On Listening to Music

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.
Igor Stravinsky
(Hat tip Jantango)

Hearing music is not a skill; listening is.

The single most important reason for systematic musical analysis is to connect at the deepest possible level with music. Once music has been listened to and studied, not merely heard; when a piece of music is known in bar-by-bar detail, one’s responses become richer and deeper. Not only for that specific piece of music, other music too; because the process of active and attentive listening has awakened the ears and mind. Dancers can take that to the milonga floor.

Developing an “Ear” for Listening
Critical and active listening requires familiarity with musical terminology. Terms exist to precisely and objectively define and describe specific musical elements and sound qualities. When terms are known there is a framework for discussion and communication without resorting to flowery adjectives and sentimentality, which abounds on-line. (There are hundreds, probably well into the thousands, of music terms. Wikipedia has a small list – hardly exhaustive – here. Fortunately, we need relatively few to study tango music; maybe 75 or so. I’ve been gradually building the list. Currently there are around 40; there will be more).  

Knowing definitions is the baseline, not the ultimate goal, which is to internalize the sound qualities terms describe. Let me explain by example. I prefer to describe, say an (please popup the definition and follow the link), and let readers hear a few. I might say what the generally accepted sound qualities are and explain why, but I leave it to readers to develop their own feelings and responses. Having heard some – having listened to them – the reader becomes aware of  his or her personal reactions and responses. The next time the word “arpeggio” confronts them, they will have a sound picture in their head. The word now has meaning beyond the verbal description. And arpeggios will be noticed when they occur in the music, even music not previously heard. After listening to music using arpeggios one should be able to recall in the inner ear or sing back the segment at will. (As I wrote that sentence the opening of Donato’s El adiós was running through my head). At a higher level one should be able to create an arpeggio – any one – in the inner ear. Develop this level of comprehension with enough terms and there will come a time when a whole new, profound level of awareness and connection takes place.

Some terms and phrases I frequently use: rising or falling or sideways ; melodic ; rhythms such as the , marcado in four and two; terms such as forte (bold, loud), piano (soft, quiet), , and ; s like , . It is easy to re-create and hear these things in your head, perhaps requiring some practice and experience  to get there. They are quite easy to notice when listening to music.

Other terms like arpeggio, ,  , , ,  , , , etc. are more difficult. But with practice even these become ingrained and entirely possible to hear, both to recall from music previously heard, and to create on the spot in the inner ear. When I write or read “ascending arpeggio on an F sharp minor harmony” I hear it ; same for “descends in a scalar manner” – I hear notes descending down the scale; and for “Perfect Cadence” – I hear a dominant (V7) harmony moving to the tonic (I) harmony. It’s like visualizing, “seeing” a room or a face when a skilled novelist describes them. Learning to hear (and other scale degree) relationships, chord types (major, minor), and chord progressions (I-IV-V-I) is more difficult. But it is entirely possible to know and feel the difference between a major and minor chord, feel the need for the dominant and to move to the tonic,  or run a chord progression through one’s head – musicians do it all the time. I’m stretching the point a bit here, but the more one recognizes specifically what is happening in the music the more one is listening to it. And feeling it.

The above is a far from exhaustive list of terms to deeply know. And I haven’t said anything about , s, , or , or accompaniment. All are vital to the music, and we absolutely need to be aware of them and listen closely for them, but they operate on a larger scale. The terms I used as examples function within and create them.

The goal is to internalize the character and specific musical qualities terms describe; knowing how you have responded to them. When listening or dancing, the connection and emotional responses to the music becomes deep and satisfying. And reading an analysis, rather than being dry, boring, and incomprehensible comes alive and has meaning.

Too often I encounter sentimental, romanticized ramblings about tango music and dancing. Magniloquent musings do nothing for me. Your responses to music are what matter, not mine or any other writer’s. Accordingly, when writing about music I use the language of music to objectively describe musical facts. Flights of fancy and exaggerated prose are not required; musical facts get to the essence. I encourage readers to absorb them, listen and re-listen to the music, connect with it, feel it, react with it, dance with it.

Which brings me to my next planned post – almost ready –  on Section B in Bahia Blanca. (EDIT: the first installment is posted, here. The analysis is in two parts. One a general summary, the other full note-by-note detail). There is far more technical explanation and description than I have gone into in prior posts; the analysis moves bar-by-bar, often note-by-note. This is the level of study I do for every piece of music I absolutely love listening and/or dancing to. (Not that I write it up – I usually make numerous markings on the score, when available, or point-form notes when listening without the music). I find even music to which I am at first indifferent often becomes a favourite after going through the process of attentive listening and detailed systematic analysis. Knowledge changes perception.

