How Music Sounds to Children

I hadn’t listened to Schubert’s Fifth Symphony in far too long, and I did today. I have a special relationship with that piece – or rather, it has one with me. It was one of the pieces I heard on recording from my first weeks out of the womb. I knew how it went before I could talk. And whenever I play it, I’m transported into feeling like I’m a child hearing music again, as something magical and captivating that I can’t figure out. It links me to a preverbal relationship with music, and reminds me, in a way unlike any other work, of how music must sound to people who can’t read it. There are other works that I was familiar with as early, such as Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto and his D Major Piano Sonata K. 576, but those I’ve analyzed many times with classes, and the spell has been broken. I have intentionally never cracked a score to Schubert’s Fifth. I can’t quite picture how it’s notated – I could figure it out, but don’t want to. There are even syncopations in the first movement where I’m not sure where the downbeat is. I hear that flute obligato joining the main theme and I’m instantly in another world, safe and secure, and nothing bad has ever happened. It’s an almost entirely right-brain experience (though there are still passages where I can’t keep the phrase “flat submediant” from leaping into my left brain). Someday before I die I want to open a score of the Schubert Fifth and break the spell, but I’m in no hurry. I feel like something about still having that experience intact helps keep me honest in my own composing. 

I think the pieces my son must have that relationship with are John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music and Steve Reich’s Octet. (And incidentally, my son’s band Liturgy is opening their European tour in Oslo tonight.) 


  1. says

    Your musical gifts amaze me and based on your being able to transcribe that long piano piece from a warbly cassette tape (November?) I’d assumed that the notation for anything you heard popped into you head automatically. That it doesn’t and that you treasure an instance of it not happening speaks volumes. Seems most people with theory mind are happy to stay there and not wonder about how the great unwashed experience music.
    Still spreading the word on The Planets. Thought you might like this snip from an email from the best music maker I’ve ever played with, a flute player:
    That Kyle Gann! Wow!
    Listened through Saturn yesterday afternoon and can’t wait to hear the rest. And then start all over again. They are cerebral in the way he’s put them each together intellectually, but, unlike lots of (most) cerebrally constructed music, they work. Bear in mind I just spent last winter watching those 42 hours worth of lectures, the latest on The Universe with rich photographic and computer animated accompaniment, and with those images up there in my head I was sailing!
    KG replies: Thanks, Lyle, I appreciate the support.