Guidelines and suggestions for listening and responding to music.

We hear and and perhaps perform music in many different places each day. We listen and respond to music at home, in our classrooms and music rooms, in the park, and at concerts and special events. We hear music in movies, on television and radio, and in stores and shopping malls, in our computer, CD players, and ipods.

While few people will pursue careers as musicians, composers, music teachers, or conductors, we have music all around us and we often like this experience. One way we can understand this art form better is to learn how to listen thoughtfully to the music we hear. Let your ears be the guide; what is it you are hearing? Are you listening?

There are many ways to respond to music. Sometimes we hum along, we tap our feet; sometimes we want to put our hands over our ears. It is equally important to consider why we respond as we do. After listening thoughtfully to a piece of music, it is possible to respond to it thoughtfully.

Here are some suggestions and guidelines for doing so.

  1. First description: Timbre: what kinds of instruments and/or voices do you hear? Size of the group performing. Do you hear a large ensemble, a small ensemble, a soloist?
  2. Analyzing:
    What Tempo is it? Keep a beat (patting your leg, tapping a pencil) as you listen to the music. Describe the pace or speed of the beat. Is it steady? Does it ever change? Does it get faster or slower? When does it change?

    Rhythm. Are there any patterns of beats, or rhythms that you hear several times in the piece? Perhaps choose one repeated rhythmic pattern to listen for; tap out this rhythm with a pencil each time you hear it in the music. Try to note this rhythmic pattern. What different symbols do you feel you should use to accurately represent the rhythm?

    Melody. Is there a main theme or melody that you hear more than once? Can you hum it along with the music as you hear it? Describe the shape of this main melody; how are high, medium and low pitches combined to create this theme? Make a line drawing which depicts the shape of this theme.

    Imagine a metaphor or picture or thing or other sound which the melody or bass conjures up. Use this as part of your writing.

    Dynamics: Is the music performed at the same volume level throughout, or does the volume change? What volume levels do you hear? (loud, medium loud, medium soft, soft) Describe the dynamics of the piece.

  3. What words accompany the music. Analyze the lyric as you would a poem. How does the music parallel, reinforce, or undercut the words. I've heard rock-n-roll called sad songs with happy music?
    Words What are the words about? What ideas or thoughts do the words suggest? Is there a refrain, a repeating line or lines. What do they communicate?

    Do the words tell a story? If so, what is the story?

    Style: Do you have an idea about which style of music this piece represents? Is it rock and roll, rap, classical, gospel, jazz, country western, music of culture from another country, etc?

  4. Interpreting
    Mood. List some adjectives which describe how the mood of this music sounds to you.

    What do you hear in the music that suggests this mood?

    Does the mood ever change? Describe the changes.

    If the music does not have words, skip to the next question. If the music does have words, what does the music contribute to the text? How does the music help tell the story of the text?

    What title would you give this piece of music? Why?

  5. Evaluating
    Describe your response to this piece. Be specific; use musical terms you know (or look up) to discuss your response. Use ideas from the answers to the questions above. Describe anything about this piece that you liked or enjoyed. Describe anything about this piece that you disliked or did not enjoy.

    Who do you think would appreciate a performance of this piece of music (you, your friends, adults, adolescents, children, dancers, musicians, etc.)? Why?

(Adapted from Stephanie Stickford's listening to music, from Mary Stockrocki's "Learning to Look/Looking to Learn," and Kathy Lindholm Lane's "Deciphering Dance," January 1997.)

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Page Last Updated: September 22, 2008.