The direction to listen to music can mean different things to different people. To a music educator, listening to music usually involves giving attention to recorded music being played or to music being performed live, and also involves listening with a stated purpose. For example, a class might be asked to listen for a singer’s use of his or her voice to convey an expressive intent. Or the listeners might be listening for how the second chorus in a song is different from the first. This is a level of listening that many students are not accustomed to, and infrequently practice on their own. Students, particularly teens, are much more apt to be “listening” to music while they are doing other things, including conversing or doing homework. With this type of listening, the student is enjoying the music, but remains unaware of many musical details that are present but unnoticed.
The result of this disparity in what listening to music means, students often need to be taught how to listen to music before they can successfully respond to and connect with music in a music classroom. This can be challenging, because many students are content with the way they listen to music in the background, and are resistant to promoting music to the foreground for deeper learning. As I frequently do, I like to approach this from the perspective of language and then transpose concepts to music.
At the very core of listening to anything, is the idea that something being listened to conveys meaning. Whether it is the sound of the wind conveying that it will be necessary to wear a jacket outdoors, a reminder from someone, or the melody of a symphony or the lyrics of a song, whatever is being listened to has meaning there for the taking. In order to take the meaning, one first must give their attention to that to which they are listening; otherwise, the meaning will “go in one ear and out the other.” The first step is “give attention.”
The next step is to “take meaning.” Given that all sounds have meaning, everything that is heard can be understood. Of course, it is not necessary or even advisable to give full attention to every sound. Many times, simple awareness is enough to know I am not in danger, and there is nothing I need to know or be concerned with in what I am hearing. The sound of chairs being dragged on the floor in the classroom above mine minutes before the end of a class period is an example. Those rumblings, while they have meaning (students are dragging their chairs and preparing to pass to their next class), they are not the product of expressive intent. The students up there are not trying to convey any meaning to me–in fact, they are not even aware that I m hearing their rumblings. From this, we realize that we should prioritize sounds that we know have expressive intent. This includes spoken words and music.
The third and final step is threefold: to think about or consider that to which the student has listened, to connect it to other things he or she knows, knows about, and remembers from listening, and then to make a response. This is perhaps the most challenging step. People get so used to a particular kind of music, and to enjoying the rhythm, or groove, or sound of a singer’s voice, that they just stay in the moment and don’t make connections or thoughtful responses. There is nothing wrong with being in the moment with one’s music, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying music without making an intellectual exercise out of it. But there is more enjoyment and more to take out of the moment when the listener makes him or herself part of the music making process. An expressive intent is just that, an intent, until that which was intended is accomplished. For an expressive intent to become an expressive accomplishment, the listener must understand what the performer has done with the song; how musical elements have been utilized in an expressive way, and what has actually been expressed. An expressive accomplishment is a visceral musical experience. Music listening that is grounded in expressive accomplishment, which is understanding an interpretation, is the type that music educators want to take place in their classrooms. From the perspective of interpretation, students can explore, discover and come to enjoy a much broader range of musical genres. Once they understand that all music expresses something, then they can listen to music purposefully–the purpose being to understand what is being expressed through interpretation. Comparisons of an interpretation of a violin sonata with that of Adele’s “Hello” can be made, and the violin sonata can be understood in terms of the similarities in interpretation, though the musical styles are quite different. Connections can them be made with different people in different places and times intending to express the same thing through very different kinds of music. By pursuing this line of learning, students will see that music that appeared to be very different, is really very similar when differences in people, places and times is understood and taken into account.