A Musical Listening Education

July 27, 2010 at 4:27 PM

I had run across an article online about musical education and it posed the question “Shouldn’t there be a list of pieces and composers that one must know in priority to others?” The goal was to build an aural vocabulary of music listening. The author claimed that there in fact was such a list and offered his suggestion of what such a list might look like.

I find these lists are always suspect to some degree. If you attempt to be comprehensive, you overwhelm your audience and your guide becomes merely a catalog. When you narrow down you tend to previledge a particular point of view. This is generally good as long as we recognize there can be other, equally valid, approaches.

That said, I was still a bit shocked by the list that he had put together. It included many delightful and important works to be sure but struck me as more of a list for relaxed listening and less of a list for study or education. The emphasis was on works that are largely tuneful and accessible. The lists I imagined for “ear-training” had a tendency to emphasize technical problems like compositional structure, approaches to “harmony” or performance practice and technique.

Yet in some ways it was also a pleasant surprise as it called into question some of my basic assumptions about what music is. It is often easy to get lost in the particulars and loose a sense of the larger picture.

Regardless of his particular list, should there be a list as well of pieces and composers that one must know in priority to others? I think we may have to accept that the answer is no, there is no one list of priority. What makes music performance so wonderful and diverse is that there are so many pathways to each piece and each one brings their own different set of ideas and assumptions. A “classical” musical education would study Mozart and Beethoven before attempting a Liszt piano concerto. And that education would probably lead to specific tendencies or approaches to that concerto. But one could also approach it from a Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky background and this would lead to a different way of hearing and playing the same work.

I always thought of Dallapiccola’s Quaderno musicale di Annalibera as coming out of the tradition of Schoenberg. But I once heard a performance by a pianist who thought of it in terms of Debussy. It was a very different performance from what I expected and led to new ways of listening to and thinking about the work. I once recommended a piece by Anton Webern to Christopher Hogwood knowing that he was not always fond of twentieth century works but frequently had to perform them. I thought his understanding of baroque forms and counterpoint would be a good foundation for approaching this work and his performance was original and exciting.


~ by severalfourmany on July 27, 2010.

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