"Encounters With Music Through Listener Actions"


Listeners along with composers and performers share a special relationship to music. Composers and performers are the obvious active participates in the music enterprise, an activity experienced with varying degrees of intensity, talent and specialization. Listening to music, as distinct from composing and reproducing it, is also subject to specialization, especially for those ready for some new musical encounters.


According to the American composer Aaron Copland listening takes place on three separate levels, or planes. "The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself. That is the sensuous plane. It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it in any way." When music begins to come more into focus, listeners arrive at Copland's second level of listening, the expressive. At the expressive level, music means something or represents something to the listener, perhaps something not musical or something highly emotional. Listening on the expressive plane is done by choice as listeners give meaning to music. "My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music has a certain meaning behind the notes and that meaning behind the notes constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about."

Copland's third level, the purely musical, requires focused listening. How a person reacts to music is almost always based on what is really in the music, the tone colors, the tempos and rhythms, the volume, the melodies, the harmonies and even the structure of the music. If a musical work appears to express happiness, it probably has something in the music that gives you that impression. Music that sounds African, Chinese or Scottish does so with that which is inside the music. To begin to understand the purely musical, listeners have to take actions to think musically through focused listening. The march through the pages of this book progresses toward musical thinking that is an action-based process where listeners take actions, listener actions.


Listener actions are actions that listeners take while listening, in preparation for listening or as follow-up to listening. Each listener action is a deliberate behavior in learning specific to music. You saw above that Copland's first level of listening, the sensuous, is actually hearing music without considering it in any way—not a deliberate listening behavior, although hearing music even on the sensuous level can have an effect on the listener. In some ways, we have been conditioned to accept music as background to daily activities, to essentially ignore it as it accompanies shopping sprees and favorite films. Film makers and merchants know that even when in the background, music can influence the emotional impact of a scene or your mood while shopping.

Copland's other two levels of listening, the expressive and the purely musical, require deliberate mental activities. How do we learn these mental activities of listening? Perhaps we should first ask, how do we learn any subject? Learning occurs on various levels and/or domains. The cognitive domain is the domain of the intellect. The first part of the cognitive domain is concerned with attaining, understanding and using knowledge. Part One of this book presents that level of learning as Basic Listener Actions, the most fundamental listening behaviors. The second part of the cognitive domain presents higher-order thinking by analysis, synthesis, and concluding with evaluation. Part Two of this book presents that level of learning as Higher-Order Listener Actions. Some writers have suggested that learners who attain higher-order thinking (critical thinking), will take the contents of a course (or book) with them for life. The primary goal of this book is tied to life—a lifetime of listening to music.


Basic Listener Actions are those used in attaining, understanding and using knowledge. The listener actions are performed while listening to sound events, during preparation or as follow-up to listening. The most basic listener action while listening is the action to identify, to recognize and name a sound object or sound event—any object, whether the sounds of raindrops or those of musical instruments. To recognize and/or identify helps listeners prepare to take additional listener actions, to compare for example. If you can recognize the beat, you can then make comparisons relative to the pulse of the music to make other discoveries. A listener may compare each beat of music to gauge the strength given to each beat in order to determine the meter.

In the progression of listener actions, to contrast different sounds comes next. In this listener action at least two different sound objects or sound events are the focus of attention, the sounds of machines with sounds from nature for example. In music listening, we almost always encounter different sounds happening simultaneously, such as the sound of a voice accompanied by instruments or the sounds of electronic and acoustic instruments blended together. Listening to an orchestra is to listen to an ensemble combining similar sounding instruments with instruments of contrasting tone colors and other characteristics, all playing music with elements of unity and variety.

Each of the basic listener actions requires the use of memory, and certainly all of the higher-order listener actions require good auditory memory. To identify thunder or raindrops you do so with the aid of auditory memory. To compare or contrast musical elements requires memory. If hearing a warning sound for the very first time, your memory will provide the stimulus to heed the warning of that sound the next time. In listening to any music the most vital listener action is to remember. To aid memory it is useful to rehearse (repeat) or to relisten. Copland insists that there is one minimum requirement for the music listener, the ability to recognize [and remember] a melody. In this book the word memory or the action to remember will be used as if one process, one listener action, although we know that auditory memory consists of several stages.

