modes of listening 8: the contextual mode

As you present your ticket to enter the concert hall, an usher hands you a printed program. In addition to the musical events of the evening and information about the performers, chances are the program will include short essays about the music. These essays will explain the historical and sociological context of the music and the composer(s). You might read things like this:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing and performing at age 5.

George Gershwin built his reputation as a Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composer, before composing his first significant classical work, Rhapsody In Blue, in 1924.

After being awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Sydney, the University of Tartu, the University of Durham, the University of St. Andrews, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and University of Oxford, Arvo Pärt won the Ratzinger Prize, said to be the Nobel Prize in theology.

Dimitri Shostakovich was reported to have composed the 1940 Leningrad Symphony (No. 7) in resistance to Nazi totalitarianism and oppression. But after various fearsome run-ins with Josef Stalin, the symphony may well represent a protest against Stalinist totalitarianism as well.

This sort of narrative information can guide listening towards the expressive elements in the music (emotional, textural, cultural, thematic, etc.) and point towards other modes of listening. As such, the contextual mode is, paradoxically, extra-musical, in that one can appreciate Shostakovitch’s work as a historical and cultural artifact without actually hearing the music, but simply reading the story of its conception, performance, and social responses. This link to a Carnegie Hall performance the the Leningrad gives you a music and a discussion of the context.

modes of listening 7 – the evocative mode

As a young doctor in training, I would staff the emergency psychiatry department at my associated hospital on ‘deep nights’ – the shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. As one might imagine, I encountered human misery of countless varieties, from suicidal youth with activated charcoal-besmirched faces, having had to swallow the stuff to neutralize the poisons they had ingested, to phencyclidine-intoxicated paranoid fighters having been somehow spared from suicide-by-police, to battered women fresh from their latest beating, having not yet reached the ‘honeymoon’ phase when they would go back to their husbands. In spite of all this wretchedness, there was real satisfaction to be had through encountering such pathos and being able to do something, however small, to attenuate their misery. At the same time, I held my own deep sadness at my helplessness in face of such depths of the human condition. I would go home, exhausted, and collapse into bed with all these feelings and the sense that last night I had done something that mattered – sad, glad, satisfied, spiritually awakened.

I left emergency psychiatry duty shortly after my training and into my academic practice of psychiatry. My new wife and I started attending Dallas Symphony concerts, then conducted by the late Eduardo Mata. One of the first we attended presented a piece I had never heard: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, a gorgeous piece of music by any measure. However, my reaction, even within the first minutes, was astounding. This collection of sounds evoked – exactly – that complex of satisfaction, sadness, and spirit that my ER work left me with – having not felt such precise, complex feelings in months and months. This mode of listening – the evocative mode – exemplifies the ineffable qualities of music, to capture nonlinguistic experience – the most complex of emotions and sensations – and recreate them through some miraculous rerouting of neural connections and personal experience. I wanted to revisit those feelings again and again, and purchased the performance of this piece by Sir Neville Marriner which to this day throws me into the selfsame state of thirty years ago.

In describing our music listening, we employ metaphors that imply much about the music as well as how we listen to it, and such metaphors often point to the evocative mode of listening . One can be ‘swept away’ by an opera, be ‘compelled’ by a Bach fugue, ‘transported’ by a symphony, or ‘inspired’ by a march. All musics have such evocative powers, and I would speculate that the range of evocations are both culture-bound as well as personal history-bound as we make those complex connections. Sometimes the musicians intend to evoke non-musical sounds and images, a good example being Claude Debussy’s La Mer symphonic poem on the sea, and what I’ve linked here, the great trio of McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams’ performance of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave. McCoy’s magnificent block chords in the left hand rolls you with massive water, and Tony Williams’ drums provide rhythmic interplay as he supplies images of the cresting and falling of waves and explosions of oceanspray. The evocative mode of listening often emerges when we hear a assemblage of cultural musical tropes which summate to take us to a particular cultural territory. A fine example is Secret Chiefs 3’s piece Personae Halloween  . The namesake tropes here are many: the minor key, the Tubular Bells/Exorcist piano obbligatos, the cello-like low block chords, the fluttery Chiroptera shredding, the dynamics of quiet and explosive returns make for spooky genius. Producers should hire Trey Spruance for film soundtracks!

modes of listening 6: genre

More than any other mode of listening, this one is the most familiar to us; it guides our choices when we are picking a radio/online music station, a CD purchase, a pick from our music collection. Like I get a craving for a taco, I get a hankering for a particular genre of music: swing-era jazz, doo-wop, harmolodics, late-romantic classical; spaghetti western filmscores, etc etc. You get the idea. Genre can be very broad – e.g., classical, jazz, rock, country – or can be granular and provincial, identifiable only by the cognoscenti – think Norwegian death metal, big beat techno, or period-instrument Baroque.

