Observing Music: Going Beyond Aesthetics

2011 Symposium2

When I go to an art museum, I take in the art in one of two ways. If there is a collection of works by the same artist, I like to give each painting a short glance, and get a sense of the mood and tendencies of the artist. I like to speculate on how he or she most liked to make art, what kinds of objects he or she most liked to paint or sculpt, or what he or she most often expressed in his or her work. I am personally more drawn to painting than sculpture, and when I see a painting that looks unusual in composition, I like to move in close to it and observe how the artist made the affects that are drawing my attention. I like to look for the brush strokes, for the thickness of the paint, for any three-dimensional textures that might be on the surface of the painting, and I like to notice what single object in the picture has been set up to be the center of my attention. This sort of viewing takes more time, and depends on my having some knowledge of how art is made; it demands that I invest more effort into experiencing the art than to just look and decide whether or not I like the painting and then move on. Visual art lends itself to this kind of experiencing, because works of visual art are always tangible objects sitting or hanging on a wall in front of me. I can take as much or as little time as I want to look, think, enjoy, and connect to what the artist has done.

It is less common to think of music as an object to be experienced intros way, at least for the listening public. While it is true that music theorists and music students taking music theory courses do study musical scores this way, a person who is listening to a musical performance must experience the musical work in real time. The music is constructed in the listener’s memory by grouping what one has just heard with what one is presently hearing, which is constantly changing. Once a note, or chord is heard, it is gone, unavailable for further consideration except as a memory, and replaced by the next sound which is now being heard for a second or less of time. Because of this, the physical properties of music, a listeners experience of a musical work is first experienced, and then considered afterwards. I cannot stand in front of an orchestra and discuss what I am hearing with someone else as I might a work of visual art, because if I do, neither of us will be able to fully comprehend the ongoing music, and even if we could, our conversation would be incomplete because, unlike the work of visual art, we have not yet “seen” (heard) the entire work, so it is impossible to consider all that the composer has done until the whole work has been heard.

In an educational setting where recordings of the music are being used, the teacher can pause the music to consider and discuss motifs, phrases, themes, theme groups, sections, or movements before going on, but whatever is going to be considered must first be heard recite-ccfweland then discussed. This sort of investigating is important. Students should talk through their musical experiences to clarify what their minds have intuitively understood about the music moments after hearing every phrase along the way. For example, anyone who hears the beginning of Beethoven’s 5th symphony will intuitively understand that the first four notes go together, and will hear that 4-note pattern used over and over again. They will also hear tension build as the chords move further on the circle of fifths from the c minor tonic, and relaxation as the chords move toward and then arrive back at that same tonic. They will also hear a contrasting mood when the music switches from minor to major, and will sense the expressive tenderness of the unexpected oboe solo in the midst of an otherwise turbulent musical context. These are the sorts of things students can connect with from observing music.

Notice that what is observed is linked to what is felt, emotionally. I spoke of tension and relaxation, of tenderness and turbulence. Also notice what I did not speak of. I did not mention sonata form, expositions, development sections, and recapitulations. Those things fall under the category of how art is made. They are like studying the kinds of brush strokes and textures I saw on a painter’s canvass. They are good things to know about and to observe, but they are meaningless unless one has first observed the work of art of which they are a part. How absurd it would be to discuss the kind of brush stroke an artist used in a painting without first looking at the painting. How equally absurd it would be to discuss what forms and motifs Beethoven used without first listening to his symphony. Observing music is in part observing ourselves. What are our emotions doing while we listen? What are our bodies doing? How do we move and how are we moved as we listen to the music. Because music acts upon our minds, our emotions, our nervous system, and even our instincts such as when we jump from being startled by a sudden loud chord, or get “goose bumps” when we hear a particularly beautiful melody,  music is embedded into us as we listen to it. That combination of rhythms, beat, harmony, melody, and timbre penetrates our human minds and bodies beyond mere emotions. There is so much going on within us as we listen to music, especially great music, regardless of the style, that we must help students connect their inner most selves to the music that is probing their humanity.

What they can tell us about the music we play for them is at least as important as what we tell them about the music. When they share their observations of the music and especially its affect on them, they are learning something about themselves and their relationship to the music. No amount of music theory or even information about the music or the composer, or the musical form can accomplish that. We can get to all of that later, but first we must allow the students to fully experience the music. Only then will they benefit from learning about the music.

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