The lost art of listening (Part 2)

Brian Madigan

Brian's company, Madmusik, has been providing music for dance/drama education since 1992, supplying thousands of schools, colleges and independent practitioners throughout the UK and now - thanks to the internet - across Europe and North America as well.

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Website: www.dancenotes.co.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In part 1 of 'The Lost Art of Listening’, I looked at how we have become somewhat conditioned to accept music as ambient sound. I suggested that you and your students take some time to really listen to some music. We didn’t stipulate what kind of music and I’m not interested in discussing genre or the subjective value of different kinds of music here. What I’d like to focus on this time are the building blocks of music: if you like the ‘macro’ of music. We can then later-on delve into the ‘micro’.

So what are the fundamental elements of what we call ‘music’? Hands up anyone?

Who says: melody, harmony, key, meter, rhythm? Well, you’d not be wrong to suggest those things - but we can actually go one step further away and look at music on an even more fundamental level.

There’s a danger, in learning, to want to please and to give those answers we think are being sought, rather than search for our own truths. When a musician asks ‘what are the building blocks of music’, we will naturally want to impress him or her with our musical knowledge or at least not appear ignorant of the subject. However, in jumping straight in with technical language (or jargon), it is all too easy to bypass real understanding of the subject matter. And I would contend that this is true of learning in most areas.

So to get back to our task in hand: what might be a more fundamental way of describing the elements that make up music? What we’re looking for here is a way towards real understanding of music, rather than just learning the labels others have applied. So without using jargon or musical labels, let’s think about what we hear when confronted with a piece of music for the first time.

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Let’s take another listen to our chosen piece and think about how it makes us feel. What is its emotional impact? How would you describe the mood? Does it suggest particular themes: a point in history, a geographical location, a narrative? And a good way to do this is by very quickly and without judgment, choosing words or phrases that spring to mind on hearing the music. You can do this very easily in the classroom or by yourself: the main thing is to be completely uncritical and to let the words and ideas flow. You’ll almost always find that some are contradictory – that’s OK; try to really push until you have a long and exhaustive list.

It may look something like this:

Folky
Gentle
Thoughtful
Reflective
Flowing
Portentous
Dark
Atmospheric
Haunting
Arcane
Story-like
Tender

And so on…

Having created this list, we can make a second column, in which we’ll write down what it is about the music that makes us think of each word. Again, let’s work quickly and uncritically – there are no ‘right’ answers – and we are still dealing in qualitative terms at this point. So for example, we may choose the following:

Folky
Gentle
Thoughtful
Reflective
Flowing
Portentous
Dark
Atmospheric
Haunting
Arcane
Story-like
Tender
Etc.
Fiddle
Quiet, soft
Slow, tuneful
Simple, melodic
Smooth melody, no surprises or ‘jumps’
Eerie bass
Edgy harmony
 
 
 
sections

You can see that sometimes several words fit the same description and you can make links accordingly, using brackets, arrows etc. on your chart. Now before we start to actually think about the musical techniques used to achieve what we have discerned, let’s identify in the simplest terms what we have discerned: what is each characteristic a function of?

Folky
Gentle
Thoughtful
Reflective
Flowing
Portentous
Dark
Atmospheric
Haunting
Arcane
Story-like
Tender
Etc.
Fiddle
Quiet, soft
Slow, tuneful
Simple, melodic
Smooth melody, no surprises or ‘jumps’
Eerie bass
Edgy harmony
 
 
 
sections
Timbre
Volume, Timbre
Time, Pitch
Texture, Pitch
Texture, Pitch, Texture
Pitch, Timbre
Texture, Pitch
 
 
 
Time

It turns out that we can describe everything in terms of five main building blocks, which are (in no particular order):  
 
Timbre
Volume
Pitch
Texture
Time

Now we have some frames of reference for describing what we have experienced. This piece sounds ‘folky’, partly because of the main instrument on which it is played: the violin or ‘fiddle’. This instrument has a particular timbre (or colour) that evokes references in terms of geographical and historical location. The music feels gentle as it is quiet and the volume remains low (in other instances, this may – of course – vary, which would produce a different characteristic). The timbre is soft, due to the choice of instrumentation and the style of playing. Where we have said that the music is reflective and identified its simplicity, this is in part due to its textural quality. Texture refers to the density of the music: how many instruments are playing? Does this vary? Are there different instruments playing the same thing or are they each producing their own line?

We’ll go into more detail about how to unpick all of this and produce more coherent analysis in the next part. For now, keep on listening to music and see if you and your students can identify these building blocks and develop your ability to quickly and uncritically describe what you hear.

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