The Art of Listening to (Instrumental) Music
June 14, 2015 9:51 AM   Subscribe

I often find music without a sung component difficult and frustrating to listen to. Obviously, this means I'm missing out on some great music, and it's probably due to a gap in my musical education. Can you help me learn to better appreciate and understand instrumental - especially classical - music?

I'm a choral singer and have a good grasp on basic fundamentals, but my musical education has mostly revolved around how to sing rather than how to listen or the history of music. Although recommendations for music to try would be more than welcome, what I'm really looking for right now are some instructions on how to listen to instrumental music and what to listen for. Am I supposed to try to break the music down and hear all the separate instruments? Am I supposed to just follow the melodic line? How does it all work?

I am particularly interested in classical music, but if you want to talk about other types of music (particularly improvisational jazz, which I find bewildering - where is the melody?), that would also be welcome. Thanks.
posted by darchildre to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I listen for the story (or what I perceive to be the story) largely because of how often I watched Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 when I was little. Maybe you'd find instrumental music more interesting if you saw how other people have translated certain songs into visuals?
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:02 AM on June 14, 2015

I'm sure there will be lots of good answers about the details, but my meta-advice is to listen repeatedly. Pick a single piece or movement, preferably under 10 minutes long, and listen to it every day for a week. You'll find yourself recognizing elements of the piece - melody, harmony, texture, dynamics, whatever - and they'll be elements that you learned to hear yourself, instead of something more artificial and theoretical.

Also, the best-ever tutorial on how to listen to classical music remains New Horizons in Musical Appreciation, which is both hilarious and completely accurate.
posted by dfan at 10:06 AM on June 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

There's a series of 23 lectures on YouTube called Listening to Music. They're given by a Yale music professor named Craig Wright, who wrote a widely-used music theory textbook, and he's really good. The lecture series starts out with some basic stuff and then goes into more depth about various composers and pieces of music. I think it would be a good place to start.
posted by colfax at 10:08 AM on June 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

The book What To Listen For In Music by American classical composer Aaron Copeland.
posted by Sir Rinse at 10:19 AM on June 14, 2015

So I'm a classically trained composer who, as a rule, eschews composing music for voice. And yet I really don't have a good answer for you.

But let's see what we can discover together.

A lot of "classic" classical music does have clear melodic content that you can follow as you would a vocal piece. Many composers even compose melodies that can be sung in order, I guess, to make them more palatable. But this also means that composers will compose melodies that while playable on an instrument cannot be readily sung. This definitely creates a different kind of sensation and can even be enjoyable as you get to hear melodic ideas that you might not otherwise get exposed to.

In ensemble music the melody, or the main melody, often will not just stay with one instrument. You will often find it going from the violins to the flutes to the cellos and who knows where. Following the melody through these different tonal colors can also be enjoyable.

You'll also find classical music that isn't so much melodic as motific, as in short little musical ideas (think the opening to Beethoven's 5th). Composers just love playing with these little musical snippets: moving them around different pitch ranges; different instruments; stretching them out; compressing them; playing them backwards, upside down, or both; variations of them and so on. In short there's a lot of great inventiveness you can find here (think Mozart).

Structure and form are critically important in classical music. Roughly, structure is how a piece is divided into parts and form is the relationship those parts have to each other and the whole. A very common practice in classical music is to divide a work into three sections. The form will look like ABA which basically means you have a first section, a contrasting second section, and then you bring back the first. This form is insanely ubiquitous in classical music and in fact in spite of our need (as composers) to avoid cliches we find ourselves falling into that form all the time and often have to work very hard to not use it.

But of course there are many other possible forms. A rondo uses something like ABACADA. Or the very popular sonata form which, typically, starts with an introduction then reveals the main theme. This theme is then developed (ie, played with as in the motivic melodies above). After this we bring back the main theme in its original form (or with slight variations) and wrap it all up with an ending (called a "coda").

In Western European classical music form is often defined in terms of harmony. I'm not sure how to discuss this without getting too technical and involving a lot of music theory but I'll try.

So you start a piece in what we'll call the "root range". That is the melody and accompaniment will use certain notes in a specific musical range that has certain "feel" to it like happy (major key) vs sad (minor), or exciting vs mellow (ditto). The next section of music might preserve our initial "happy" sound (major key) but shift the range of notes higher or lower (in technical terms moving the tonal center to a different root note).

