We value a musician’s completed compositions, technical virtuosity, or the ability of a performer to express emotion. But what about the value of listening?
It may seem obvious to say that listening is an important skill in being a musician. But listening is not just about hearing, as can be learned from Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish Percussionist. In her 2015 “Hearing Essay,” she argues that her profound deafness does not mean she cannot hear; just that she hears differently.1 What I take from her essay is an even further claim that music is not really as much about hearing as it is about listening. A percussionist such as Glennie, or any other musician, doesn’t need to have ears capable of hearing in terms of receiving a particular dosage of sound input, as much as they need to be able to listen for the relationships between pitches and rhythms. Listening, though we may sometimes colloquially describe it as passive, is an active process because of how it unfolds in time. When it comes to playing music, a musician must be able to listen for things like how sounds interact spatially and temporally and how the music would be perceived by different people, and the listening mechanism in a musician’s brain is thus quite complicated. There are also differences in what that listening prioritizes based on whether a person is privately practicing or publicly performing, and even depending on what type of practice/performance is occurring.
As musicians do, in this essay I will begin with practice. When I practice piano, I begin with Hanons, or finger exercises. They are relatively simple patterns of movement which move up and down two octaves in order to strengthen my fingers and get them used to possibly strange physical maneuvers. When doing these exercises, I am listening of course for whether I have played the correct patterns, but also for things like whether both of my hands are in exact rhythmic unison, how much enunciation I put on each note, and the overall volume. Eventually, I move on to practice a real piece, which involves listening for even more aspects of the sound. These include the balance in volume between the two hands, the tempo, and the emotional expression. A piece I have been working on lately is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I decided to learn this piece because I appreciate how distinct but connected each of the movements are, and though I may not be skilled enough to ever perfect the third movement, the country is just beginning months of quarantine, so I have never before had so much time to try.
One of the most important parts of practice is repetition. You must play the piece over and over again, making sure each time that you are repeating it correctly. Repetitively playing a piece wrong will only cement the bad habit, so you must be on your guard to make sure the practice is always making progress. So, while practicing a piece or a specific phrase, a musician is not merely repeating the physical actions, but actively listening to make sure they pick up on any mistakes they might make and correct them. You cannot allow yourself to get bored with a piece, or fall into mindless reiteration, because muscle memory will only get you so far.
When I first attempted to learn the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata, I knew that repetition would be key more than ever. The movement begins with an auditory jump-scare into rapid arpeggiations across four octaves at such a high tempo that I am not sure I will ever be able to play it up to speed. To start, I decided to take only the first six measures and work on memorizing the notes, which is luckily quite easy as they are just three chords put into different inversions. It begins in the right hand with G#-C#-E, then C#-E-G#, then E-G#-C#, repeating the three notes each time just beginning one higher in the sequence.2 It then jumps back and begins the ascent again with a different three-note combination, or triad. This is not too complicated theoretically, but when trying to play at the intended speed, lactic acid fills my fingers and panic over switching between triads fills my mind. So as to not immediately jump into the deep end, I set a metronome at only about a quarter the intended final tempo and got to work. Even though my starting speed felt much too easy, I forced myself to listen intently to the click of the metronome to make sure I was pressing my fingers down exactly along with it, because playing the rhythms correctly and consistently is more important than playing it quickly. Once I can play this small section all the way through with no mistakes three times in a row, I allow myself to move the metronome up two clicks. There is repetition on the scale of the ascending arpeggios themselves, of playing them until I am in the habit of doing them correctly, and of raising the tempo and beginning the process again. My first day with the piece I did this for about an hour and a half, at which point I felt like I had sufficiently drilled the six measures into my brain (unfortunately for my sister, the incessant noise had been drilling into her skull as well).
