Saturday, February 2, 2013

Judge Me By My Composition, Do You? (Part Three)

Today's post looks at Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music (1957), and grows out of two earlier posts on evaluating and critiquing new compositions:
Some people are better at critiquing compositions than others, and, as discussed in my previous blog, there are undoubtedly different reasons for this.  Some may be related to personality type — some people are by nature more comfortable expressing opinions than others — but it may also be related to not knowing what to listen for.

Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music (1957) proposes that there are three ways (or levels) of listening to music, which he describes as "planes."  Below is a summary, all in Aaron Copland's words:
The Sensuous Plane — "The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself. … It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it in any way. One turns on the radio while doing something else and absentmindedly bathes in the sound. … The surprising thing is that many people who consider themselves qualified music lovers abuse that plane of listening. They go to concerts in order to lose themselves. They use music as a consolation or an escape. … Yes, the sound appeal of music is a potent and primitive force, but you must not allow it to use up a disproportionate share of your interest. The sensuous plane is an important one in music, a very important one, but it does not constitute the whole story. 
The Expressive Plane — "Here, immediately, we tread on controversial ground. Composers have a way of shying away from any discussion of music's expressive side. … But that should not lead one to the other extreme of denying to music the right to be "expressive." My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music has a certain meaning behind the notes and that meaning behind the notes constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about. This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, "is there. a meaning to music?" My answer to that would be, "yes." And "can you state in so many words what the meaning is?" My answer to that would be, "no." Therein lies the difficulty.
The Sheerly Musical Plane — "Besides the pleasurable sound of music and the expressive feeling that it gives off, music does exist in terms of the notes themselves and of their manipulation. Most listeners are not sufficiently conscious of this third plane. Professional musicians, on the other hand, are, if anything, too conscious of the mere notes themselves. They often fall into the error of becoming so engrossed with their arpeggios and staccatos that they forget the deeper aspects of the music they are performing. …  The intelligent listener must be prepared to increase [their] awareness of the musical material and what happens to it. [They] must hear the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies, the tone color in a more conscious fashion. But above all [they] must, in order to follow the line of the composer's thought, know something of the principals of musical form. Listening to all of these elements is listening on the sheerly musical plane."
Perhaps there are other planes than this, or at least sub-planes?

"Functional music" can be considered as a category of music (gebrauchsmusik, in German; learn more here) ; this would include music for marching, dance, exercise, meditation, etc.  This music is not limited to mere functionality, of course; any of these genres can be affective — which may arguably be part of their function — and musically interesting as well (meaning they can stand up to scrutiny on the "sheerly musical plane").

This makes me wonder if we also listen to some music on a primarily functional plane. We may march, dance, or exercise to the beat of the music, which is similar to Copland's "sensuous" plane, except that we are using the musical pulse to guide the pace of our movement. Our primary focus may not be on the "sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself" (Copland), but instead on the activity in which we are engaged (dancing, exercising, etc.); music, in this case, is essentially a tool that helps to get us moving.

Possibly there is also a background plane for music to which we pay little attention; it's just there, in the background, as we drive, shop, eat, clean, etc.  I am for the most part incapable of experiencing music on a background level; if there's music around me, I tend to listen (or rather, it tends to hijack my brain), which can make shopping and dining out a rather unsettling experience.

Copland's assertion that professional musicians are (often) overly concerned with the "sheerly musical plane" — the harmonies, melodic lines, structure, etc. — to the exclusion of the expressive plane is interesting, but this has not been my experience.  I suspect that many musicians would argue that they are intimately and passionately concerned with the expressive side of music when they perform, and that communicating this aspect to the listener is extremely important in preparing for performances.

And even though I love finding out how music works and teach many courses in which the majority of the work we do involves listening on what Copland calls the "sheerly musical" plane, I frequently find my critical faculties turning to mush as I get carried away by a particularly moving work, which presumably means I am listening on sensuous and expressive planes.

In any event, I present this as food for thought.  Returning to the issue of critiquing compositions (both others' and your own), perhaps one way to approach it would be to ask yourself how well the music works on each of these different planes.
  • Does music have to work on more than one of these planes in order to be successful? 
  • Is it valuable to learn to listen on different levels, or to be aware of the plane on which we experience music, at the moment we are listening to it?
  • Are there other listening planes, beyond those suggested by Copland (or myself)? 


Robert Godin said...

When I ask myself "Is it valuable to learn to listen on different levels, or to be aware of the plane on which we experience music, at the moment we are listening to it?" I wonder how our brains actually process these forms of listening. Do we have a set amount of "listening power" that we can allocate to these planes? Can focusing more on one plane interfere with the others? Or can we train ourselves to use all three planes, or more, to try and get the most out of listening? The only answer I can really think of is: listen in which ever way gives you the most satisfaction. For me, I love letting go while listening; it's the only way I can get goose bumps from music.

