Learning to Listen

Recently I’ve been trying to learn bird songs with Lucy Lapwing, and it’s delightful to be able to pick out individual voices, rather than hearing a general noise that is all “birdsong”. She recommends using a recording of the song you are currently learning as your ringtone.

You hear people say, “Classical music is boring,” which shows that to them, it all sounds the same.  This is a shame, because there is so much variety to enjoy. Listening more, picking out small pieces and repeating them until you can identify them, is the way to go.

In the first week of Music A-level, our teacher Mr White gave us a test.  There were ten opening phrases of famous classical pieces and we had to identify them. Luckily, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was there but it was the only one I knew.  I could read music well enough to sing the tunes in my head but naming the pieces? Nope.   I felt stupid and hopeless. What was I doing studying Music A-level when I knew nothing?

There was one where the second half sounded a bit like Star Wars.  I wrote down “Star Wars”.  I didn’t like to leave an answer space blank, so I filled in something for all of them.  (It was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, and I still think of Star Wars when I hear the second phrase.)  

The result of us all doing so badly in this test was a wonderful lesson called General Listening.  Every Thursday morning we would spend an hour listening to music and talk about its features. What makes Beethoven so Beethoven-y? What gives you a clue that this is Brahms?  It might be the choice of instruments, how long the phrases are, a particular pattern in the bass line. The harmonies and how they are used often give you a pointer about what era the piece was written in.  We talked at the end, or when the music was off, and he didn’t like us writing notes. Mostly we just had to listen.

These hours on a Thursday were absolute magic. Rather than a lesson, it was like a banquet. I couldn’t believe we were allowed to do this.  Mr White inspired me to take records out of the library and to monopolise the sitting-room while I listened to little sections repeatedly to try and remember them.  Because it was a school lesson it gave me authority to do this – I would not have listened so intensely or methodically without it, and I have not done so since.

There is no great secret, beyond listening many times. Some specific vocabulary helps to categorise what you hear, and singing melodies somehow takes the knowledge from your brain into your body, deepening the learning.

I’m eternally grateful for those lessons, and not just when watching University Challenge.  There is still a whole ocean of music – even within the mainstream classical back catalogue – that I don’t know. But I have pegs I can hang things on – composers and pieces I know that provide reference points. My ears can pick out the difference between a clarinet and an oboe.  It’s accessible to me because I learnt how to listen.