No matter if it is in a practice or performance setting, any person’s interaction with music would not be possible without certain mental interactions with the spectrum of time. Repetition is of course time-related, but another aspect of temporal listening is that a musician has to at once be listening in the past, present, and future. Listening in the present is the most obvious, but the others may be even more important. One static pitch does not sound musically beautiful. It is the variation, contrast, and fulfillment or subversion of expectations that make up a musical experience. If we are entirely focused on the present moment, then no progression can exist. We must be able to hold what has happened so far in the music in our minds so that we are aware of repetition or change and can follow the musical story being told. This is what is meant by listening in the past. Conversely, all musical listeners but especially musicians must also be able to listen ahead. The musician must at all times be hearing what they are currently playing and anticipating what they will be playing next. It is an impressive feat of what one could call the mind’s ear to be able to listen in different times simultaneously, and a necessary skill.
Let us move on to a more social side of things, considering who is involved in musical listening. In the case of practice, there should be great quality of listening from the musician, though there is not as much quantity when it comes to auditors. Most of the time, musicians practice on their own and in private. This allows for less distraction. Unfortunately, this is not possible for me as I practice on an upright piano in my family’s living room during the Coronavirus quarantine. I automatically have a small set of spectators. My mother loves to listen to me play, and even posted on Facebook about how nice it is to read her book with my practice as an accompaniment. She hears my music as background sonic entertainment. My brother does the same in his own way, like when his friends could hear me on the piano through his gaming headset and requested that I play the Minecraft soundtrack in real life while they play the game (I obliged, as the soundtrack is quite minimalistic and honestly very soothing). My sister has a much different reaction; she prefers to not have to listen to my practice at all. I get yelled at and complained about almost every time I play, so in her case, the music is an intrusion on her mental space. Then there is my father, who does not even usually notice I am playing unless it gets loud enough to interrupt his phone calls. And lastly, there are my dogs, who like to nap by my feet while I rehearse, sometimes barking at me if I play extremely low or high notes too aggressively. In any case, we should still assume though that the norm is for a musician to be fairly isolated during practice.
With public performance, on the other hand, there is a much higher quantity and different type of listening. The audience, whatever size it may be, are present on purpose to hear the piece played in its entirety, and played correctly. While a musician is listening for any mistakes, an audience member is more listening for a lack of them. And to use the phrase “listening for” in a more specific way than usual, something that happens when a musician gives a performance is that they listen for (on behalf of) their audience. The musician wants to be aware of how the music sounds to the audience, since in a performance setting the goal is for them to be pleased. They want to put out the best product possible, and the audience is the judge of that. In a performance or concert, at least in the typical Western sense as I am discussing, the music being played is an exchanging of goods. The audience is the customer in this exchange, the consumer of the music. So, in contrast, the audience generally is only required to listen for themselves. Their role is to judge whether the music is worth their time and/or money, and also to glean whatever enjoyment they can from the music whether that be in the form of catharsis, awe at a performer’s virtuosity, or another affective influence. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and what I would consider some of the most fulfilling moments in music are when I am practicing or just playing alone, and listening in both of these roles at the same time (what I will refer to as self-spectation).
There is also a third direction of “listening-for” which I have purposely left separate. This is any listening on behalf of the composer that a musician may do. My dedication to correctness when practicing Moonlight Sonata is arguably a dedication to respect Beethoven’s artistic vision, and so I would be listening to make sure I am playing the piece how he would have wanted to hear it played. However, performers sometimes take artistic license here;I performed the first movement of Moonlight Sonata at my high school’s senior concert, and I chose to play it at a much slower tempo than Beethoven had designated because I thought it more suited the piece. This composer-oriented type of listening is less ubiquitous than audience-oriented or internally focused listening, and it’s on these latter two that I will continue to focus.
Moonlight Sonata is a gorgeous piece, relatively simple but technically impressive, and emotionally moving, as Beethoven does so well. This is perhaps why I enjoy practicing it so much, because it is enjoyable to listen to as well as play. My ears would happily be inundated by Beethoven for hours, even if it is just the first six measures of the third movement. But to really explore this idea of listening from outside oneself, what I call “self-spectation,” I am instead going to look at a different kind of practice than I have discussed previously.
