Are you listening properly?
How do we listen to music? How should we listen to music?
Analysts have, for as long as there has been analysis, privileged form as the aspect most deserving of attention. In tonal music this means that the return to the home key carries a psychological satisfaction essential to its functioning, and that a successful ending follows from a convincing structural argument.
In research starting in the 1980s Nicholas Cook discovered through a series of experiments that the way music is actually listened to is very different. He describes some of these experiments, carried out on undergraduate musicians, in his 1990 book Music, Imagination & Culture.
In one, a Beethoven Sonata movement is stopped just before its final perfect cadence and subjects were asked how much music remained. Their predictions were anything up to a minute more, even though conventional wisdom would say their sense of the tonal closure made the imminent ending inevitable. When they heard the final chords they realised the movement had ended, suggesting the cadence is more important as a final gesture than as a tonal closure.
Another experiment took a short piece of Liszt and transposed the second half in an unobtrusive way so that the music ends in the wrong key, and played both versions to a number of listeners. If tonal closure were essential to the experience of tonal music, the transposed version should feel unsatisfying and the correct version preferred, but this turned out not to be the case. Even those preferring the original version did not give the sense of closure as their reason.
And these findings are not restricted to tonal music. An experiment using Webern’s Symphony showed the listeners oblivious to sections of repetition and palindrome which would seem to be essential to grasping the symmetrical structure of the music.
Cook concludes there is a ‘glaring disparity between the way in which the arbiters of musical taste approach musical structure and the way in which listeners generally respond to it’. In fact, people usually follow the surface narrative of a piece of music much as they follow the story of a novel, moving from event to event without perceiving, or seeking, a underlying structural Gestalt. And why should anyone deem this ‘listening style’ flawed, or suggest such listening provides an incomplete experience of the music?
So why has form always been so exalted?
My theory is that it is because form is more readily quantifiable, more easily subjected to scientific-style analysis, than other features of music. Form is easily reduced to diagrams, setting out sections and their inter-relationship, just as harmony can be ‘explained’ by numbering notes, drawing balloons around them, extracting important chords.
But what about the surface of the music – the bit most listeners are really following? Surely the nature of the musical gesture, the narrative drama of the music’s ‘plot’, or the quality of the instrumental sound at any point are worthy of analytical attention? Yes, but how? The problem is that an accepted vocabulary or methodology does not really exist for making comparisons and judgments along these lines.
But I know that I enjoy the music I like above all for for the sound it makes in the air, not the patterns it makes on paper.