How do I learn to hear sonatas and symphonies as unified works?
October 12, 2013 10:14 AM   Subscribe

I enjoy classical music a lot, but at a superficial level (I don't play an instrument). I'm realising that part of my frustration is that I don't hear what makes the various parts of a piece (such as the movements of a sonata or symphony) belong together in a whole. How did you learn to do this?

Say a composer has written three sonatas (call them A through C), and each of them has three movements (call them 1 through 3). I can understand the "logic" of sonata form that means A1 / A2 /A3 is the most satisfying order for the three movements of A. But I cannot for the life of me hear why A2 belongs with A1 & A3; it seems to me that A1/B2/A3, or A1/B2/C3 would make an equally satisfying piece. If you were given A1 & A2, and then asked to choose from A3 / B3 / C3 (all written by the same composer) to say which best ends the piece, would you be able to do it? If so, what would you listen for? Are there resources you can point me to that would help me to develop this ability? Are there pieces where the interconnectedness of the parts stands out in a particularly obvious way?
posted by muhonnin to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
If you're trying to grab this from the outside, you'll have a difficult time. Professional musician Mr. Arnicae suggests learning the piano - it is the most accessible classical instrument and easy to pick up. He says that once you start to learn the piano that you'll start to hear music from the inside. Once you start to play an instrument, you develop your ear so that when you listen you naturally listen more deeply to the individual elements of a piece and how they relate to each other, and you'll discover new connections that you didn't previously perceive. He says he doesn't know how to do this without an instrument - and that you wouldn't necessarily need to learn to read music.

You don't need to be a virtuoso on an instrument to understand the secrets of a piece, but having contact with an instrument brings with it an innate understanding of how to approach understanding a piece, and listening in a much more detailed manner.

Conversely, learn to read music and do score studies (without learning an instrument). While this will require less of a time investment, it will take longer time to understand individual pieces before hand.
posted by arnicae at 10:23 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of this has to do with the key signatures and tonalities used by the composer, but that can be difficult to grasp for anyone not versed in music theory, and is difficult to listen for anyway without sitting there with a score in your lap.

What I always tell people is to approach pieces as you would any other narrative. Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example, begins with that famous, stormy four-note motive in the first movement. This is the most famous part of the symphony, but it's not the whole story, and only listening to this movement is akin to only reading the beginning of a novel without reaching the happy ending. Beethoven's 5th ends in the 4th movement with a triumphant, rising motive in C Major; this contrasts the C minor key of the first movement, as if overcoming the adversity set up at the beginning of the piece. It's a lot more complex than that, but the basic story Beethoven sets up is the angry motive of the 1st movement changing to the triumphant motive of the 4th movement.

Instead of looking for specific connections between works, it might be more rewarding to ask yourself why the composer chose to order movements in such a way. What sort of statement might the composer be making? What do the similarities and contrasts between the movements mean for the piece as a whole? Certainly, Beethoven could have instead begun the 5th symphony in C major and ended in C minor, but he chose not to, and that decision is important to his artistic intentions and the musical narrative he wanted to tell.
posted by kingoftonga86 at 11:06 AM on October 12, 2013

I took a music theory course many years ago, despite only playing the flute in band (badly), and it's been one of the most life-enhancing bodies of knowledge I've given myself. We used a book/cd set called Listen! which I haven't been able to find for you on google, but I'm sure you'll have more suggestions here. Just glancing around Yale's music 101 course is online.

There's more great stuff online than you could possibly get thru, but I enjoy-

BBC Radio 3 Discovering Music, extensive archives analysing different pieces
Christopher Hogwood lectures
posted by Erasmouse at 11:16 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

The individual movements of a multi-movement work such as a sonata or symphony didn't begin to have much to do with each other (except for the fact that they would generally be in similar keys) until Beethoven. So don't sweat it if you listen to a piece by Mozart or Haydn and don't hear much of a common thread connecting the movements.

There are definitely pieces, starting with Beethoven, where the composer really specifically tried to explicitly draw connections between the various movements. This got particularly popular in the middle-late 19th century. See the wikipedia article on cyclic form for some good examples.

I would give the following advice: if there is an explicit musical connection between the various movements, do your best to listen for it. But otherwise feel free to listen to a symphony like you would read a book of short stories: they may have been placed in that collection and ordered in a certain way because that seemed to work well, but you are free to just enjoy the stories as they come and you don't need to find some giant connecting link to make sense of the whole.
posted by dfan at 11:36 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Part of music appreciation is this frustration of trying to figure these things out. But I don't think you have to know music to be able to appreciate the music. Most music is written for non-professionals. Instead of looking for the technical details, try looking for feelings. Does a different movement sound more tense, or happy, or sad, or triumphant? I think once you can get better at this, you will then be able to recognize how the composer was able to achieve the effect.

Also, it helps to read up on each individual piece. Each piece might be attempting something different.
posted by gjc at 12:02 PM on October 12, 2013

As a virtual non-musician, with little knowledge of music theory, who can't read scores, I would highly reccomend checking out the visual representations (animated graphical scores) of some very well known classical pieces on smalin's youtube channel.

This representation of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 1st movement was the particular video that gave me, for the first time, this greater insight into the connectedness of a classical piece that you're looking for.

Beethoven's Gro├če Fugue is another one that had a particular impact.
posted by protorp at 12:18 PM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sonata movements, and their relationships, within "classical music" are vast. There are a couple of pointers I can suggest.

First, early Baroque stuff like Scarlatti sonatas of three movements, are tied together in a simple way -- fast, slow, fast. Sometimes it's "moderate-slow-fast." So musically, while key and other themes may link them, it's generally a tempo connection. So that's what I would recommend experiencing. A general feeling of uptempo, slow things down, then end with a finale!

A fast finale is usually satisfying in and of itself. But when preceeded by a sombering slow middle movement, it can be even MORE fulfilling. Similarly, a slow middle movement may be a little boring to listen to alone, but when you've experienced a faster beginning, you appreciate a break a little more. I'd suggest forgetting fancy music theory like key changes, traditional forms, and other stuff, and just experience the changing eb and flow across movements.

There ARE formal ways that composers link movements, but those often require some music theory and/or some performance insight. There are also thematic ties, but honestly, most composers keep the development going across movements, not necessarily revisiting prior themes.

A good example of this is the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. Instead of "slow-fast-slow" Beethoven chose a "slow-faster-FAST" progression. So while each of the movements by itself is great, the buildup of the entire piece, culminating in a fantastic finale, is tremendous!

By the late romantic period, the works (particularly symphonic works) had grown so large, that multi-movement pieces almost contain the same kind of eb and flow of multimovement pieces within a single movement. But the same theory still applies, just on a greater scale.
posted by Piano Raptor at 5:49 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recommend What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland (and if you Google that phrase, you'll find some excerpts, as well as a Kennedy Center lecture series with the same name.

I also really recommend The Art of Listening by Bamberger and Brofsky. Bamberger was a professor of music at MIT and did some great early work in helping non-musicians hear structures in music. The Art of Listening might be available through your library; if not, it looks like there are some inexpensive copies at online used booksellers (like ABE).
posted by kristi at 8:30 PM on October 13, 2013

I came in here to recommend Copland's What To Listen For In Music but kristi beat me to it. Maybe you could try one of those Music 101 classes at your local community college too?
posted by phliar at 2:28 PM on October 17, 2013

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