Read an Excerpt
The Heart of Listening
A tree arose. Oh pure uplifted sense!
Orpheus sings! A towering tree was heard!
All was silent. And even in the silence
a new beginning, signs, and change inhered.
RAINER MARIA RILKE, SONNETS TO ORPHEUS,
TRANSLATED BY TED ANDERSSON
AND KENNETH FIELDS
When you rush to dress for a concert and brave city traffic to arrive on time, what is it you expect to happen when the music begins? What kind of experience do you yearn for?
I want music to take me beyond the limits of my own experience, to connect me with a larger reality. I want to be filled with sound, to feel music flowing into every cell. I want the wonder the composer feels toward life, and the reverence for craft, to rekindle such feelings in me. I want access to a full spectrum of emotions, from exquisite tenderness and sorrow to transcendent power and jubilation. Is this too much to ask of music?
To the eyes, music appears as merely black lines and dots on a page. But these marks are energy capsules waiting to be released, launching waves of soundfrom the purity of high notes to the full depth of low notes. Our eyes have lids that close, but our ears are unprotected. Sound vibrations go directly to our core, as body-tensing loud sounds can quickly remind us. Should it surprise us then that we have such strong visceral reactions to music? A simple melody or harmony may summon tears and remind us of people and events long forgotten. A great symphony can stir qualities ofour humanity that we need and long to feel: exultation, grief, dignity, compassion, playfulness. At times music brings the gift of self-forgetting, inviting us to slip out of our own skin. But paradoxically, because it connects us with our emotions, music often brings more self-awareness. And it's easier to own our emotions when we meet them through music.
Throughout history, music has been an integral part of rites of passage, graduations, weddings, funerals, and healing and religious ceremonies of all kinds. Music has beckoned us to love and war, to worship and mourning. In carrying the emotional undercurrents of these occasions, music joins them to the larger rhythms of life. Composers understand what sounds will evoke a certain mood or response, what rhythms and harmonies will Soothe or boost energy. Music has so many faces. We can turn to Bach for the spiritual support of his unswerving faith, to Mozart for perfected grace and beauty, and to Beethoven and Mahler for courage and drama. We look to jazz and popular artists for relaxation and romantic moods. But whether the music is a long symphonic journey or a short blues improvisation, when it gives us what we need, it is a gift.
The Greeks believed that music came from the gods. The myths surrounding its origins arose from the changes that could be observed in listeners. Using the lyre that was Apollo's gift, Orpheus could soothe wild beasts, make the trees dance, and cause the rivers to stand still. The power of his music was great enough that it persuaded the god of the underworld to release his beloved Eurydice. And to this day music leads us to the underworld of feeling. When we are sad or grieving, hearing music that mirrors our sadness can give meaning and dignity to our experience and remind us we are not alone. When we are bursting with high spirits, music can give focus and form to our joy. Out of this understanding, as early as the sixth century B.C.E., Pythagoras, at his school on the Greek island of Samos, recommended certain instruments and modes (scales) to address his students' needs and personalities. Music in the Dorian modeD to D on the piano---was believed to stabilize and strengthen character, whereas music in the Phrygian modeE to Ewas potentially unstabilizing. And today we have ways to measure chemical changes in the body stimulated by listening to music. We know, for example, that music we like can trigger the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormones that act as natural opiates.
Encoded in the language of melody, harmony, and rhythm are the patterns of our emotional intelligence, the ancient structures of the limbic system, where emotions reside. You can see the power of this center in your pets' sensitivity to the emotional temperature of your voice, the communication underlying the words. Music is constantly suggesting to us certain states of emotion as it reproduces them in us. And as emotional habits are formed, they eventually become a part of our character. This is what Aristotle referred to when he wrote that "by music a man becomes accustomed to feeling the right emotions."