But what do you do in the case of a premiere you're about to listen to? If the composer is giving a brief discussion about his piece before it's played could his explanation potentially ruin some aspect of the music by turning your attention to certain details rather than the whole?

I always struggle with this question because you only ever get one first listening. So when I'm going to a concert where a there's a piece I haven't heard before, which is often for me, I debate if I should listen to it before hand to help gain a familiarity with the piece or simply go in and enjoy it as it comes. If I listen to it before the concert it might spoil some of the surprises that can be best heard live for the first time. But I might also miss out on a lot without proper listening "preparation", we'll say. And because of the nature of first listenings it's impossible to tell which would yield the most satisfaction. Definitely some interesting ideas and questions in this blog.

Chris Morrison said...

In my opinion music does not need to function on more than one of these planes to be effective. Some listeners may be contempt with music simply in the background, maybe as they study for example. Background music is used in many settings and can simply enhance an experience, from enjoyment to manipulating behavior. Certainly this can be considered successful even though only functioning on the sensuous plane. For some listeners, knowing the level at which you are listening is not required to appreciate music. You may want to listen simply for enjoyment. I would argue that being too concerned about which level at which you are listening can hinder enjoy and distract from the musical experience. It makes no difference if we are aware of the levels as we quite often respond to music on a primal level. You hear it and react, sometimes without even knowing. From a music education perspective, distinguishing the different levels can be a useful tool to identify ways in which to enhance a performance. Perhaps the most successful music draws from all three planes.

Michelle said...

I am often teased by my friends outside of school for being a music student. They insist that studying music must make me some kind of a snob, or that it must ruin the pleasurable aspects of music. (Side note: some friends...) Though I stand by the conviction that completing my B.Mus. has enhanced rather than harmed my appreciation of music, I find it incredibly difficult to listen from the "sensuous plane": much of the mysticism of music is lost on me now. Many of Debussy's beautiful piano works seemed so mysteriously-constructed before, but now I can tell are developed using a whole tone scale and planing.

As for the "expressive plane," I would have to say that I largely agree with both Copland and yourself. I am reminded of Ives' Essays Before a Sonata and other Writings, in which the author explains the influence of Transcendentalist thought (particularly Thoreau and Emerson) on his compositional style. Ives believed that music's primary purpose was the communication of divine or universal truth, and that the technical or virtuosic aspects of music should exist only as a means to convey these truths. While I am not sure how I feel about the subject of a "divine truth," I have to agree with Ives' other thoughts on substance and manner. He believed that the substance of a piece (what he was trying to communicate) was more important than the manner (how he achieved communication), and lamented those composers who abused their ability to write virtuosic music by failing to infuse their compositions with any real substance.

It seems to me that music for manner's sake could be considered "sheerly musical." While most of what I have written could fall into this plane, I don't believe that high art music should be music written for the sake of writing. In the same vein, I don't believe in composing experimental music for the sake of being experimental, but perhaps that's a subject for another blog comment.

Evan Harte said...

I am not exactly sure which plane this fits into, but I have always associated my listening to music with colors. And I don't mean color in the sense of "the flute adds a nice color when it takes over the violin line", but literally colors as in red, yellow, blue, etc. Often when listening to a piece, different chords or notes will often make me think of different colors. In the end, it is usually the pieces that remind me of my favorite colors that I end up liking the most. I have looked this up and I believe it to be called synesthesia. I guess my point is that it probably fits into one of these listening planes you've described. Perhaps, the expressive plane

Mitchell wxhao said...

I am very glad to have come across these planes laid out for me. But is if a composer is going for something that predominantly exists in one of these planes, is that indicative of its worth. Ie., A piece that is just mean to be technically sound regarding the treatment of the material with little thought put into its aesthetic appeal or its expressive quality. I sense that there is a bit of preference expressed, but they seem like equal parameters to me...

Brad said...

Thank you for highlighting Copland's words on this topic. They are definitely something to chew on for a while. I feel that when I write my pieces, I am definitely distracted with the sheer, pleasurable sound of the music itself. However, I do so in a way that considers both the audience (really, the audience stands for if I was in the audience would I like it), and the performers. If the performers love it, they can really sell it as well. That's not to say you should appease at all times, just that it is something I consider when writing.

I also agree to some extent that we listen to music on a functional level. I wouldn't say purely for that reason, but it understandable plays a huge part in why and how a piece is heard.

Duane Andrews said...

My immediate reaction to Copeland's thoughts is that the Sensuous Plane is the most important and that the other two serve it. The fact that even Copeland has difficulty with the concept of the expressive plane makes me wonder if it's worth the trouble of trying to understand it. I feel music has life in it but trying to explicitly explain expression may be counter productive to actually being expressive. I'm realizing my tendencies are to not want to over analyze or intellectualize music though analysis and intellectual understanding are important and this was a good post to read as it made me realize and question my tendencies.