There is nothing like music to lift our spirits, create bonds between us, bring back old memories, or deliver catharsis. But what is it about certain songs that can conjure up these different feelings?
If we can learn to listen to music like musicians, we can not only begin to answer this question, but also develop a deeper connection to our favorite songs, learn to recognize and appreciate musical genius on its own terms, and relate to genres that might be less familiar or even entirely new to us.
Here are 10 things to consider when listening to music that will help to expand your experience both intellectually and viscerally, strengthen your connection with the music you love, and inspire you to explore new sounds:
1. Tone, mood & feel:
How does the song make you feel? Is it happy, sad, angry? Does it feel triumphant, tender, pleading, or calm? Does it make you want to get up and dance or rather sit alone and reflect? There are no right or wrong answers here. What we want to do is start with what the music makes you feel and then try to understand why it does that.
2. Movement & progression:
Does the song make you feel more or less the same throughout, or does it make your feelings change from beginning to end? Does it build in intensity or change its character? Do changes happen gradually or suddenly? These questions and others like them can help you outline the story that the song is trying to tell and help to make the song into something more concrete.
3. Rhythm & time:
Music itself, as distinct from visual and sometimes tangible accompaniments like sheet music, vinyls, and performances, is a purely auditory experience. It occupies no space, only time. Understanding how a song relates to and organizes time is essential to understanding the song. The patterned placement of sounds in time is known as rhythm. As the one indispensable element of all music, it provides a convenient analytical starting point.
The basic unit of time is the beat, which you can find by tapping your foot to the song. How fast or slow this beat moves is the tempo. Generally, a “moderate” tempo is similar to a walking pace or the pace of a human heartbeat, but, of course, tempos can be much faster or slower. Beats can be combined and divided in various rhythmic patterns, and different syllables of these patterns can be stressed. This is what’s commonly referred to as meter. In most Western music, these patterns are regular, whether you’re listening to a Viennese waltz, the thumping bass of EDM or hip-hop, or a Baroque opera. When these patterns do not exist, and when there is no discernible beat, the music can be said to be in free time. This is common for old vocal music like Gregorian chant, as well as in more modern styles like free jazz and noise music, and is also used as widely in Hindustani classical music, Sephardic Jewish music, and psychedelic rock.
When listening to music, listen first for the beat. Is there one? Does it move quickly or slowly? Can you hear the meter? Do certain rhythmic patterns pop up again and again? Where are the stressed accents? Are there any stresses that are unexpected? How are different rhythmic patterns strung together and layered on top of each other? Do these change in different parts of the song? How do those changes affect the overall feeling of the song and the story it’s telling?
A melody combines both pitch and rhythm in a linear sequence of notes that the listener perceives as a single entity. As the foreground line of a piece of music, it’s often the most identifiable element of a song. When someone asks you to sing “Happy Birthday,” the sequence of notes you sing is the song’s melody. The same goes for nursery rhymes, pop songs, and Beethoven alike.
When listening to music, find the melody. Is it easy to identify or harder to follow? Are there are a lot of different notes or just a few? Are the pitches mostly high or low, or do they jump around a lot? Does the melody come back again and again? When it returns, is it the same, or does it change somewhat?
Harmony is the collection of notes played at any one time. If you stopped a song at any point and sustained that singular point in the song, what you would hear would be stacks of notes forming a harmony.
When you listen to the harmonies of a song, what do they sound like? Are they happy or sad? Do they feel settled or uneasy, or do they give you a sense that they’re leading you somewhere? Do the pitches used sound like they all belong together or no? Can you hear just one line of melody, or are different voices or instruments also playing the same melody or playing different melodies that weave in and out with the first melody? If there is more than one melodic line, does it move in the same direction as the primary melody or away from it? Do these harmonies change throughout the course of the song?
Also known as timbre, the tone color is the perceived sound quality of a musical sound. It’s the combination of psychoacoustic elements that make specific instruments sound different from one another even when playing the same pitch. More simply, it’s what lets us know we’re hearing a piano, a trumpet or a flute. Generally, we use words like “bright,” “dark,” “warm,” “metallic,” and others to describe timbre.