Music carries our primal longings for connection and fulfillment, raising our expectations to a peak, perhaps many times in the course of a piece. When music excites our hopes for satisfaction, we may feel teased to be led toward a resolution, only to be disappointed by a false cadence that does not satisfy. But the teasing heightens our desire for what may come. As in sexual arousal and satisfaction, the principles of tension and release are experienced physically and imaginatively. We can hear this in any of Mozart's or Beethoven's symphonies. Composers are masterful at raising our expectations to a higher pitch, delaying a climax by pulling back again and again, only to take us to new levels of anticipation and promised fulfillment. Music shares with sexuality this capacity to stimulate the mind and body simultaneously.
Music and the Arts
There is a belief that in the beginning all the arts were one, and it is true: music, poetry, and art do illuminate one another and share the ability to unify body, mind, and spirit. Many artists have found inspiration in a sister arta different language of the soul. In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman describes how some writers use music to energize their work. She herself has a different piece of music for the "drawer" in her mind where each current writing project resides, thereby cutting down on warm-up time.
Many visual artists have been attracted to, even envious of, the abstract nature of music. This supports Walter Pater's belief that "all art constantly aspires to the condition of music." Raoul Dufy, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky all confessed to a fascination with music. And to stimulate their own creative process, painters as different in style as Marc Chagall and Jackson Pollock often worked while listening to music. Chagall said that his style changed when he began listening to Mozart. Color, line, rhythm, and texture in the visual arts have musical equivalents in sound. Jagged, even violent lines convey more conflict and force than smooth, flowing ones, in both arts. In Kandinsky's Improvisations, which may be viewed as musical compositions on canvas, the lines and juxtaposed colors create patterns of repetition reminiscent of musical rhythm and vibrating sound waves. And he often makes a sequence of shapes or forms, as in his multiple images of figures riding horsesas a composer often repeats a musical idea in sequence (usually three times, in Bach's music). In his book On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky made quite literal parallels between music and color: black, for example, represented a different kind of silence than white; light blue was the sound of a flute and dark blue a cello. There are similarities too in the way the harmony of tones in the music of Mozart and Schubert creates an impression of grace and balance, as harmonious color tones do in paintings by Poussin, Ingres, and Klee. To echo some of the spikey lines in the music of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, or Stravinsky, we must look at twentieth-century painters, Picasso, de Kooning, and the abstract expressionists. It's notable that so many visual artists have played musical instruments, among them Titian, Tintoretto, Chardin, Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, and Matisse. There are wonderful photographs and paintings of impromptu string quartets composed of painters sitting amid the chaos of easels, canvases, and studio props.
Who can say how many musical compositions have been inspired by art or literature? Pianist-composer Rachmaninoff said, "In my own composition I am greatly helped if I have in mind a book, a beautiful picture, or a poem." The titles of piano works by Liszt relate their imaginative source to Dante, Petrarch, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Claude Debussy drew inspiration from literature. His opera Pelleas et Melisande is based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck and the orchestral Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was inspired by a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé Even more of Debussy's works grew from the suggestion of a painting or picturethe prelude "La Puerta del Vino" (The Gate of Wine) prompted by a picture postcard of a famous gate in Granada, Spain, and "Poissons d'Or" (Golden Fish) by a panel he owned of luminous Chinese lacquer. In sound, Debussy imitated the dreamy qualifies of light and air in Impressionist paintings. He achieved a hazy vagueness in orchestral pieces like Nuages (Clouds) and echoed Impressionist effects such as shimmering light and shadow by placing fragmentary motives and little flashes of different tone colors side by side. Or he rapidly alternated pianissimo (very soft) and fortissimo (very loud) passages and sparkling trills and arpeggios. He also exploited the capacity of the piano's damper pedal to blend and blur tones to suggest fog or mist, as in "Brouillards," when the raised hammers allow the strings to continue resonating.