Genre guides our musical choices for a variety of reasons. Genres typically embody particular moods or emotional states – we want to celebrate a positive event, we choose a polka not a requiem. We want to dance, we pick disco not serialism. Often, genre music becomes a soundtrack for life events – wedding music, for example – and we want to revisit genre to reminisce. In this instance, genre listening overlaps with sentimental-mode listening. Genres also embrace complex sociocultural identities – cry-in-your-beer country music attracts one group of people, while Memphis soul attracts another group, even though each genre may be created mere miles apart.

For me, genre listening becomes the most fun as a tool of musical humor, and myriad examples are possible. Consider these two Roxy Music performances of “Remake Remodel”: the first from 1972  in their original incarnation with Brian Eno, and the second a reunion tour about 30 years later. From the beginning the Roxy Music band concept was a genre mashup from appearance to performance. In the 1972 video Bryan Ferry, in ducktail and tux tails, Brian Eno in Mardi Gras feathers and genderbending eyeshadow and mascara, and Andy Mackay with his Boots Randolph-in-extremis sax establish their departure from rock’n’roll as usual. At about the 4:20 point on the timeline, the band engages in trading-fours, itself a jazz convention, mashing-up soul, surf guitar, Morton Subotnick electronica, and with Ferry on electric piano, a banging-out of Cecil Taylor-esque clusters. By 2001 the musical formula was the same, albeit with a slicker, more luxe presentation, less hair, and the introduction of new genre tropes, such as John Barry’s James Bond theme in the trading-fours at the three-minute point. In both cases, fun was had by all.

By the turn of the 21st century, the genre mashup had become its own genre across pop, jazz, and classical music. In the latter, Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)  had already established what he called “polystylism” as a part of his musical vocabulary, where musical periods, styles, and conventions were combined into complex works, such as his Concerto Grosso n.1 from 1976-77 . A like-minded but later contemporary, John Zorn (1953-) established his musical identity in large part through the genre mashup and revisits this motif in an extraordinary and huge body of work continuing into the present. Zorn embraces virtually all genres of music, working within them, stretching them to the outer limits, and recombining them into new concepts, aesthetics, and structures.  An introduction to how Zorn works might be his treatment of Henry Mancini’s theme “A Shot in the Dark” from the Pink Panther film. The Mancini 1964 original, itself a bit of a genre mashup, mixes a wry melody played on the chromatic harmonica, with a surf-guitar riffing accompaniment, interspersed with big-swing big-band punctuations. Zorn’s five-piece band Naked City recorded a version in 1990  which illustrates his humor and some of his techniques. The arrangement is based upon intercutting free-jazz interplay with structured quotations from the original Mancini score. The cut begins with a free improvisation where the band members play with the chord structure, make noises, invert and restate melody and countermelody fragments, culminating in Fred Frith’s ascending picked-bass line, introducing the melody. Accompanied by Wayne Horvitz’ cheesy Farfisa organ, itself a tribute to Mancini’s mid-1960’s period original and pop classics like “96 Tears“, Zorn’s alto saxophone takes up the punctuations, retaining the big swing. Zorn’s solo springs from his own style of swing, bop, squeals and swoops. A group improvisation takes it to the coda and out. Remarkably, such a transformation retains the cocktail-jazz sexiness of the original too!

modes of listening 5: reverie

We do this every day, though perhaps less so with the explosion of smart phone use, where spare moments are spent flipping through dubiously interesting posts on social media. But going into a reverie is what I’m talking about here. Call it daydreaming, call it trance, it can be an altered state of consciousness psychologists call (normal) dissociation, and it enables us to go on auto-pilot in doing repetitive daily activities. For example, you’re driving to work with the radio off, and you’re thinking about what you have to do that day. Before you know it you’re driving up to your parking lot. Perhaps a more disturbing example is ‘highway hypnosis’, which is the experience of not remembering the last 200 miles you drove on a long highway trip. Nevertheless, highway hypnosis is a common example of normal dissociation, and you probably didn’t hit a pedestrian anywhere . . . as long as drugs or alcohol were not involved.

