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Encounters with Music through Listener Actions

Tim Cordell


This book is about music and the actions listeners take to enhance encounters with music. It was written with a key objective, to improve the skills of listeners for a lifetime of listening. For most people, encounters with music rest on a foundation of listening—a foundation that can be improved through a set of thinking skills tied to listening. Listener actions, as I call the skills, are actions that listeners take while listening, in preparation for listening, or as follow-up to listening.

Encounters with music rest firmly on a strong foundation of listening and relistening. Have you ever listened to something once, and determined then that you would prefer not to listen to that music again? In music there are few people who could claim to get all that is to be heard in a symphony or sonata, or any music for that matter, with only one encounter with the music. Unfamiliar works may even bewilder listeners. As the works receive more performances and begin to hold the attention of more listeners, the qualities come forth. When Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris it caused a riotous reaction from the audience. When Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La traviata premiered in Venice the critics called it a fiasco. Verdi said: “Traviata, a fiasco? Time will tell.” Over time, now more than 150 years, La traviata has proven its lasting power and greatness, and The Rite of Spring is now considered one of the greatest musical works of the twentieth century—each work is a “classic.”

The conditions for understanding the musical repertoire selected for this book will arise most effectively by focused listening and relistening. One time through, like a premiere, may even get negative criticism, but by the third or fourth time hopefully even the most critical listener will begin to take pleasure in the music, a sure sign of comprehension. With music, at each listening something new within the music comes to our attention, and we are motivated to listen again and to seek additional musical experiences. There are no limits to the number and the kinds of musical works a person can think about through listener actions, and have feelings about as a result of listener actions.

Through the course of study to follow, readers will become soundscape tourists by virtually visiting places of music making, concert halls, theatres and churches from around the world. All this will be possible through the technology of sound recording and playback, and through some excellent online listening resources. It is easy today to get a first-hand acquaintance with large amounts of great music through recordings of incredible fidelity. Each year as technology improves the recording and playback of music, it enables performances from music venues around the world to be captured, preserved and distributed to almost anywhere in the world, better than ever before. I for one treasure many of those recordings, and I continue to seek more. I realize however that listening to the very best recording possible cannot duplicate the experience of a live musical performance. To simulate the performance experience and encourage concert attendance, all but the last chapter ends with a chapter concert. The nine chapter concerts are presented as a series of musical events that parallel the development of the listener actions. The early chapter concerts utilize basic listener actions—to identify, to compare, to contrast, to remember, to extract, to find, to discover, to discuss—while later chapter concerts utilize higher-order listener actions by analysis and synthesis. The last chapter, “Evaluation” has no chapter concert. Readers will have a lifetime to discover and evaluate an incredible diversity of music through both live and recorded performances.

The skills approach of this book foregoes the traditional historical approach, the chronological organization of most music appreciation text-books. Even so, music history has a very important place in the pages to follow. The organization of the book, from chapter topics to chapter concerts, concerns itself with reaching the primary goal—improving the skills of listeners for a lifetime of listening. That goal is tied to a fundamental belief that good listening skills provide pathways to all encounters with music—encounters at live concerts, in discussions after concerts, during private listening, in the library or on the web while seeking additional information about composers, performers, musical instruments, musical elements or music’s rich history.

REASONS TO WRITE MY OWN BOOK FOR USE IN INTRO TO MUSIC (This is not actually published in the book.)

by Tim Cordell

I have been liberated from old methods of teaching by determining the single most important outcome for my section of Intro to Music, a music appreciation course. After reading a book by Ken Bain titled “What the Best College Teachers Do,” I decided to plan my course as Bain suggests, backwards. Simply put, it is useful to plan backwards by determining the single most important objective for a course. Bain would ask: “What is the promise of the course?” My promise to students is that their listening skills will be improved after taking Intro to Music. That outcome is not attached to a standard repertoire, the lives of composers, musical terms or definitions. The course promises to help students, through listening, acquire the powers of the mind necessary to listen to the standard repertoire or other music and to seek information pertaining to music. Encounters with music are based on a strong foundation of listening.

Most music appreciation textbooks take the historical/developmental approach. I do not question the validity of organizing a textbook by historical periods, but I doubt that such an organization in itself helps students (non-music majors especially) become better listeners. Approaching music in a chronological and developmental way is logical and easy for the authors of textbooks and teachers, but is it necessary for students to experience music that way? Does it help them become better listeners and prepare them for a life of listening to music?

There are those who start such an appreciation course, not with Antiquity or the Middle Ages, but a more recent stylistic period, the Romantic Period for example. That approach works for some, but to sum-up, it still is an historical approach. There is even debate about the merits of historical divisions—when did the Romantic Period really begin anyway? That debate will continue, but the fact is, most textbooks take the historical approach, and most even use the same musical examples. Schubert wrote over 600 songs, but find something other than the Erlkönig in a music appreciation textbook and I will be surprised. We have literally ignored 599 other songs of Schubert in favor of one—that seems ridiculous to me.

We who teach students about some of the greatest artistic creations are anything but creative in our approach to teaching basic music appreciation, or even music history. If we are to prepare students to experience the great works (and music as yet unwritten), I believe we need a new approach. Perhaps we as musicians should first consider our own experiences that led us to devote our lives to music and to music teaching. I became interested in music after hearing music, especially jazz and marching band music. My interests spread very rapidly from there to more symphonic works, but I still had not been introduced to any historical perspective or set repertoire. My real passion for music history came decades later after traveling to Venice and other important musical locations, but years after I had made the decision to be a music teacher.

That said—how do we help students become interested in music? How can we help students improve their listening skills and their desire to attend concerts? Have we seriously considered just what it is that listeners do? There has to be something beyond the extrinsic reward of a grade in an appreciation class, which is probably attained by very little actual listening. For many decades music appreciation classes have seen millions of students make the grade, but where are they when the local orchestra or band or other musical organization performs or when the school board meets to drop music from the curriculum?


  • The initial interest in music develops through music.
  • Music appreciation is appreciating the music.
  • Words about music are words—music is music.
  • Appreciation comes through understanding.
  • To enhance your enjoyment you advance your skills of listening.
  • Try to find common ground in uncommon music.
  • The course and semester end, the test begins.
  • Are students prepared to listen to music not covered in class?
  • Listen to the same music for different reasons and to different music for the same reasons.
  • Hearing a totally new musical work is similar to hearing the premiere, it may bewilder even the most seasoned musician. Imagine what it must sound like to a non-musician.
  • It is necessary to hear new or never-heard-before music more than once.
  • Interest must take root before serious study begins.
  • To motivate students to appreciate the music of choice requires some appreciation of their choices of music.
  • My hope is for independent listeners of classical music, advocates for music, and consumers of music.
  • The in-class experience must prepare students for the out-of-class life.


The best teachers:

  • begin with questions about learning objectives rather than about what they will do in class;
  • plan backwards, beginning with the results they want to achieve;
  • favor objectives that are tied to life not just to the course;
  • believe that students learn by confronting intriguing, beautiful or important problems;
  • challenge students to grapple with ideas;
  • believe that students want to learn;
  • assess their own efforts and make changes when necessary.

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Tim Cordell: 27 August 2013