are transitory, because they have been tentatively constructed during the gradual development of the musical faculty,” says W. H. Hadow, in his valuable “Studies in Modern Music.” “No power in man is born at full growth; it begins in germ, and progresses according to the particular laws that condition its nature. Hence it requires one kind of treatment at one stage, another at another, both being perfectly right and true in relation to their proper period. But there are behind these special rules certain psychological laws which seem, so far as we can understand them, to be coeval with humanity itself; and these form the permanent code by which music is to be judged. The reason why, in past ages, the critics have been so often and so disastrously at fault is that they have mistaken the transitory for the permanent, the rules of musical science for the laws of musical philosophy.”

An acquaintance with form as the manifestation of law is essential to an intelligent hearing of music. The listener should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of musical construction from the simplest ballad to the most complex symphony. Having this knowledge it will be possible to receive undisturbed the impressions music has to give, and to distinguish the trivial and commonplace from the noble and beautiful.

The oftener good music is heard the more completely it will be appreciated. Therefore, they listen best to music who hear the best continually. The assertion is often heard that a person must be educated up to an enjoyment of high class music. Certainly, one who has heard nothing else must be educated down to an enjoyment of ragtime, with its crude rhythms.

“We know a true poem to the extent to which our spirits respond to the spiritual appeal it makes,” says Dr. Hiram Corson. It is the same with a true musical composition. We must take something to it, in order to receive something from it. Beyond knowledge comes the intuitive feeling which is enriched by knowledge. Through it we may feel the breath of life, the spiritual appeal, which belongs to every great work of art and which must forever remain inexplicable.


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