But then our next section might go back to our original root range but change the mood going to the sad sound (minor key).

And composers will have "transitions" that lead your ear from one of these keys to the next so it's not a sudden jarring change but readily observed and organic feeling of moving from one key/feeling to another. Often these transitions are repetitive but fun with some nice technical stuff (like fast scales).

Composers also have a lot of "tonal centers" to play with. The easiest shift of pitch range is going from "tonic" to "dominant" (like C-Major to G-Major) but there's no reason a composer can't go from tonic to the minor third (C-Major to E-Minor) or to the diminished seventh (C-Major to B-Diminished). All of these different landing places feel different with respect to the original location and how a composer transitions to these new areas can often be a lot of fun to follow.

A lot people listening to classical music aren't aware of this aspect of music (changing keys) and tend to miss out on a critically important part of composing these composers have done. The thing is, it's not that hard to hear these changes (even if you cannot identify exactly what's going on) once you know to listen for them.

So listening to classical music is not just listening for the melody but also listening for the structural elements and then the "harmonic" relationships of those sections (the shifting keys). There's almost always so much more going on in a piece of music than the average listener is aware of.

And we haven't even discussed 20th century music which takes all these ideas and explodes them in a million different ways.

Finally, my one and only link to a piece of music. The extremely challenging Chaccone in D Minor by Bach. It is long. It is for solo violin. It's form is a theme with many, many variations. If you listen closely you can hear Bach changing keys (the pitch ranges and going from the initial "sad" key of D Minor to "happy" keys). You'll also, upon repeated listenings, be able to hear as how that initial theme is being manipulated in all sorts of amazing and creative ways. But your first few times through just listen and don't try to understand what's going on. There are all sorts of moments that are really exciting with some very technical playing and then some that overwhelmingly mellow/sad and it's wild and crazy ride. And as you continue to listen you will start to pick up on all the different sections and you will find universes within universes in this piece.
posted by bfootdav at 10:48 AM on June 14, 2015 [17 favorites]

Am I supposed to try to break the music down and hear all the separate instruments? Am I supposed to just follow the melodic line?

Either is fine. Truly great music should work either way.

For the nuts and bolts of it, I second Aaron Copland's work.

Since your focus is on classical music, realize that it's typical for it to sound like kind of a mush on first listen. It's essential to the listen to the same work repeatedly.

As far as what to listen to, I'd focus on composers who wrote important choral and orchestral works. For instance, start with Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The first three movements are instrumental, and the last movement includes instrumental and vocal renditions of the same melodies (including the famous "Ode to Joy").

Another idea: listen to Brahms's German Requiem, which is choral but has a symphonic feel to it; then, listen to his 4th Symphony, one of the very greatest orchestral works. If you can't get into the first movement ... well, listen again!
posted by John Cohen at 11:03 AM on June 14, 2015

I'd also recommend Mozart's later piano concertos (from #19 onward) and his clarinet concerto, because the melodies are so strong, and the dramatic structure is so compelling. Also, Dvorak's Cello Concerto. Try to think of the lead instrument as having a "conversation" with the other instruments. (There's a whole book on that idea.)

You might want to follow along with Michael Steinberg's The Concerto: A Listener's Guide. Also check out his book on symphonies.
posted by John Cohen at 11:09 AM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

First off, learn to know about the story of whichever piece you're listening to: how the composer came to compose it, where it was played, and what people thought of it; what people today think of it. In the days of Wikipedia, this is really easy. It is a little like with people: very often you don't really understand someone else unless you have a bit of a background.

And then:
Am I supposed to try to break the music down and hear all the separate instruments? Am I supposed to just follow the melodic line?

Nobody is "supposed" to do anything with music; you ought to do what suits you best.
That said, some music isn't intended (from the composers viewpoint) to be broken down to individual instruments (I'm thinking of late-Romantic and especially Impressionist orchestral music) whereas other music does totally benefit from it (Baroque Concerti Grossi are made to listen to individual instruments doing "their thing").
Some music (polyphonic music) doesn't have a single "melody," but rather a number of recurring, interwoven themes that can (or cannot) be listened to, and appreciated, separately, or as a whole.
Piano concertos can be listened to from an orchestra-buff-type of standpoint, from a piano-geek-type of standpoint, or even (talking Mozart) from an Opera-lover's standpoint.