In the prelude "La fille aux cheveux de lin" (The Maiden with the Flaxen Hair*) Debussy uses a primarily pentatonic melody to evoke a dreamy, spacious sound, that is, the scale of five notes produced by playing from F-sharp to D-sharp on the black keys only. Many folk songs are pentatonic, like the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." Here, in the widely spaced chords Debussy uses to support the melody, you can listen for the exotic sonorities of Indonesian gamelan instruments, whose gong and bell-like sound Debussy first heard at the Paris Conservatory in 1889. When you listen to his pieces about water (see the Listening Bibliography at the end of the book) with such titles as "Reflects dans l'eau" (Reflections in the Water) and "Jardins sous la pluie" (Gardens in the Rain), it is easy to understand what he was getting at when he said, "Music has this over painting, that it can represent all the variations of color and light in one go."
Music also uses sound to imitate language (word-painting) or to shape a musical phrase so that it suggests the idea of an action or scene. Albert Schweitzer thought Johann Sebastian Bach was the greatest painter among composers. Among the hundreds of passages in Bach's work in which sound imitates meaning, two are particularly notable: one in a cantata containing the words, "I shall stand firm," when Bach repeats the same note four times; another in the "Crucifixus" from the B minor Mass, where the melodic lines slope downward, in imitation of a head bowed with sorrow. Handel's oratorios and operas are also bursting with sound-painting, as are those of Haydn, who makes the music of the hills roll and the raindrops dance in The Creation. If you were to look at some of this music as it appears on the musical staff, you would discover that it's not necessary to read music to see note patterns tracing pictures of the galloping horses or singing cuckoos in the text.
Descriptive techniques have continued into the twentieth century. Richard Strauss is masterful at using orchestral instruments to evoke sound pictures in Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, and other works. Maurice Ravel uses various instruments, each with a different tone color, to suggest the colors of a sunrise in Daphnis and Chloe. Of course, some instruments are naturally associated with particular colors: the rich brass of the trumpet and trombone with bold shades of gold, orange, and red; and the lower pitches of the cello and bass with blue, purple, and darker colors. This can be a bit subjective, of course, and at times the inner eye is challenged to see what we hear. In his Quartet for the End of Time, French composer Olivier Messaien evokes sound colors he calls "jumbled rainbows" and "blue-orange lava flows." A description of the Apocalypse according to St. John, the Quartet quite miraculously creates a mystical, ecstatic reality words can only approximate. To evoke "the impalpable harmonies of the Heavens" Messaien combines gentle cascades of notes on the piano with the distant sound of the violin and cello playing plainsong of Gregorian chant, which has no fixed rhythm or meter. Remarkably, Messaien wrote and first heard this piece performed when interred in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.
In his choral work, Lux Aeterna (used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey), another contemporary composer, the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti, used different means to create complex sonorities that sound astonishingly fresh. Beginning with a single pitch, he gradually adds other pitches above and below it until a dense mix of sound colors is formed. At times so many pitches are present at once that the quality of pitch itself is absent. It's like looking at a white canvas on which the eye can project all colors.
But whatever the music, it's one artist's truth confronting your own, and potentially affirming, deepening, and expanding your understanding of what it is to be alive. The right music at the right time can be a revelation. And because music reaches us on many levels at once, poetic images come closer to the truth of our experience of music than an appeal to rational language. Like speech, classical music is inflected. So when a conductor or performer interprets a piece of music, he or she is deciding what notes to group together, which to give more or less emphasis to, and what dynamic shape to give them in order to make them better understoodjust as you do with words when speaking. Although musical language is not denotative, as speech is, it has its own inner logic. If you grew up hearing or singing music, you learned its structures of meaning as naturally as you learned to speak. That's why almost anyone who was raised around Western music knows what the last note of "Happy Birthday" or "Row Row Row Your Boat" should be. Even simple folk songs set up clear expectations that certain notes and harmonies will follow others.
