Learning to Listen, Creating an Aural Map

Jennifer Amox | January 2019

    Leaves crunch under your feet. Wind rustles through the trees. Birds chirp. Children laugh as a seesaw creaks. A voice calls out from behind you, “Hey, wait up!” Without considering the individual letters, words, and punctuation, you immediately imagined a scene. You saw the playground, you heard the children’s laughter, and you may have even smelled the earthy remnants of decaying leaves. Your imaginary playground is likely quite different than mine. However, it is not so different that we are unable to share the experience because we possess a similar mental map of images, sounds, and smells built upon our vocabulary, memories, and language comprehension. 

    If I ask you to imagine the music of an impending shark attack, John Williams’s iconic theme will likely come to mind. You may have remembered a parent singing the motive as they chased you around the house or the soundtrack to the Jaws movie itself. The theme is simple yet sticky and has permeated our common musical culture, allowing all of us to easily recall it regardless of our musical training. 
    Singing or performing the theme on the flute requires additional musical understanding coupled with technical proficiency. You must equate what you hear with the physical actions required to reproduce the pitches, durations, articulations, and dynamics that make this theme recognizable to a listener. Transcribing the theme necessitates a different skill set. Each musical element must be associated with a written notation that can be interpreted by another musician. Composing or improvising a similar theme provides an additional challenge. Your performance and notation skills are combined with your musical memory as you compare Williams’s theme to other pieces you have heard in order to create unique music that is reminiscent of the source material but not considered plagiarism.1
    To develop an aural map that allows them to identify, perform, transcribe, compose, and improvise music, musicians should develop specific aural skills that serve as a legend on the journey to understanding the language of music. Babies initially acquire language through attentive listening of the speech of different adults. Likewise, musicians should immerse themselves in musical language by listening to a wide variety of styles and genres by different composers and songwriters. Their brains compare, contrast, and catalog every piece of music they hear in an effort to develop musical comprehension. Use the following list of questions to guide you as you listen to new works and build an aural map.
    Babies begin by imitating simple words and phrases they hear to develop linguistic comprehension; young musicians should mimic simple patterns and melodies in order to develop musical comprehension. Start with a simple folk song that you can recall from memory, such as Mary Had a Little Lamb. Without consulting the sheet music, translate the song to pitches that can be performed on the flute. Transpose the melody to all twelve keys. Once you are comfortable singing and playing the folk song, write it out it in multiple keys to develop musical notation skills. Using scale degree numbers or moveable-do solmization syllables makes this process easier and provides musical context to scale practice.
    As you develop your musical language skills, begin to improvise and compose music of your own. Start by altering the style of simple, familiar melodies. For example, you can alter different musical elements to change Mary Had a Little Lamb into a sad or angry tune by imitating sad or angry speech. When people are sad, they tend to speak slower and at a softer dynamic level; when they are angry, they tend to speak in short bursts while accenting every syllable.
    Later try to improvise pieces of music in the style of famous compositions and composers. Eventually, your aural map will expand to include new destinations, composed solely by you.     

    1Even John Williams receives inspiration from other compositions for his works. The Jaws theme is reminiscent of sections from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Dvorak’s ninth symphony. Consult the following article for other paraphrases found in Williams’s works: Jeremy Orosz, “John Williams: Paraphraser or Plagiarist?” Journal of Musicological Research 34, no. 4 (Oct.–Dec. 2015), 299-319.
2These questions are based on the fundamental skills found in Gary Karpinski’s Aural Skills Acquisition: The Development of Listening, Reading, and Performing Skills in College-Level Musicians and the suggested analysis prompts found in Jan LaRue’s Guidelines for Style Analysis. We use these questions in first-year music theory classes to prepare students for advanced score study in upper-level conducting and form and analysis classes. 
3Several of my colleagues, students, and I participate in a weekly scale group to develop this skill. We practice different scale and arpeggio patterns together, in addition to selecting a “tune of the week.” We sing the melody using moveable-do solmization syllables and then perform it in all twelve keys. The practice strengthens our musical memory and intonation skills, as we alternate playing the melody and providing a drone for the group. My former colleague, Amy Laursen, has a list of suggested group warm-up patterns and tunes of progressive difficulty available in the resources section of her website at www.amy
4For a summary of the research on the relationship between musical elements and their emotional characteristics, consult the following dissertations: Jessika Karlsson, “A Novel Approach to Teaching Emotional Expression in Music Performance” (PhD diss., Uppsala University, 2008); Karen McLaughlin Large, “Affective Responses to Music: A Flutist’s Perspective” (DMA diss., Florida State University, 2010).
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Critical Listening Questions

Background, Style, and Mood
1.    Who wrote the music and when?
2.    Was it written for a special occasion or an accompaniment to another art form (ballet, opera, play, movie, etc.)?
3.    Does the piece of music remind you of a particular emotion, image, or story? What musical elements contribute to your impression?

Instrumentation, Timbre, Tessitura, Register, Dynamics, and Articulation
4.    What instruments/voices do you hear? For what medium is the piece composed (instrument solo, choir, orchestra, chamber ensemble, etc.)?
5.    Are the instruments/voices generally playing in their low, middle, or high registers? 
6.    Are the instruments used in an unusual way? Do you hear techniques that are unfamiliar to you? Can you figure out how to recreate them on your instrument?
7.    Are the sounds generally soft, medium, or loud? Can you equate them to a dynamic term (piano, forte, etc.)?
8.    Are there any changes in the sound level? Are there gradual or abrupt changes? What else is happening in the music when they occur?
9.    Are the sounds generally separated or connected? Can you equate them to an articulation term (staccato, legato, marcato, etc.)?

Tempo, Rhythm, and Meter
10.    Can you tap along with the beat of the music?
11.    Is the tempo generally slow, medium, or fast? Can you equate it to a tempo term (andante, allegro, vivace, etc.)? Can you match the tempo to a metronome?
12.    Are there any tempo changes? Are they gradual or sudden? What else is happening in the music when they occur? 
13.    Is each beat divided into two or three (simple vs. compound meter)?
14.    Can you conduct along with the meter? Is it duple?, triple, quadruple, or sextuple?
15.    Are there any meter changes? What else is happening in the music when they occur?

16.    What instrument or voice generally has the melody? Does the melody pass between multiple instruments or voices?
17.    What are the other instruments or voices doing? Are they silent, do they provide a stagnant drone, or do they move in the same rhythm as the melody?

Melodic Contour and Pitch 
18.    Does the melody generally go up, down, or form an arch shape (up then down)?
19.    Can you sing or play along with the melody?
20.    Which pitch feels like the tonic (sometimes referred to as do or the keynote)? Can you sing or play it?
21.    Can you sing or play the pitch collection or scale that is used in the melody? Is the melody in a major or minor key?

Form and Structure
22.    How many sections are in this piece? Are any of the sections similar or identical to one another?
23.    How many distinct motives and melodic ideas occur?
24.    What is the initial key area? Are there additional key areas? 
25.    How long are the phrases?
26.    Where is the major climax of the piece? What musical elements support your decision?