So back to my first comment. Get yourself some piece-specific guidance, try to match it with your personal way of listening to music and, with these elements in mind, develop a listening style that suits you.
posted by Namlit at 11:18 AM on June 14, 2015

With children, you generally start with pieces that have easy-to-hear little themes that evoke clear ideas, like:

Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals -- where you ask the children to try to picture each animals being evoked by the music and how the composer is doing that

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition -- which is a series of sketches tied together by an uneven promenade (which is your fat, somewhat limping guide to the exhibition leading you from picture to picture), and then Mussorgsky's interpretation of each picture in music, from noisy but happy quarreling children at the park to the scary witch's hut on chicken legs to the Great Gate at Kiev.

Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, which begins with a Russian hymn begging for salvation, and then you can hear La Marseillaise growing stronger and stronger, almost taking over the piece, as the French advance towards Moscow, with snippets of Russian folk songs as the Russian people struggle to rally against the French. All seems lost, but God (the hymn again) sends a deep freeze (swirling winter winds in strings and woodwinds), the French falter, and then the Russian cannons come in for the first time, against La Marseillaise. The French retreat (descending strings), and the Russians set Moscow on fire, and there's a musical chase scene, with more and more canon shots, which eventually resolves into "God Save the Tsar!" completely overtaking La Marseillaise, with church bells ringing in celebration and cannons firing.

Listen to the 1812 a dozen times until you really feel like you "get" what he's doing, and then try Tchaikovsky's 4th or 5th symphonies and you can hear a lot of the same techniques and ideas and personality, but now in the more complex symphonic setting.

I think it's sometimes easier to start listening to classical music with these musical poems rather than full-length symphonies (which are so complicated) or concertos (which often depend on an appreciation of virtuosity of the solo instrument). They're shorter, they're often easier to understand, and it's way easier pick out musical motifs across 20 minutes than 90 minutes. (I am particularly fond of Smetana's Ma Vlast, which is a set of six "tone poems" about his homeland of Bohemia -- aural landscapes meant to evoke the landscapes of the place.)

A "Bach for Beginners" type of book for the piano and you can work your own way through his really lovely little pieces for (amateur) pianists where you can see and hear and experiment for yourself how working with the musical motifs and moving them around in time, pitch, etc., puts together a pleasing melody.

You might also find that going from opera to full-length ballets helps you understand "pure" classical music, since it keeps the structured story of opera but removes the distracting (for you) voice ... it might be a good intermediate step.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:24 PM on June 14, 2015 [7 favorites]

When I was younger I got a lot of eye-opening guidance in training my mind to listen to classical music by reading a scholarly survey of Josef Haydn's string quartets. I don't remember the exact author, but this book looks very similar and reading through it with recordings of the quartets at hand would probably help a lot. A lot of the basic elements of how this sort of music works will be laid out using examples -- the Haydn quartets -- which for this purpose are imo better than works later on in the tradition where the purity of musical thought as found in Haydn has been complicated by expanding artistic ambitions for the range of what music could express.

Though out of print and with used copies pricey, if you can lay your hands on a copy of Theodor Adorno's Introduction to the Sociology of Music -- at a university library perhaps -- there is a chapter devoted to a typology of various different ways people listen to classical music which is usefully suggestive of the variety of options there are. Adorno himself advocates a very cognitive approach that both keeps track of the musical material as a sheerly formal aesthetic structure while at the same time seeing it as an image that gives a picture of other sorts of reality, especially that of the dynamics of social organization and conflict.

Adorno wrote a rather notorious essay on the Jazz music of his day that can give a flavor for how he writes about listening, and ought to be thought-provoking. You can take it as a hyper-intelligent expression by someone completely steeped in the classical European musical tradition of their dismay at how popular Jazz music works. He's probably not fair to the Jazz, but the candor and precision of his analysis definitely shows something about the values of a mind educated to classical music.
posted by bertran at 3:15 PM on June 14, 2015

What kind of music do you like *now*?
It might be easier to give you a 'path' of songs from vocal, to minimal vocals, to instrumental/classical, if you let us know what you currently like.