But describing the arrangement of notes or harmonies in a piece doesn't explain the mystery of its effect on us any more than describing grammatical categories such as nouns, verbs, and modifiers elucidates an image in Shakespeare. Good listening is a deeper experience than the ability to stick the correct labels on things. The heart as well as the head must be involved. When a memorable performance of a great piece such as Beethoven's Trio in B-flat, Opus 97 (the Archduke), opens our hearts and minds, it challenges us to transcend the limits we may have imposed on who we are, on what we can embrace. Although every great composer would express it differently, this is the high purpose to which music calls us.
But before we can talk concretely about music, some terms are necessary. You may also consult the glossary in the back of the book for any of the terms in italics.
The Language of Music
The most basic property of musical sound is pitch, the highness or lowness of a sound, and an interval is simply the distance between two pitches. Do to re is a small interval, a second; do to sol is a larger interval, a fifth (do, re, mi, fa, solfive). Dynamics refers to the loudness or softness of a pitch. Rhythm refers to tempo and pulse, and to the patterns of long and short musical sounds. Rhythm is also the structural force that organizes the phrases and sections of a composition into a form. Like music, we too are rhythmic creatures, and we live in a natural world of rhythmic cycles. From the time our bodies are rhythmically rocked to sleep as infants to the rockings of sexual excitement, from rock concerts to rocking chairs, regular rhythms put us in order. When we respond to musical rhythm it is often below the waist; the legs and feet naturally want to move to what they hear. Composer Roger Sessions argued that movement is as basic to music as sound.
Melody is the horizontal movement of sounds that conveys the narrative of the music. Following a melody from note to note is like following a road. Some melodies arrive at their destination via few bends or curves, while others twist or turn back on themselves, like the loops of Carmen's sinuous "Habanera." When two or more melodic lines move simultaneously, they create a texture called counterpoint. Bach is the greatest master of this style, also known as polyphony, a reference to its many lines. Because this way of composing can be complex and requires considerable practice, it is known as the learned style. Polyphony has been admired and imitated by composers from Mozart and Beethoven to jazz artists such as Keith Jarrett and John Lewis, who recorded jazz improvisations based on the preludes and fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and Goldberg Variations.
An aria is a song for soloist and orchestra. In the way it isolates and focuses individual feeling, it became the primary expressive form in the opera. Characters can express their separate feelings and yet blend into a musical whole in a duet, trio, quartet, or even a sextet. The simultaneous combination of tones of different pitches and the successive sounding of these combinations is harmony. It can be as simple as singing a third below or above a melody, as we do when harmonizing a camp song or Christmas carol such as "Deck the Halls." When we refer to the harmony of a piece we are talking about its chords, vertical combinations of tones played simultaneously. When Schubert drops from a C major to a C minor chord, he only changes one note (lowering the third by a half-step), yet this change can break our hearts. Most often all the elementsrhythm, melody, harmonyare present at once, and at a speed (tempo) that can range from very slow to galloping.
Timbre refers to the tone color of a voice or instrument, which affects the quality of its sound. Every tone produced by an instrument has a different vibrational pattern, and this gives it a distinctive color. The sound waves a flute produces make smooth, rounded waves on an oscilloscope. A bell or human voice produces more choppy waves that make sharper peaks and valleys. Timbre gives personality and uniqueness to a tone, making the voice of an oboe different from that of Maria Callas.
"Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware it is counting," said Leibniz. But it is what music does with time that interests uswho are always short of time because we don't know how to stop it. Sometimes life resembles a swiftly moving train that slows or sometimes seems to halt only at moments of intense awareness: joy, pain, or boredom. Composers can control the speed of the train. They can shape a phrase so that it seems to disappear into the distance by marking it with a ritardando, to gradually slow down, or a decrescendo, to gradually get softer. A composer may delay the resting place of a cadence, a stopping point, or expand a moment by using trills, two adjacent notes played in quick alternation. The effect of this is to suspend time, as Beethoven does in his last piano sonatas, No. 30, Opus 109, and No. 32, Opus 111. These techniques shape a phrase, giving a string of notes a moving, breathing reality. For the aim of music, whether linked to a religious text or to some other narrative, has always been to stir our feelings in a specific way.