The brain works as a colossal interconnected network of overlapping connections, connections of connections more properly, and the hierarchical organization of the brain enables us to do simple, vegetative things (digest food, breathe) without paying any attention at all, and once habituated into more complex activities like driving a car, many of those activities can be automatic as well, at least as long as the routines are not disrupted. In the latter case, a car running a stop sign in front of you snaps you out of automatic pilot, reverie mode.

Calling this state of consciousness the reverie mode of listening may seem to stretch the concept of ‘listening’, because in this mode of consciousness the music becomes a background, a soundtrack, for the flow of our primary thinking; what is ‘on our mind’ in the moments of primary awareness. Indeed, the reverie mode of listening is characteristic of the experience of music in a compelling movie experience. The viewer becomes taken up in the visual images and narrative action of the film, and the soundtrack, if it’s doing its primary work, recedes into a background which underscores, amplifies, intensifies, and suggests meanings and emotions . You are still ‘listening’ to the soundtrack music, but it calls only secondary attention from your primary attention to images and action. Of course, there are times when the soundtrack music becomes part of the primary narrative action – as in this scene from the film La La Land. Here the music is the primary experience. Amazingly, the music can turn into the background of our consciousness on a dime. That’s the art of the soundtrack composer to move from the reverie background to the foreground dance as the story demands.

For me, the reverie mode of listening is an important creative tool. When you are thinking about a problem or a creative project, reverie breaks your thinking out of the rigid, stereotypic paths, and leads you to new associations, with new connections and perhaps new solutions and novel ideas.

Some genres of music intend to provoke the listener into reverie. Brian Eno was a pioneer of ‘ambient’ music in the 1970’s, and he still explores the genre he help define today not just in his own recordings but in software and apps . Musics around the world invoke reverie with the intent of deepening spiritual experience, from the Master Musicians of Jajouka  to medieval Gregorian chant. The master of contemporary ‘minimalism’ in classical music, Steve Reich, evokes reverie in many of his pieces, with his Music for 18 Musicians , an amazing work where overlapping textures, rhythms, pitches, and meters ebb and flow, rapidly inducing a state of reverie in the receptive listener.

modes of listening 4: the embodied mode

It begins with a walk.  You can try this yourself. If you drag your left foot gently as you step forward, you generate a thump-shup thump-shup thump-shup sound. We call it a shuffle, and in music it’s called a shuffle too. Kid Andersen shows how it’s done on the guitar, Jimmy Reed-style. The bass strings provide the thump-shup and the upper strings provide the ‘talk’. Now he’s a-walkin’ and a talkin’! Shuffles appear on countless variations in all kinds of popular music, as in this example from metal pioneers Blue Őyster Cult. The shuffle can be modified, of course, into myriad variations. This next example shows a polyrhythmic extension of the shuffle in the hands of master soul/jazz drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. Check out his step-by-step lesson here.

Appreciating the shuffle is an example of the embodied mode of listening. “Embodied” means that many musical experiences have their perceptual beginnings in auditory experiences of living in our bodies. In everyday living, we experience all kinds of sounds, most of which are taken for granted, burning themselves through repetition into an auditory subconscious – an auditory subconscious which our brains then call upon when we listen to music with elements which evoke or relate to these bodily perceptual memories. You can likely come up with your own examples – an obvious one being the heartbeat, which lends its pulse to music. It’s no accident that the tempos, or the pulse of music, range typically from 60 to 120 beats per minute– the normal range of speeds of the human heartbeat.  Music, at least in part, is an expression of embodiment – the particular auditory experiences that emerge from the way we are built.

But embodied listening is not confined to pulses and rhythms. Embodiment can be the stuff of melody and harmony. More than any other pop singer, when I listen to Patti Smith, I am reminded of how her slides up and down and round, her whoops, hollers, and snarls, resemble not just other human voices but the style of rock guitar soloing – note-bending, hammering-down, slurs, rakes, the works. Listen to this performance and consider how close her phrasing, attack, and intonations resemble rock and roll guitar playing.

