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.

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