Describing what we hear

Today — Wednesday, the 15th — my Juilliard class in music criticism starts. This is a graduate course, which I’ve been teaching for years. You can go here to read the overview I give the students, describing what the course will be about, and here to see the detailed, week by week schedule, which includes links to all the reading and listening assignments.

As the overview explains, it’s not a course on how to write criticism, or how to be a critic. Instead it’s about what critics do, especially looked at from a musician’s point of view.

But above all it’s a course on how to talk about music. Or write about it. A course, in other words, on putting thoughts about music — and especially reactions to what we hear — into words. I think this is a neglected skill. Musicians (and critics, too) talk about music all the time, but we all can be better at it. We can talk more evocatively, more precisely, and often more simply, and also more objectively, describing what we hear in ways that really brings the sound alive, even for people who haven’t heard the music we’re talking about.

Nonprofessionals can learn to do this, too. Often, in the classical music world, they’re at least a little bit intimidated, when they think of saying what they think of a piece of music or a performance, because they think they don’t know enough. But in my experience, they often have a lot to say. I’ve done workshops on this, including a very memorable one for the Pittsburgh Symphony, in which I spent a couple of hours with the orchestra’s large staff — everyone from fundraisers to telemarketers — working on ways to describe what goes on in Christopher Theofanides’s piece Rainbow Body.

These people weren’t musicians, but they heard so many important things about the piece, and, with a little encouragement, found evocative — and accurate — ways to describe what they heard, in language that in many cases outdid most of what professional music people (including critics) might come up with.

Every week, in my course, I play a recording, and ask the students to describe what they hear. The first week, I try to find something that they might not know, in an unfamiliar style, to give them a very pure encounter with description. They won’t have familiar technical or aesthetic language to fall back on.

Here’s my selection for the first week. Click on the link to listen to it. It lasts about five minutes. I’m not going to say where it’s from, or who does it, though I can imagine that many people will recognize the singer. But I’m not sure that will help them describe the sound. Descriptions, in this exercise, should be as simple as possible, and shouldn’t be designed to analyze the piece. They should simply tell other people how the music sounds, as if you’d heard it, and now a friend of yours was asking what it was like. How would you convey that, in just one or two short, simple sentences?

If people send me some descriptions, I might put them in the blog, along with what my students come up with.

This is a valuable exercise, and in many ways a very simple one — but not easy. And in my classes, there’s almost always one surprise, which turns out to be the most valuable lesson of all. 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone

Comments

  1. Greg Sandow says

    Some comments were accidentally deleted. I’m restoring them this way.

    ***

    Complex. Layered. The high notes pierce through. Seductive and then stabs you. Alarm bells. Or war cry. It sounds like memories

    attacking one another. Sadness. Alone with nothing but regret. Pain.

    Exhausting.

     

    — matt white

    ***

    Greg,

     

    “These people weren’t musicians, but they heard so many important things about the piece, and, with a little encouragement, found evocative — and accurate — ways to describe what they heard, in language that in many cases outdid most of what professional music people (including critics) might come up with…”

    That is so very true! Thanks for bringing up this topic.

     

    Musicians, conductors and critics need to be reminded that aesthetic sensitivity has basically nothing to do with cognitive ability.

     

      — Jonathan

    ***

    If a friend asked, my reply: it’s a spare, frail recording of a vocalist (and I would name her, but I won’t for the sake of the game) singing simple, breathy, emotion-tinged lines that occasionally overlap. But the effect isn’t contrapuntal (oops–hard to avoid lingo)–more like two or three sad copies of the same woman were sitting in an alley, lifting up their voices in random lines of melody that sometimes overlap in beautiful, unexpected ways.

     

    — Kyle Stedman

    ***

    It sounds like eerie chanting voices, too close to your ear, and makes

    you think of a dull cold pain.

     

    — Peter Sachon

    ***