 

An arpeggio is a chord (a harmony) that is broken up into individual notes, that is, the notes are heard one at a time in succession, not simultaneously. Arpeggios are frequently heard in the melody and somewhat less in the accompaniment.

More information, music and audio examples are here.

Melodies are a succession of notes moving through time, one at a time. Melody is the proper term for what some some call the "tune".

Melodic shape and melodic rhythm are two factors every melody uses in some way. Melodic shape is the general direction the melody moves in terms of pitch: up, down, sideways. Melodic rhythm is the rhythm(s) applied to the pitches.

Many other elements fall within these two categories. Some are: tessitura, interval spacing (the distance between two notes), the use of arpeggios, chord tones, scales, non-chord tones, syncopation, and many others.

Rhythm is the ordering of sounds and silences on and between a continuous and evenly spaced unit of time, called the beat.

Sounds may or may not have pitch. Many percussion instruments do not have pitch yet function as the rhythm section in most popular forms of music: they create and maintain the beat. (Tango is quite unique in not having a dedicated rhythm section). Musicians call sounds with pitch, notes and silences, rests. A note has both pitch and duration; a rest only duration.

When notes, and possibly rests, of (usually) different duration are combined there is rhythm.

There are usually two layers of rhythm in tango: melodic and accompaniment. More...

Milonga came before tango and its characteristic rhythm was, and is, the Cuban habanera. Early tango's rhythm was based on the habanera also. Soon other syncopated patterns dominated. The 1st variation, the "syncopa" is the most commonly heard syncopated rhythm in tango music. All three versions are used in milonga.

Habanera Variations describes the syncopation and relationship between these patterns.

Dynamics is the volume factor in music. There are two broad categories: a relative volume level which does not change until some marking specifies it does; and a volume that changes gradually or suddenly.

Crescendo means to get louder. See Dynamics for more information.

Decrescendo means to get softer, quieter. See Dynamics for more information.

The way the notes are played and connected to one another: anywhere from gently played to heavily attacked; held for the full duration of the note value or clipped short; smoothly connected to the notes before and after, or continuously separated.

There are many technical terms for these differences, but for tango we mostly need to be aware of two broad kinds of articulation, the extreme ends of the spectrum: a connected legato, which often creates a lyrical quality, and an accented, clipped short marcato. Generally, the strings and singers have a legato articulation, while the bandoneons have a marcato one.

Legato is Italian for tied together, meaning the notes are played in a connected way; there is no separation or space between them. Legato playing is part of the quality of lyricism, that is lyrical music.

Marcato is Italian for marked, meaning the notes are to be accented and emphasized. In tango the notes are also played clipped or cut shorter than the note value as written. That is called staccato. The performance style, the articulation, combines marcato and staccato. And that gives the music a crisp and bold character. When I use the term marcato those are the qualities I mean.

Tango uses marcato style playing very often, especially in the accompanying instruments, frequently the bandoneons but others as well.

When a melody or segment of music moves mostly in step-wise fashion using notes of the underlying scale. A scalar melody uses both chord and non-chord tones, compared to an arpeggio which uses only chord tones.

Scalar and arpeggiated melodies have distinctly different sound qualities. Composers blend the two together to create melodies of vastly different and varying character.

Music examples are here.

Texture is the overall "size" or "weight" of the musical sound, using descriptive terms such as "large", "thick", "full", or "thin", "sparse" or "light".

Many musical elements contribute to texture, including: the way notes in the harmonies are spread out into different octaves and instruments; whether different instrumental sections (strings, bandoneons, piano, bass) are playing simultaneously or alone; whether the sections are playing in unison (the same notes) or in harmony (playing chords).

More information and audio examples are available, here.

The tonic is the first note, or scale degree, in the Western diatonic scale system, and is indicated by the Roman numeral I. It is the primary and foundational note in the scale.

Tango music most often begins on and ends phrases and/or sections on the tonic harmony; the chord built on the first note in the scale, which is a major chord in a major key and a minor chord in a minor key.

See Scales, Keys, and Key Signatures and Harmony for more information about scale degrees and their function.

The dominant is the fifth note, or scale degree, in the Western diatonic scale system, and is indicated by the Roman numeral V. It is next in importance to the tonic (I).

The dominant note creates instability and tension, and the harmony built upon it, a major (or major-minor 7th) chord, most often resolves by moving to the tonic.

Tango music usually ends phrases and/or sections by moving to the dominant harmony then resolving to the tonic.

See Scales, Keys, and Key Signatures and Harmony for more information about scale degrees and their function.