When you’re listening to a song, listen for the instruments that the composer has chosen. What instrument has the melody, and what mood does that give the piece? Does the melody pass from one instrument to another? How is an instrument played to produce a specific sound (e.g., is a violin bowed or plucked)? If there is more than one instrument, what other instruments are used? Is this combination familiar or more unusual, and if the latter, what effect does that give?
Texture describes the overall quality of the sound in a song as determined by how it combines melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and timbres. Generally, we think about texture as describing the number of parts in a song and the relationship between them. The complexity of these relationships determines whether the thickness or density of the texture.
The 4 common texture types are: monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic, and heterophonic. Monophonic texture exists when there is only a single melodic line, whether played by a single musician or multiple musicians playing in unison. Polyphonic texture consists of two or more independent melody lines. Noted examples are rounds, which are often sung by schoolchildren to tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Frere Jacques,” and a great deal of Renaissance and Baroque music. Homophonic texture, on the other hand, has a primary melodic voice that stands out from background accompaniment. This is the most common texture across all genres of Western music from the Classical period through the present. Heterophonic textures consists of multiple performers playing a single melody at the same time with each adding their own subtle variations. This is common in Baroque music, where a vocalist and solo instrument might follow the same melodic line together, but one will be more decorated than the other. This is also common in some music of India and Africa, as well as some types of jazz.
When listening to music, try to figure out which of the four textures the song demonstrates. Does that remain consistent throughout the song? If the song is homophonic, how does the accompaniment behave? Does it mimic the rhythm of the melody? Are chords of the accompaniment hit and sustained, repeated many times in sequence, or played as separate moving notes? Do you hear more than one melody, whether it’s the primary melody being imitated by new instruments or new melodies played by other instruments? How do the different melodic lines interact? How many different parts can you hear? Do they cluster together around the same pitches, or are the pitches spread out in a wide range?
Musical form denotes the overall structure of a composition. It is the map that outlines the constituent sections of the piece and the order in which they appear. Each section is a complete, but not independent, musical idea, such as the verses, refrain, and bridge of your favorite pop song.
When we describe musical forms, we do so by labeling each distinct section with a letter and then ordering the letters as the sections appear in the piece of music. Imagine, for instance, a pop song that goes from the first verse to the refrain to the second verse back to the refrain to a bridge and then once again to the refrain. The verse will be labeled as section A because it’s the first section to appear. The refrain will be labeled as section B because it’s second. The second verse, however, is not section C because it is musically the same as the first verse, so it appears in the form as another A. Chances are, though, that the words of the second verse are different, so we can denote that by labeling the section as A’ (A prime) to show that it’s very similar to section A but with an important difference. The bridge in this particular song, though, has a different melody and chord progression from the verse and the refrain, so it becomes our third section, which we label as C. The song structure applying to this song, then, will be ABA’BCB, where A is each verse, B is each refrain and C is the bridge.
The Music Catalog at Yale lists more than 70 musical forms in its basic glossary of musical terms. Instead of learning all of these, learn to listen for the sections that make up a piece and string them together to hear the architecture as you listen. Do you hear the same rhythm and texture that you did before? Then you’re probably hearing a section repeat. If you hear changes in either of those elements, you’re probably listening to a new section.
9. Musical memory:
As you listen to a song and think about the various elements above, think about where you may have heard a similar melody, a rhythmic pattern, a certain instrument or set of instruments, or a chord progression before. Did it occur earlier in the song? If so, perhaps you’re hearing a repeated section or a variation on a theme. Does this song directly quote another song? Does an instrument sound different than what you’d normally expect from, say, a rock band or a string orchestra? As you listen to the song’s chord progression, does it sound similar to one that was used in another song you’ve heard?
As you start to build up your own internal catalog of these elements, you’ll start to hear connections unfold between artists, genres, time periods, and cultures.
Who composed the piece of music? When was it written and in what context, both in terms of the composer’s own life and in terms of the environment they were living in? What other music was being written at the same time? What other art was being produced?
While answering these questions isn’t necessary to listen to or enjoy any piece of music, it can help to make the experience more enjoyable and to help you in building up your musical memory for future listening.