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What to Listen For in Music by Aaron Copland
As I play piano, I got to know and appreciate classical music from an early age.  Even so, since I never learned music in a professional way, the more complex and less conventional (ala Schoenberg) music pieces often seem to me mysteries which are difficult to decipher. It is very common to hear among laymen concert goers that a musical piece sounded nice but they have no understanding of what went on, what the structure of the piece was and spent most of the listening time day dreaming, enjoying only the sensual part of the music. I would dare to speculate that the majority of concert goers which are non-professional musicians experience just that when listening to classical music.

Aaron Copland attempts to address the need of people that have an inclination to classical music, but lack the tools to properly or fully appreciate it, people that would like to become active listeners, enhancing their understanding and enjoyment of music. Being one of the greatest 20th century classical composers, there is no person more fit for the job.

In concise language, Copland explains first what he believes is required to be able to appreciate music (the ability to memorize a melody, something most of us posses), and the different dimensions by which people listen to music (sensual, expressive and musical), stating his belief that most people rely on the first two, without giving almost any attention to the third important musical dimension, which his book focuses on teaching.

Then Copland goes on to explain the creative process of composing a piece of music, the basic elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony&tone color), musical textures (monophony, homophony&polyphony) and the most common structures that classical composers tend to follow when composing music (sonata, fugue, etc). Finally there are some additional chapters that include discussions on modern music, music’s part in movies and about music in the opera house.

By the end of this very short book the reader can get a better foundation of the elements and structures of which music is made and tools to better understand it. Like Copland mentions, reading a book on music can never replace the repetitive and attentive listening to music pieces, but proper tools can greatly enhance the enjoyment of listening to music, no doubt the most mysterious yet rewarding of art forms.
Books Discussed
What to Listen For in Music
by Aaron Copland

Hi Assaf,

Thank you for this description, it sounds like an interesting book to read. I will just tell here about my experience as a listener. As a child I used to  fall in love with a piece, for a month or two it would be the only thing I would listen to, then to the next one and so on. I was never listening to interpretation (and I must say that at that time I didn’t hear well the differences, I was even listening to some poor performances that enchanted me).  Later when I started to study an instrument, I was only interested in hearing the performance, less the piece - to be bluffed by the “how do they do it”.  You suggesting  to listen to a piece through reading about it and try to analyze separately all the elements that construct it, sounds nice.  Michel de Graph in his post   quotes Schumann saying: “There is something magical about this secret enjoyment of music unheard.”
Hi Assaf, you say that:

"It is very common to hear among laymen concert goers that a musical piece sounded nice but they have no understanding of what went on, what the structure of the piece was and spent most of the listening time day dreaming, enjoying only the sensual part of the music"

Do you think this happens more with listening to music than with other things, like eating at a fancy restaurant? Or looking at beautiful paintings? Just wondered how, exactly, you think music is different, and what makes it that way?
Well, I believe the statement is true to an extent for any art form. Learning to appreciate a renaissance painting by one of the masters certainly requires knowing what to look for, and identifying the intrinsic flavors of a great cake in a 3 star Michelin restaurant definitely requires you to cultivate your taste buds. But with music it’s somewhat different.

In the domains mentioned above, people with curiosity often tend to take the stand that they don’t understand the art, but believe they could learn to appreciate it if they were motivated enough. With classical music, I often get the impression that people feel they not only can’t, but won’t be able to understand it even if they put the required effort into it. You can often hear the “either you have it or either you don’t” statement. 

Why is this? It might be because people think that listening to music should be an immediate experience and the idea of learning to listen to sound forms seems to them counter-intuitive.

As I got older, one of the things that were inspiring for me to discover is that almost any reasonable feat can be achieved by a person with an average talent, if he has enough determination and motivation. More determination can surprisingly compensate on less born talent. I guess that’s one of the greatness of the human being. More or less talent in a certain field will definitely have an effect on the pace of your learning, but if you have a passion for something, your talent level (assuming you are a mature adult) shouldn’t be an obstacle. There is no point in competing with anyone on pursuing something you enjoy. You’ll always be losing to Mozart anyway, if you past the age of eight and haven’t written a symphony.
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