What to Listen for in Music

Aaron Copland


    "The selections by Copland, taken from his 1957 book What to Listen for in Music, express his belief that one listens to music on several planes-the sensuous, the expressive, and the sheerly musical. After a brief discussion of what constitues each of these planes, he admits that rarely does one listen on only one plane, but rather the astute listener is constantly moving from one plane to another as the musical work unfolds," (Pitman)

      Aaron Copland discusses three levels of listening to music: sensuous, expressive, and sheerly musical. The sensuous level, or plane, is the most basic, but pleasurable level of enjoyment. This level of listening requires the least amount of brain power; therefore we usually engage this level when we use music as background music-to fill the silence in the room. The expressive level requires some concentration, for we can feel some sort of emotion from the music. Copland stresses that we may not be able to specify what we feel, but we know it is there. Then there is the third level, the sheerly musical level. Most people do not reach this level, which consists of "the notes themselves and their manipulation" (216). Professional musicians are quite aware of this level, but so much so that they lose the ability to enjoy it on the sensuous level. These levels are not used seperately; instead all three levels of listening to music contribute to the musical experience. Therefore, it is important that even everyday people become educated about the sheerly musical level. Copland asks all to become more active listeners to music.

      Copland also discusses the creative process among the composers and how it is less of an inspiration phenomena than everyone thinks. Composers start with a theme, or a little melodic line that they like, and then they "hear" an accompaniment, and harmonies. The composition process could also start with a drumbeat or any number of other layers of music. After this, the emotion can be added with different dynamics, tempos, and ornaments. Copland also addresses four types of composers; the spontaneously inspired, the constructive, the traditionalist, and the pioneer. From their variations of the original theme, the composer can build up a full piece using bridge pieces, variations of the original theme, and other patters of embellishment. The final result flows like a story with different parts and emotions.

      There are many connections that can be made from looking deeper at what Copland is saying. When the sensuous and sheerly musical levels of listening to music are discussed the concept of appearance vs. reality can be related. This is because the sensual level is seen as appearance and the musical level is reality. The sensuous level of music is how music can be interpreted and enjoyed and how it makes us feel. The sheerly musical level, however, is what the music and notes actually are. The styles and progressions that are used in the composition cannot be interpretted differently, it is reality. The types of composers that Copland discusses can be related to the types of revolutionary thinkers that have been studied in Inquiry class. Most of these thinkers would be considered as traditionalists because they built off of a concept that was already floating around, they simply improved upon it.

      Copland's overall objective is to get more people to strive towards being a more active listener. He writes that we should be "a more conscious and aware listener-not someone who is just listening, but someone who is listening for something" (pg 217).


Citations from: Inquiry Reader "Inquiry 101 Fall 2003" Tapestry Press, Ltd. 2003


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