Discover more from Musically Speaking
A Foreign Language Audiobook in the Background
Some Thoughts on Active & Passive Music Listening
As a music & choir teacher, I get asked occasionally about what music children should listen to as part of their studies in school and at home. I am often reluctant to give specific musical examples because, in our day, music is a background activity more than a foreground focus. It is so commonplace to regard music in the background, and it likely seems somewhat silly that I am even bringing this up.
If you think about it, there are few quiet spaces in our lives and culture. There is background noise in the form of music or “muzak,” you might say. Elevators, shopping centers, and gas pumps all seemingly have music or musical ads playing non-stop. In fact, when a movie like No Country for Old Men (2007) is released with no soundtrack or musical background, it stands out. We are not used to silence. Music has become background noise increasingly, because most people are not trained to skillfully sing, read, and write music—also known as music literacy.
Thanks for reading Musically Speaking! Subscribe for free to receive new posts in your email inbox or the Substack App. Remember, the Substack App will even let you listen to these Musically Speaking posts.
More Than Background
Music should not be merely a background decoration that passively helps the brainpower of our students as they are doing their homework or playing with their toys, especially if those same students are not being given the training in music for that to take hold and be meaningful. At first, playing good music in the background seems like a good idea. But to someone who is musically illiterate, it is about as useful as putting a foreign language audiobook on in the background while doing the dishes. Without some additional instruction or effort, the whole activity will be foreign, even if a bit intriguing. If music is a language—and it is; you must possess the ability to understand it in at least a basic way. If not, then its hollow value to us is the ability to say we had good music on in the background while we went about this activity or that one. Of course, a calming piece of music might do good for your toddler's mood while playing in the corner of your living room. Sure, the toddler may not focus on the music, but he may still benefit from its melody and harmony. It’s okay for a toddler. It’s not okay if adults are never trained to listen to music beyond this. Music must move to the foreground of our minds and ears. We must learn to listen actively.
To achieve active listening, we must listen to music’s form and content in a way that engages our minds and body. At first, this might be listening for and identifying the basic components of music, such as pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, timbre, etc. Over time that should expand in listening to more complexities such as listening to the main theme as it reappears in the second movement of a symphony or appreciating the tight harmonies of that folk song. Maybe it is even listening to how the music “Amens” the text of that hymn in a glorious text painting. Active listening needs the mind to be engaged. We should not seek to bypass our minds and only let the music tickle our feelings or the heavy drum beat moves our bodies.
Some so-called music is more rhythm than melody. It is more physical than mental. Certain types of music today seek to move the body, and some might say assault the body. Think of a subwoofer that puts out such a low and loud frequency that the listener is unsure if they are hearing it in their ears or feeling it rattle their teeth, elbows, and maybe down to their toes. You know the kind of sounds in ‘music’ that does this. Much of this music is passive because it seeks more of a physical response instead of a mental one.
We should want a balance of mind and body when listening to music. This can be an everyday activity on the whole. It does not have to be high-strung. Returning to the foreign language audiobook analogy, if we don’t understand the grammar or vocabulary of a language, then we can’t truly listen for the author’s intended meaning or message. All we can hope for is to be able to describe the tone of the voice as it sounds aloud, in gibberish-sounding syllables to our ears. The temptation would be to tune it out or turn it down. This is where music literacy comes into play and can aid in active listening.
Music Literacy That Leads to ‘Music Appreciation’
Often music appreciation classes seek to help people listen. But unless there is an effort to guide them in how to hear the patterns and what instruments and themes to listen to, the work will be tedious and likely frustrating—for both the student and the teacher. The trouble is that music appreciation is a well-meaning activity most of the time. It seems great to teach more about music by familiarizing them with the families of the orchestra and with interesting biographical bits of information from composers and performers throughout music history. Unless students are trained in the language of music, we really cannot expect them to be able to appreciate it with any lasting success.
A Different Way
So, Jarrod, what do you suggest we do instead? If you are a music teacher, look for ways to not just tell people about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his conducting it while being all but deaf. Don’t just play it for them while they are made to sit there passively. Why not give them a sheet with the themes in pictorial representation, if not the score projected on the screen while they listen? I’ve seen this done well by amateurs and professionals alike. Or maybe you could quickly put the themes down in simple short stick rhythm notation and provide them a way to do something that’s actively connected to what they are hearing.Depending on the age and interest of this class, you could make it a game: Touch your nose when you hear the ‘A’ theme. Touch your elbow when you hear this specific rhythm pattern. Maybe your littlest elementary classes could have motions for each of the short art music that engages their wiggle-prone bodies to focus more on the music while they move in ways that reflect the music being heard.
Much could be done regarding active listening to music and rethinking some of the well-meaning things we do in our Fine Arts Survey and Music Appreciation classes. Remember that it is better to teach people to make music than merely to know about it. There is not one singular perfect method to get people to make music. A little bit of joy and creativity will get you on your way. You have to make the goal joyful music literacy, and then you can work out the most appropriate methods to get there. With enough time, we will see students who genuinely appreciate music for the great gift it is, not in the background but in the foreground of their focus and fellowship.