Monday, June 20, 2011

6/20 Listening to Music

One of the most unique (and rewarding) things about Beethoven (and classical music in general) is that it functions as music to be listened to. I mean listened to in the same way that most people read a book, or watch a movie (in a theater). Much of popular music today is really designed for dancing or as "mood" music - that's why there's so much repetition in the drum and bass line, and the song usually doesn't modulate in any kind of way to draw attention to the fact that "it's modulating". The dynamic level is arranged in a way so that it starts loud..and stays that way. This makes it easier to listen while at the gym, or driving in traffic. However classical music was never intended to be listened to as an attention-dividing experience. It's meant to be listened to and followed like a dramatic Russian war epic ("War & Peace"?). In a single piano sonata movement there is often a variety of mood swings and jokey witticisms littered throughout the exposition and development sections. And very often Beethoven will not just repeat the notes in the recapitulation, but add some new, poignant/funny element to keep it unpredictable.

Of course it's perfectly fine to just listen to a Beethoven symphony for the "vibe" - I do it all the time, especially since I have music playing every waking hour. But it's always worth mentioning that Beethoven is not just giving us "notes" - there's human drama and comedy splashed all over those string textures.

Here's a few ideas that have helped me to "read" classical music:

Listen for how each instrumental group (winds, horns, strings, percussion) enters
the piece. Then follow how B. uses each of these groups. In general, the strings are the lead instrument and the horns are used for extra "oomph".

Listen for the main motif or melody and break it up into it's "parts". By parts I mean the antecedent/consequent (call/response) nature of a theme melody. It's fun to listen to a melody and see how it gets echoed by other instruments and altered in different ways. My research on my blog post on homophonic forms was pretty handy to learn about theme structures.

Listen for the larger structure of the work - notice when the exposition repeats, how the development develops, and how the recap retransitions into the original theme. These are all signposts saying things like "You are now entering the State of Lyrical Theme in Dominant Harmony". If the work is in variation form, compare how Beethoven develops and twists the original theme.

These all may sound like school homework assignments I suppose, but after awhile this kind of "active listening" becomes as easy as recognizing when a commercial comes on during a TV show and it all just adds to the experience.  When an action movie slows down for some "romance", you don't have to think "oh it's the lyrical part".  But you do recognize it as a change in the mood and pace and this is exactly the kind of thing Beethoven wants us to feel during one of his symphonies.

The idea for today's post on "listening" came from an article about how reading and doing crosswords can block your ability to hear.

Piano Sonata #31 In Ab, Op.110 (1822)
Sviatoslav Richter


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