Discovering Classical Music
Discovering Classical Music

Unit 1

Introduction: Critical and Active Listening

girl listening

When people are asked to describe how music affects their lives, many often responded with comments like:
Indeed, music enhances many aspects of our lives and contributes to our surroundings. In fact, music is often used to heighten or augment a person's experience. Film music is an example of how music can contribute to an experience and enhances our lives. It is difficult to imagine how we might relate to a film with the music removed. In the 1930's, the company Muzak began investigating what they called "stimulus progression" and began piping music into factories, banks, and eventually elevators (hence the term "elevator music"). Their goal was to study how music might affect a person's mood or a worker's efficiency. It's worth noting that countless studies have been conducted on the link between listening to music and efficiency, and the generally accepted conclusion made by psychologists is that listening to music does not make you more efficient. Listening to music while you study won't make you study better, and in fact, it distracts you and makes you perform worse. But because listening to music is enjoyable, having music playing while you study simply tricks your brain to make you think you are performing better. If you really want to be more efficient and focused when you study, turn off the music and take frequent breaks that include immersing yourself into your favorite music.

Music, however, can be more than an extra in a movie or background music in a restaurant. Music does not need to be augmented by extra-musical elements such as lighting or pyrotechnics. Instead of investigating music as a contributor to an experience, we will allow music to be the experience by accepting it as its own context. In other words, we must strip away all of the non-musical distractions such as visual elements, celebrities, and marketing to make music the focal point of our listening experience.

Our goal is to transform ourselves from passive listeners to active listeners. In doing so, music becomes more meaningful and truly an integral part of our lives.

Practical Purposes

Music is ubiquitous. It plays many roles in our lives – some of these roles augment our experience as described above, and others serve a practical purpose. For example, music therapists use music to augment medical rehabilitation and services for people with special needs. Psychoacoustics, the study of music and human perception, is another example. There are entire disciplines dedicated to studying how music interacts with us in our lives. Although these are important disciplines, an in-depth study of them is beyond the scope of this text.

good listening

To vs. For

When asked to reflect upon a piece of concert music, the number-one comment novice listeners make is, "that piece would sound good in a movie." Yikes! The main problem with this statement is that it places the musical work in a context where it probably doesn't belong. When a composer writes a symphony,InformationA type of multi-movement composition for orchestra. piano sonata,InformationA work for solo instrument, usually in three movements. Piano sonatas are for piano alone; sonatas for monophonic instruments are usually accompanied by the piano or even an electroacoustic,InformationMusic in which some element was created with electronics. The same as electronic music. work for laptop orchestraInformationEnsembles which perform traditional concert performances yet incorporate computers to create music. a musical context is created. Just as notes and rhythms play an important role in the music, so does this context. This context is an integral part of the composition.InformationA work of music.

Imagining music in other contexts is listening for something that simply isn't there. This type of listening is actually passive listening and not very meaningful. Certainly, we all bring prejudices to the listening table – we all have different listening and life experiences that determine how music affects us; however, a primary goal of an active listener is to be aware of these prejudices. Be sure that you are listening to the music and not for something that isn't present.


Watch Daniel Barenboim illustrate how one piece of music can have a different meaning depending on the observer and why "music can only be explained through sound."

Musicians often joke that music is like religion: everyone has an opinion and none of them are wrong. It is true, of course, to state that you know what music you like, or what you like in music (e.g., "I like music with a steady beat," or "I like music that has meaningful lyrics," or even "I like slow music"). But it is also true to state that you like that which you know. To be an active listener, you must forget what you think you or I know about music and listen with purpose and an open mind.

Developing active listening skills requires us to try to remove some opinion and a lot of ambiguity from our discussion of music. Common mistakes when talking or writing about music include statements like, "this music has a good flow to it." I, for one, have no idea what "flow" means – it's too ambiguous. Instead, strive to be as objective as possible. This doesn't mean that you should completely prohibit yourself from investigating the emotional aspect of music (very subjective), but it should be tempered with objectivity.


One of the best ways to develop active listening skills is to begin a listening journal. The journal is a way of documenting your listening experiences. A journal entry might look like this:

Timeline Example
[introductory paragraph: might include historical background, answer a question for the listening journal assignment, or general overall observations]

[timeline: for example: ]

00:00 strings begin playing softly (piano)

00:15 gradual crescendo begins – percussion is added, texture becomes more dense. Harmony becomes more dissonant.

00:24 sudden drop in volume (subito piano). oboe solo begins – very lyrical with harp accompaniment.

00:30 flute takes over melody. Melody becomes more angular


[closing paragraph]


The best way to start developing active listening skills is to begin listening. Remember, music is the most abstract of all art forms. There is nothing for us to touch, see, smell, or taste. We only have our ears that respond to sound pressure fluctuations in the air. That we can collectively call anything "music" really is amazing!