Knowing the period of a compositionBaroque (1600-1750), Classic (1750-1820), or Romantic (1820/ 1830-1900)remakes it easier to predict certain things about its style and structure. These dates are only approximations, but they are a useful rough guide. The relative formality of music in the Baroque and Classic eras reflects the importance given to degree, status, and rules of conduct during those times. By the time of Mozart and Haydn in the Classic period, music had developed a vocabulary of characteristic musical gestures, topics, associated with feelings and affects similar to the subjects used in rhetoric, including joy, hope, despair, yearning, and fear. The measure of a composer's mastery of craft was in being able to compose music that would evoke any emotion. This is an important point: what Mozart was really feeling when he wrote a sad or happy piece was not supposed to get in the way. And this distinguishes the more autobiographical music that began with late Beethoven and continued into the Romantic period from Classic and Baroque music.
Of all musical genres, dances are perhaps the most popular, perhaps because we like music to move us physically as well as emotionally. Suites of dance music were all the rage during Bach's time, and his suites and partitas brought together dances from all over Europe. In the eighteenth century, Mozart and Haydn were still using dance forms, as well as other musical styles---the galant, French overture, German, Italian, learned, military, pastoral, Turkish, and church style. To distinguish these styles requires some training, but an ability to hear broad differences requires only a willingness to listen. Certain instruments are associated with particular genres of music, for example, the use of French and English horns to suggest hunting horns and, by extension, the countryside. Mozart would have been aware of these associations in choosing the instruments for his Rondo for Horn and Orchestra, K. 514.
If you are alert and attentive, you'll pick up differences in style intuitively, the way you appreciate styles of architecture without formal training when you admire a beautiful building for its form and design, for the atmosphere or spirit it creates. You can recognize in a string quartet by Haydn or Mozart, for example, an intelligent conversation between four people with polished, elegant manners; a conversation characterized by the grace, playfulness, and humor of the Classic era. On the other hand, in a quartet by Beethoven the conversation is rife with conflict and differences of opinion, with sudden mood changes and less concern with etiquette. From Beethoven onward, music moved toward greater self-projection. It became more acceptable for an artist to express personal emotions more directly, and sometimes in new forms. Some of Beethoven's late piano sonatas flow organically into one another, without the breaks between movements we've come to expect.
Music is traditional in that it builds on what has come before. If you are a newcomer to classical music you can prepare your ears to hear the patterns in Classic, Romantic, and contemporary music by listening to early eighteenth-century music, such works as Bach's Brandenburg Concerti. Like other compositions from the Baroque period, the musical lines are clearly stated, with repeated patterns and sequences that are easy to pick up. The structure in this music engages the mind, and the Baroque beat and appealing melodies energize the body, making it a natural mood-lifter. Schumann's counterpoint could scarcely exist without the example of Bach, whose music Schumann played every day. And Chopin's piano Preludes, like Bach's keyboard preludes that inspired them, establish and maintain a single mood throughout. Beethoven's ambitious fugues usually come at climactic moments, as at the end of the Piano Sonata No. 31, Opus 110, and the String Quartet, Opus 59, No. 3. It's one way he acknowledges the influence of what he has learned from Bach. A familiarity with Bach and Mozart, who brought together and perfected many musical styles and currents, prepares you to hear what was new (and shocking) in Beethoven and Schumann to ears nursed on Baroque and Classic music. But to say that there was a growing freedom in musical style is not to say that this necessarily led to greater music. We still turn to the music of past masters, as we do to Shakespeare and Rembrandt, for content that doesn't age.
We are fortunate today in having orchestras that can recreate the sounds of Baroque and Classic orchestras, using authentic instruments and performance practices from those eras. Wonderful recordings by orchestras such as the Philharmonia Baroque are available, using instruments that are in some cases quite different from their modern equivalents. Period instruments have more kick and bite; the strings sound more stringy and the reeds more reedy.