I think I came the other way, preferred music where the vocals were just another instrument, if present, but getting into words more, now. For example, In this Shirt by The Irrepressibles... Very orchestral style, and the lyrics aren't really going anywhere, they are just an instrument for the sweeping emotion of the song.

Do you like any instrumental only versions of songs?
posted by Elysum at 7:31 PM on June 14, 2015

There are a couple of good books by Jeanne Bamberger, who taught a course at MIT on Developing Musical Structures, available at Open Courseware:

Developing Musical Intuitions
The Art of Listening

One of the basic ideas is to take your familiarity with very simple musical structures, like folk song rounds, and extend that to the notion of musical motifs, which are often repeated, transformed, and built upon to form larger instrumental works.

As you're listening to a piece, try focusing on one instrument and asking yourself what you think the composer's going to do next. Will it repeat? Will it repeat, but up a few tones? Will it repeat but then get all fiddly and ornamented? Making a prediction and then listening for what the composer chose to do can help you get a sense of how various composers think.
posted by kristi at 9:12 PM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of the more accessible categories of music is called program music which is where kids often get their introduction. Heck, Peter and the Wolf (and yes, that's Dame Edna, a. k. a. Barry Humphries) comes with narration to make it even easier to follow along.

Saint-Saens wrote a lot of program music. Danse Macabre is exactly what it says on the box - a dance of the dead on All Souls Night. Listen to them climbing up out of the grave at the beginning and getting into this beautiful waltz. Listen for the rooster at the end signalling dawn.

Sometimes a composer will take a theme and try to build a suite around it. The Planets by Holst does this. Most iconic is Mars the Bringer of War, which should sound like the score behind just about every space sci-fi movie to you because it has that intensity. It helps that it's in 5/4 which helps drive it forward.

Listening to fugues, especially Bach, to me is like looking at Celtic knots. When I listen to something simple like a two part invention, I am trying to follow both voices at the same time and follow where they lead me.

Then there are the on-the-edge composers who try to push the limits of the instrument. Arban, Liszt, Chopin and Paganini certainly fall into that category. Personally, this category doesn't interest me quite so much that I go out of my way to listen to it. An exception is Rondo Capriccioso by Mendelssohn, but a lot of that is that my mom used to play this piece when I was young and I used to lay under the grand piano and listen while she went through it, the rich melody that comes in at about 3:02 and get tossed over to the left hand goes straight into my tear ducts.

Some composers had a goal of writing dance music. Anything to get your toes tapping. Sometimes the band playing at your party needs some real good tunes.

Something like this might also help. This is a segment from the film "Bach and Friends" by Michael Lawrence. This segment features my brother Mike talking about the timelessness of Bach which you get to hear him playing the Gigue Fugue on piano.

So where to start? I would say that program music is a good stepping off point to listen for the pictures, if that makes sense. You might consider also listening to them and variations pieces. This is either a way to show off the capability of the soloist or a way to try to hide the theme in as inventive a way as you can (I know that the Goldberg Variations are sometimes looked down on, heck, Bach didn't really do the T&V thing, but the theme can be so well buried but still there).

Questions you can ask are, "what's the time signature and what is it doing to the feel of the piece?" For example, here is the first movement a suite by Robert Jaeger that starts out with a march. It has all the hallmarks of a typical Sousa March including several separate strains, antiphonal woodwind trills, a drum line (no dogfight, though). Try to march to it. You can't. It's in 7/4 at the start and goes to 5/4 in the trio.

As an aside, I love this piece - so much so that that I arranged it for my brass quintet.

Similarly the second movement is a waltz, but it's in 5/4. It sounds wonderfully off-balance while keeping the general form. There is a term in some eastern Eauropean dance folk music called aksak, which means limping and this is just that (but not at the blistering tempo of typical aksak). You can also ask, "what does this make me feel?"

One thing that I always try to keep in mind for any music is a reminder that we don't work music. We play music so I look for the joy.
posted by plinth at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

For the nuts and bolts of it, I second Aaron Copland's work.

Sorry, I meant Copland's book.
posted by John Cohen at 8:48 AM on June 15, 2015

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