During the first stage of memory, fundamental attributes or features of sound are extracted from all the raw sound data that enters through the ears. These mental activities group sounds into separable and understandable units before the features enter into the focus of conscious awareness and short-term memory. Short-term memory is a type of temporary memory that persists for 10-12 seconds maximum, and whose capacity is limited to a few elements or chunks of information. For information to remain in short-term memory and progress to long-term memory, it has to be recycled through a process of deliberate rehearsal. Listeners decide the information to rehearse. Replaying (rehearsing) something in your mind or actually relistening to sound events stands a chance of enhancing your permanent memory of such events and your perception of important features of music. Replaying sound events in your mind is to auralize.

During actual listening we generally replay sound events of the immediate past while listening in the present. To perceive rhythmic elements, tempo and meter for example, we listen while comparing sounds to sounds that have already occurred—sound events available only in memory. The memory necessary for listening takes two basic forms, recognition and re-call. To recognize a melody or the sound of an instrument, the listener matches incoming information with that already in memory. Listeners can recognize any number of musical attributes, plus similarities and differences between attributes such as timbre, dynamics, or aspects of rhythm.

Recall is the second and more advanced form of memory for listening. To recall is to reproduce. To recall a melody is to bring it to mind for any number of uses, perhaps to actually reproduce the melody on a piano or simply to compare it to something being performed at that time. Hearing the name of a song may elicit recall of that song, or perhaps other cues will be needed to trigger the recall. A few notes of a melody may provide the cue to recall the complete melody. On a daily basis we remember an enormous amount of information, some of it sound information that we recognize or recall--to remember is central to all music listening.

In Part Two of this book, a person's ability to remember will be challenged the most, simply because the time-frame for listening will greatly exceed the normal capacity of short-term memory. "Patterns and relationships between events on a time scale larger than that of short-term memory must be handled by long-term memory." Composers provide aids to listeners to handle music on a time scale larger than the capacity of short-term memory through grouping and repetition of musical information--melodies, phrases or motives. This is akin to grouping as an aid to remember all sorts of information, from phone numbers to the beats that make-up a unit of time.

The basic listener actions are useful for the acquisition of knowledge—attaining, understanding and using knowledge, the first part of the cognitive domain. Some listener actions are specific to listening, while others may be more appropriate for preparation or as follow-up to listening. The examples below are suggestive of uses for specific listener actions. Other uses of these actions and additional listener actions are possible.


The learning skills associated with higher-order thinking are analysis, synthesis and evaluation. With analysis the challenge for the listener is first to recognize or identify the parts of a musical work before being able to assemble in the mind's ear the planned structure of a melody, development of melodies, or the plan of a large section of music. "Underlying all aspects of analysis as an activity is the fundamental point of contact between the mind and the musical sound, namely musical perception." Through musical perception aided by analysis—a process using all the basic listener actions—listeners will learn to analyze music while remaining focused over longer periods of time.

With synthesis, listeners fuse together all that has come before from readings, from research, from analysis and from listening experiences to synthesize for meaning. It is with synthesis that individual learners construct personal understanding—understanding of musical style or a compositio's historical significance. Just as the synthesizer synthesizes information processed through thousands of electronic circuits to generate and modify the raw materials of sound, listeners synthesize to create meaning from a great diversity of information.

All the experiences of this book will contribute to one last higher-order listener action, evaluation. To evaluate, or judge, is an action to de-termine the quality of a musical work or musical performance using a pre-determined set of criteria and potentially all the other listener actions. In higher-order listening/thinking, learners combine listener actions to create meaning. Higher-order listener actions may challenge listeners, but challenge is a hallmark of teaching and learning as learners, learner/listeners in this case, grapple with ideas (and sounds).


Another of the overlapping domains of learning is the affective domain, the domain of emotional connections, of feelings, values or the degree of appreciation of a subject. Appreciation of music can occur as a result of emotional connections and/or through the more cognitive approaches, the listener actions. The listener actions, thinking musically and thinking about music are the subjects for this book, while feelings accom-pany all encounters with music. In the various domains of learning listeners utilize the three basic functions of the mind, thinking (the cognitive), feelings (the affective) and one last and important function, decision making. How you think and what you feel will certainly influence your future listening decisions.

Tim Cordell: Formatted for this responsive website on 20 March 2014.