I mentioned harmonies can be embodied. We can perform another little experiment. Find a quiet room with no distractions. Make yourself comfortable and grimace, commanding all your facial muscles to contract, including clenching your teeth and closing your eyelids tightly. Listen to the sounds of your facial muscles contracting at various frequencies, all at once. This is the sound of dissonant harmony in your own head. In ordinary life, it’s the sound of you preparing for an impact, or fighting pain, or the sound of fear mounting. Resembling the sounds of a dissonant string section (or vice versa) film composers in particular use this embodiment trope to heighten tension in scenes involving threatening, suspenseful action. Il Maestro, Ennio Morricone, provides a fine example from his The Untouchables soundtrack, the dark-hallway scene where the Irish cop, played by Sean Connery, is being stalked by the bad guy.

The embodied mode of listening makes for compelling musical experiences, from dance to terror.  Chances are you can’t sit still.

modes of listening 3: the sensual mode

horn courtyard 1988

photo:  John Z. Sadler, New Orleans courtyard, 1988

Often we can recognize a mode of listening by considering the words the listener uses in describing the music or her experience. In writing about music, authors will use ripe adjectives like torrential, sparkling, limpid, hypnotic, crackling, or turgid to mention a few of the countless examples.  Using these adjectives and descriptions root particular musical experiences into the realm of the perceptual and the physical worlds.  For instance, you may have heard listeners refer to an orchestration as ‘lush’. For me, a paradigm example is Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations for Frank Sinatra during his Capital Records era. Less well known, but perhaps even more lush, are the orchestrations by Claus Ogerman, the German arranger, conductor, and composer who recorded broadly with many jazz and pop titans, including Betty Carter, Diana Krall, to Sinatra as well. “Lush” describes a feeling of comfort in the extreme, luxuriant, opulent comfort, and is a fine illustration of the sensual mode of listening. In the sensual mode, we cogitate less and let the music ‘wash’ over us like waves on beach, or the fragrances of a garden, or the warmth of the sun on our faces. My audio example here is this arrangement by Palle Mikkelborg of Dexter Gordon playing the chestnut “More Than You Know”.  When I attend a Dallas Symphony concert in our fabulous Meyerson Symphony Center, my initial mode of response to many pieces is just to soak in the cascade of sounds, immersed in a sublime acoustic.

Not all music in the sensual mode needs to exhibit “lushness’ like in the prior examples. Attending to the sensual elements in a composition or performance may embrace a wide scope of perceptions, as music writers’ adjectives reveal to us. In this piece from the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration on ‘Porgy and Bess’ the orchestration is spare, but the sensuality emerges from the combination of musical elements and the distinctive stylistic voices of the key players on this performance: Davis, drummer Elvin Jones, and Evans as the arranger.  The descending syncopated line in the horns provides the theme, and Jones responds with his own variations all over the kit throughout the performance. His drum fills provide a broad variety of timbres, rhythms, and textures expanding the range of sounds for the listener. His ride cymbal provides a high-frequency shimmer throughout Davis trumpet solo, contrasting dramatically with Davis’ signature Harmon-muted brooding tone. Davis’ dancing short phrases with broad intervals are punctuated by Jones’ rim-snare snaps. For me, the sensuality of the performance is akin to a complex, toothsome dish in a restaurant. Tasty.



modes of listening 2: the sentimental mode


When I was a young boy in the 1950’s and 60’s, my parents, children of the Great Depression, often, perhaps usually, played records from the era of their young adulthood; in their case, the great swing era big bands of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman, midcentury torch songs from Peggy Lee and Lena Horne. They would reminisce about the era, and the music would evoke their own, often romantic, memories, along with the broader social upheavals of World War II and the postwar period. I call this mode of listening the sentimental mode, because in this mode the music is situated in a rich network of narrative and emotional memories.  The sentimental mode provides the soundtrack for the most significant moments in our lives, and its no wonder that we encounter many listeners who are satisfied to listen only to this music, so the nostalgia of the past can be preserved and re-experienced. As one ages with music, the cumulative emotional power of the sentimental mode increases, as one compiles more and more memories through our own loves, families, children, and other significant events. The sentimental mode of listening, being so unique personal and bound up in our biographies, eludes an example which appeals to all of us. On the other hand, we have a word for an excess of the sentimental mode; schmalz, a Yiddish term originally referring to rendered chicken fat. Music that is schmalzy or mawkish is vapidly nostalgic, discouraging listening in the additional modes.

