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.
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..