A cadence occurs when the music comes to a pause, a resting point, a complete stop, or resolution of tension. It is achieved by a few specific harmonic progressions. Often there is a rhythmic change which helps create the sense of pause or resolution.

The most obvious cadences happen at the end of phrases and sections, and almost certainly at the very end, where the harmonies move from I-V(7)-I.

More information about harmonies and cadences is available on the Harmony page.

Harmonic rhythm is the rate harmonies, or chords, change.

Harmonies may change at a regular pace, for example on the first beat of every bar; that being a slow harmonic rhythm. Or there may be more than one harmony within the bar, a faster harmonic rhythm, or the harmony may last for more than one bar, a very slow harmonic rhythm.

When the harmonic rhythm is slow, changing only on beat one for example, the music feels regular and evenly flowing. When the harmonic rhythm is fast the musical character has more action and movement. Typically during more dramatic moments and at cadences the harmonic rhythm increases.

(The elements of harmony are complex. See Harmony for more detailed explanation with music and audio samples).

A harmonic (or chord) progression is a sequence of two or more chord changes, identified by name and type.

Harmonies may change to any other harmony or type, although there are traditional guidelines in their selection based upon the scale and intended function. There are many commonly used progressions. One being tonic (i)- subdominant (iv) - dominant (V#) - tonic (i). In C minor, for example, the harmonies are: c minor - f minor - G major - c minor.

Cadences are standard chord progressions, such as the Perfect Cadence, in c minor: c minor (tonic, i) - G major (dominant major, V#) - c minor (tonic, i).

The harmonic progression largely determines which notes the melody uses and is a primary element in how the music sounds and effects us. Typically, to achieve a consonant sound, the melody primarily uses chord tones, ie. notes in the chord. Melodies which sound dissonant use more non-chord tones. Very generally speaking.

(The elements of harmony are complex. See Harmony for more detailed explanation with music and audio samples).

Tessitura is a term used to describe two things, both concerning pitches in a melody or portion of music. One aspect specifically describes the pitch range, for example from the lowest to highest note in a melody. The other aspect is the music's overall pitch level, its register, such as mostly low sounding notes or mostly high sounding notes.

For more information and audio examples, click here.

The tonic is the first note, or scale degree, in the Western diatonic scale system, and is indicated by the Roman numeral I. It is the primary and foundational note in the scale.

Tango music most often begins on and ends phrases and/or sections on the tonic harmony; the chord built on the first note in the scale, which is a major chord in a major key and a minor chord in a minor key.

See Scales, Keys, and Key Signatures and Harmony for more information about scale degrees and their function.

The dominant is the fifth note, or scale degree, in the Western diatonic scale system, and is indicated by the Roman numeral V. It is next in importance to the tonic (I).

The dominant note creates instability and tension, and the harmony built upon it, a major (or major-minor 7th) chord, most often resolves by moving to the tonic.

Tango music usually ends phrases and/or sections by moving to the dominant harmony then resolving to the tonic.

See Scales, Keys, and Key Signatures and Harmony for more information about scale degrees and their function.

The leading tone is the seventh note, or scale degree in the Western diatonic scale system. It is indicated by the Roman Numeral VII.

The leading tone usually "leads" to the tonic (I) note and the harmony built on it, a diminshed chord, frequently functions as a dominant (V) harmony, creating tension and resolving to the tonic (I)

See Scales, Keys, and Key Signatures and Harmony for more information about scale degrees and their function.

How the music is organized, structured; the number of sections and the way they  are constructed, the number of bars and phrases in each, and the order they are performed. more...

Composers/arrangers make a very conscious decision regarding form. The order sections are heard greatly effects our sensations and responses as listeners and dancers.

A short section of music with a clear start and end quality, with a consistent or complementary musical character. Generally, the character is different from what comes after or precedes it, anywhere from subtly to very obvious. more...

Phrasing is both how the phrase is constructed to accomplish the composer's objectives and how the music is played, that is, interpreted.

Depending on the context, when I write "phrasing" I may be referring to how the music is written in phrases, such as Question and Answer Phrasing, or how the orquesta interprets and shapes the music, or both.   more...

Orchestration or instrumentation is how the instruments are used; which instruments are playing at any given time and what is their function, such as melodic, accompaniment, creating the pulse, linking phrases (fills).

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2 Responses to On Listening to Music

  1. Terry says:

    Knowledge changes perception.. very well stated. That could easily be the title of this artlcle. Well done.

  2. tangomonkey says:

    Thanks Terry. I firmly believe the more one knows about music the more one perceives, and perceiving more opens the doorway to very fulfilling listening and dancing.

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