modes of listening 1: the structural mode

Perhaps the most familiar mode of listening by schooled musicians is what I call the structural mode. Here, the listener attends to how the music is put together, including conventional compositional structure in classical music, but also how improvisations in jazz or rock relate to the melody or motif. For example, ‘sonata form’ in classical music a way of structuring the composition into A, a theme and exposition of it, B, a ‘development’ or contrasting theme, and then a recapitulation of the theme, A. So, a simple reference to sonata form is ABA. (After you’re finished reading this, you can listen to Peter Schickele’s amusing commentary on Beethoven’s 5th symphony, first movement, as an example of sonata form. Think music education as sportscaster commentary!  The key words are theme, development, ‘recap’ [recapitulation].) Jazz musicians do a various on the sonata form, where they play a ‘head’, the melody or main theme, then use the melody and harmonic structure of the piece to improvise variations, then return to the head to close out the performance. (A splendid example is John Beasley’s “Caddo Bayou”.) Of course, the structural appreciation of music is not limited to just theme and variation considerations. Musicians pay attention to the use of harmonies, rhythms, timbre (the sound textures of instruments) and many other elements which they learn through their education. What is pleasing about appreciating structure, for me at least, is hearing how the composer/performer plays with the rules, or even, tinkers with the rules.

But the structural mode of listening requires some knowledge, and we all know people can enjoy music without knowing a lick of music theory or having any ability to play an instrument. How do people do this? For me, this is the most interesting aesthetic question of all, and understanding additional modes of listening helps us understand not only our own but others’ reactions to music.

Introducing “Time’s Rapture”

For readers, this blog is about enhancing your enjoyment of music. I hope to enhance yours by sharing what has enhanced mine. The blog will include essays, reviews, topical discussions, but few to no rants. (Rants almost never enhance my enjoyment of anything.)

My musical aesthetic closely mirrors what I think about art. Music and art are better when they can be appreciated in a number of ways. Indeed, the more ways one can listen to and interpret music the ‘better’ the music is. Stated differently, a work of art or music is only as good as the number of modes of experiencing the work can sustain. So a fundamental way I approach listening is to listen in different ‘modes’. Modes are interpretive schemes, ways of listening, ways of thinking what the music is about or how it moves me. What I mean by modes of listening is best illustrated by presenting the modes of listening I have identified. In posts to come, I’ll be describing a series of modes of listening which are the theory for the way I approach writing about music.


John Zell Sadler grew up in a loving family in a small town in the U.S. Midwest. His interest in music appeared as a preschooler when he sang along with TV’s Howdy Doody and Mickey Mouse. Discouraging his singing, his parents provided him piano and Hammond organ lessons at age 7. His teacher, Phyllis Miller, was patient and encouraged his interest in music theory. John practiced intermittently and often spent his time trying to master licks from Booker T Jones, Keith Emerson, and Jimmy Smith instead of learning the second part of the Bach thing (e.g., the fugue). He would distract Mrs. Miller from having John play during his lessons by bringing in records for what she called ‘ear training.’ One of his earliest memories was that an otherwise-somber Mrs. Miller thought Elvis could “really sing.” His impoverished aptitude for playing keyboards was evident by age 15. By this time he had joined his high school marching and jazz bands, and had developed some proficiency on the trombone. He was taught by a then-youthful Allen Horney who was patient and encouraged his interest in music theory. John’s accomplishments on the trombone warranted his placement in third chair in his high school’s jazz big band. When the jazz band’s pianist dropped out, the band director encouraged John to take the piano seat, but he didn’t know that John had since learned he was much better playing one note at a time on the trombone rather than several at once on the piano. Fretfully John refused the piano seat, and was allowed to retain his third chair in the trombone section. The faculty band director, Walter Anslinger, had no clue he was a major influence on the youth through stimulating his interest in jazz, which became a lifetime passion, along with other genres of music. John had made friends with a number of classmates who were rock musicians and were in bands. They allowed him to hang out at their practices, didn’t beat him up, and surprisingly liked to listen to him talk about the latest albums. As a high school junior, his friends had formed a band called “Masterson” (the original!) and allowed him to play Fender Rhodes piano in the band as long as he didn’t turn up the amplifier. During high school John had developed an interest in psychology and began to read philosophy and counterculture screeds from the likes of Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing. He became a professor at a prominent academic medical center, a husband, and a father. Ultimately he ended up becoming a semi-famous psychiatrist and philosopher of psychiatry, authoring and editing various books in the field. Throughout his adult life he dreamed of being a music writer someday. That day arrived with Time’s Rapture..