Approaches to Music Listening

2011Symposium_1_2In a recent discussion on social media, a music teacher asked for suggestions of materials to use in the teaching of listening. While the replies were helpful and born of experience, the kinds of replies were even more interesting. Basically, the answers fell into one of three categories: materials to use with students who listen to and respond to recorded music, materials to use with children who play music on instruments, and materials to use with children who listen to recorded music and then sing the themes of works to which they have listened. Each category of answer addresses a different aspect of listening, each of which is necessary for developing musicianship. Let’s examine all three, and see what benefits are gained by each approach.

Because listening is necessary for every kind of musical activity, there are opportunities to teach music listening anytime music can be heard. A traditional approach to music listening is to use recordings of Western European art music in conjunction with instruction on music history and music theory to develop in students an “appreciation” of a canon of works. Through familiarity with specific pieces and learning about the composers, cultures, and countries that produced them, students gain experience and knowledge that equips them to enjoy this type of music as an informed audience. Students who have received this type of instruction can recognize cultural norms in music, easily remember music they have heard because of their familiarity with those norms, and paraphrase or imitate the style. The essentially same approach may also be used with other genres of music, including traditional music of other countries, jazz, or popular music. The student is expected to learn what to listen for in the music, and to be able to hear it and understand it during the listening experience. Materials for this type of teaching include recordings of representative works from the genres under study, and texts that contain articles about the composers, works and cultures involved. This type of material includes basal music series, and music appreciation sets such as Understanding Music by Jeremy Yudkin. During the course of studying music, students may also be asked to sing the themes of works they have listened to. When students sing themes they are more likely to remember them, which in turn makes them available for deeper analysis, understanding, and enjoyment when the works in which they are present are listened to again.

A second purpose for teaching music listening is to develop musicianship in children as performers of music. While one can listen to music privately, and many do by using devices that play mp3 files, people thrive on listening to music in groups, and interacting not only with the music, but also with each other. Moving, dancing, drumming, shouting, and singing and “talking about” are some of the ways people share a musical experience in real time with each other. In contrast to the concept of silent audience found in Western art music venues, a more active participation by listeners that blursCrowd Listening the line between performers and audience is a more globally common way of experiencing music. Such activity during music is in itself evidence that the music is being listened to, and movement, singing, and describing are evidence that interpreting and understanding are occurring.  When listening to music of cultures where this kind of participation is the norm, students should be encouraged to fully participate. When it comes to listening to popular music this way, they may not need any prompting—it is natural for them to enjoy music this way.

With music that is less from the traditional/folk idiom and more from the Western art music one, a different kind of listening behavior is used. With this music, quiet and still attention to the performers is the norm, and a clear demarcation between performers and audience is maintained. With “classical” music, students learn to quietly listen, but not passively as is sometimes supposed. The listener is active, but in a different way. With art music, the listener is cognitively active, capturing the musical structure, following developments and variations over long time spans, and engaging emotionally if not physically in the emotive and kinesthetically suggestive drives of the music.

So far we have discussed the silent listener and the participating listener. There is a third type of listener, and that is the performer. Unlike the participating listener, the performing listener is not joining someone else’s music making, but is him or herself initiating the musical performance to which others may be invited to join. For this type of teaching, musical instruments are often recommended that include Orff barred instruments, rhythm instruments, recorders, or guitars. One also needs music pieces for the students to analyze, interpret, rehearse and perform. Students learn to play these pieces on instruments with others, and in the process learn the necessity of listening to each other to achieve balance, blend, and unity of interpretation. It is here that students learn to give a part of their individuality over to the group in the interest of contributing to the greater good of the performance. Students learn to listen for cues, tempi, dynamics, timbre, and intonation. They learn how performers express intentions of themselves and of the composers of the music they are playing, and how intentions can be fulfilled or miscarried by different interpretations.  While each of the approaches to teaching music listening is valuable, it is best to incorporate all three in the course of an academic year, taking advantage of the best each has to offer. That is the best approach of all.

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