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Listen Up! Developing an appreciation of music

Updated Tuesday 23rd January 2007

Nick Jones explains why knowing a little about what makes music, and listening carefully, can reveal much more in a simple tune

Music can be appreciated in a number of different ways and on a number of different levels.

For some people, music is essentially a sensual, physical experience – the urge to move the body and to dance to certain pieces of music can often prove irresistible.

For other people, though, enjoyment and pleasure is gained purely through the act of listening to music. Such pleasure may be derived, for instance, from listening to a favourite opera singer, a favourite rock band, or from the agreeable sound a particular combination of instruments makes.

Appreciating music at this level does not require any musical expertise on the part of the listener, and certainly does not demand close familiarity with the technical elements of music.

This is not to suggest that people with this technical knowledge stop listening to music for pleasure. Indeed, I myself listen in this way regularly, but my musical training allows me to appreciate music – to understand it – at a deeper level if I want to and when I need to.

So, does learning about music enrich the listening experience and make it even more pleasurable? Well yes, of course it does – people working at all levels of music education would be out of work if it didn't! From my own experience I can say without hesitation that understanding how music works, learning how it's put together, can indeed enrich the listening experience and make one fully appreciate the finer details of what makes music 'tick'.

I'm going to look at different ways of encouraging you to develop your powers of musical appreciation based on the act of listening, as this activity is something that everyone can take part in. As the twentieth-century American composer Aaron Copland says in his book What to Listen for in Music: "You can't develop a better appreciation of the art [of music] merely by reading a book about it. If you want to understand music better, you can do nothing more important than listen to it."

But what does listening to music actually entail, and how does it differ from simply hearing it?

Listening to Music, Hearing Music
Today music is everywhere; it penetrates into every aspect of our lives. We encounter it when we're shopping, when we're dining in a restaurant, when we're in a lift. Such music is in the background and is not music that we've personally chosen. Therefore we only hear it – we rarely engage with it in any meaningful way.

Conversely, music that we actively choose to listen to is very different – there is an opportunity for us to engage with it, to focus our attention on it, to listen to it attentively. This isn't always as easy as it sounds, but to enable this ideal state of affairs, we need at least two essentials: an appropriate listening environment, and the ability to be aware of some of the processes that are going on in the music.

Listening Environments
We listen to music in many different contexts – at home, in the car, through our MP3 players when we are jogging; we may listen to classical music live in a concert hall, to rock music in a sports stadium, or brass band music in the shopping precinct.

These very different listening environments will have an enormous effect on the way we listen to music, the way we understand it and ultimately the way we appreciate it. Of course different musical styles and genres demand different methods and techniques of listening, but generally speaking, the act of listening needs to be carried out when there is nothing around to distract you.

The ability to listen to music in this way will undoubtedly help you to focus and concentrate on many aspects of the music. I would certainly challenge anyone to appreciate fully a Beethoven string quartet with the distraction and noise generated by a television and three children, all under five, in the adjoining room – I've tried it, and failed miserably! I've even tried substituting Beethoven with the rock group Franz Ferdinand – again, this proved to be a futile exercise!

The Elements of Music
As I stated above, listening to music is to become aware of some of the processes that are going on in the music. This deepens our appreciation of the music.

These processes – the basic elements of musical language; the building blocks, if you like – include:

  • Tempo: - the speed of the music
  • Pitch: - the way in which notes appear high or low in relation to one another
  • Rhythm: - the length of certain notes, from short to long
  • Melody: - the 'tune', created by combining rhythm and pitch
  • Harmony: - when different pitches are played together at the same time to form chords
  • Texture: - the ways in which different lines of music interweave
  • Timbre: - the sound qualities of different voices and instruments
  • Dynamics: - different levels of volume, from soft to loud

Some of these terms may be familiar to you already, others not so familiar, but the important thing is not to be intimidated by them. Indeed, the good news is that you don't need to be able to read music or even play an instrument to understand these musical elements. It's also worth remembering that these elements are common to all forms of music.


Musical Form
The other important process to consider is musical form. Form is what gives shape and direction to a piece of music and ensures that it progresses logically and intelligibly.

As you can probably imagine, there is a vast assortment of musical forms that a composer or songwriter can choose from – a 12-bar blues, a classical ternary form (section A – section B – return of section A), a standard verse-refrain structure of a pop song, an Indian raga – but it all depends, of course, on what type of music musicians are creating and what musical idiom they are working in.

One of the benefits of understanding how such forms work is that when composers and songwriters modify and subvert the usual patterns of musical form, you can be aware that they are doing so and can appreciate when they play with and deny our expectations.

Styles, Genres, Contexts
We all listen to different styles and genres of music – folk, rock and pop, classical, ethnic, world music, jazz, brass band, musicals. The list could go on, of course, and I hope I haven't offended for failing to include your own particular musical passion!

But the important point to make here is that nowadays, music of every type is easily accessible to listen to and to engage with. I would certainly urge you to take advantage of this situation and, if you think you need to, become more wide-ranging and eclectic in your musical tastes.

To appreciate fully certain genres and specific pieces of music also requires us to understand the social and cultural contexts in which such music is produced.

This is especially true for rock and pop music. Indeed, academics have argued that individuals and social groups show a preference for particular styles of popular music. The Mod movement of the 1960s, for instance, was obsessed with fashion and drugs as well as with dancing to specific types of music and listening to particular bands. Many commentators have highlighted the intimate link that existed between the Mod movement and the music of The Who. Understanding the 'whole picture', then, can give us a much better appreciation of the music produced by The Who during this period.

Political contexts are important, too. Indeed, it is unthinkable to attempt to appreciate the music of the twentieth-century composer Dimitri Shostakovich without understanding the Soviet communist regime in power during his lifetime and the effect that this had on his biography and his music.

Developing Your Listening Skills
Music has the extraordinary ability to have a direct and immediate emotional impact; it can move us, touch us, disturb us. It may be that listening to music in the way that I have been outlining may not be enough to describe the ways in which music can affect us in such a manner. All the same, understanding how music works – appreciating the different constituent parts that make up the whole; appreciating the contexts in which music is produced – can enhance the musical experience enormously. Music educators fully understand this, of course, and music syllabuses from school through to undergraduate level and beyond make provision for these vital listening skills. And acquiring and developing such skills needn't be an onerous task.

Further Reading
Music: an Appreciation
Roger Kamien, McGraw-Hill Education


What to Listen for in Jazz
Barry Kernfield, Yale University Press

The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening
Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney, W W Norton & Co Ltd

Classical Music
Edited by Joe Staines, Rough Guides


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