As opposed to rehearsing a specific prewritten piece of music, there is the type of practice that is just spending time with the instrument and exploring what it can do musically. I find this a fulfilling way to both gain experience and use the instrument to freely express my emotions. So, I will often just sit down at my piano and begin playing whatever I feel like. In such a situation, I lose almost all correctness-oriented listening. Whereas in a performance (of Moonlight, for example), I would be a middleman from the brain that wrote the music to an audience far removed by space and time, I now embody every step of the process. I am playing for an audience, but the audience is only myself.
In these sessions I may pull from another piece as a source of inspiration, but often I just choose a chord and go from there. I play around inside the chord with different rhythms, slowly bringing other notes in. And when I start to hear in my head an auditory anticipation of a related chord, I move to that one. I find that unintentionally I usually end up delving into more and more dissonant note combinations throughout the improvisational session. In this way my senses of listening physically and emotionally now seem to be heightened. I become more in tune with the sound as vibrations, and as I get older, I tend to find dissonance to be more musically interesting than consonance. There is much more tension between the frequencies, and I lean into it. I sometimes end up with a cluster of notes that resonates in a particularly satisfying way, and I just linger on it. I hold down the sustain pedal, physically lean in closer to increase my haptic connection with the instrument, and keep repeating the chord or short pattern. I revel in it, slowly feeling my way through and picking apart the relationships between the notes until my Western perception of it being “dissonant” falls away. I am reminded of it, though, when my sister screams down to me to stop playing “weird” notes so loudly, and I am told to “at least play something that sounds good.”
One day in high school, my friends and I were playing around on the piano in the orchestra classroom while waiting for a rehearsal to begin. We were all quite tired, and we had a habit of napping on the classroom’s chairs or even sometimes on the floor. For some reason, I decided to lay down directly underneath the grand piano, and I was mesmerized by what I heard. The music was so loud I was sure it was bad for my hearing, but it resonated through the air and through the floor so that I felt I was listening with my whole body. I immediately got my friends to all try it while I played Ludovico Einaudi’s “Nuvole Bianche,” a beautiful and gradually building contemporary classical piano piece. We became addicted, and from then on, you could frequently catch the strange sight of me sitting at the piano with a friend or two curled up underneath the instrument like a cat. Sadly, I am now out of high school and do not have a grand piano in my home, so this is not something I experience anymore. My piano at home is a Baldwin upright that spent decades at my grandparents’ friends’ house in Westchester before being gifted to me when they moved away. It is old and worn, though I have to say I like it that way. The slightly dampened, almost imperceptibly out-of-tune sound gives the instrument character. And at this moment, as I am quarantined to my house, I have plenty of time to spend with it.
Throughout all my time playing piano, it has become increasingly clear how integral the physicality of sounds can be in a musical experience. The dissonance of the music I improvise or the imperfectness of my old upright are more emotionally fulfilling than practicing scales on my digital keyboard (and I would love it if I also still had the choice of a grand piano). And while I play, I let myself focus on the music from an outside point of view, feeling more like I am just a conductor from the instrument to the air as opposed to intellectually composing new music. Listening as a self-spectator is so enjoyable because I can sit within sounds that appeal to me while losing the stressful responsibility of “correctly” playing a composed piece but still being comfortably in control the whole time. Of course, in all this I am not making any claims in relation to professional improvisation such as within jazz musical performance, only observations on my own personal musical habits which are very different and much less technical.
With music, the highest value tends to be placed upon completed compositions, or technical virtuosity, or the ability of a performer to express such emotion as to change an audience’s affective state. But we do not often talk about the value of listening. This may not be an intentional devaluation of the importance of listening, only that we take it so much for granted that we don’t acknowledge how much skill is truly involved. Whether in practice or performance, not only hearing but focused audiation must be involved. Musicians listen with their ears, their minds and their bodies, and they listen-for as much as they listen-to. They listen for what a piece is supposed to sound like and work to achieve it. They listen for the vertical and horizontal music relationships, meaning they listen along the scales of pitch and of time. They listen for (on behalf of) the audience, perhaps they listen for the composer, and if they are lucky they also listen for themselves.
- Evelyn Glennie, “Hearing Essay,” Evelyn Glennie: Teach the World to Listen, January 1, 2015.
- Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata quasi una Fantasia, Op. 27, No.2, Moonlight Sonata (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1986).