What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland, with additional material by Leonard Slatkin

Based on everything I’ve seen, this appears to be a love it or hate it book.  Personally, I love it.  I think the book’s detractors were perhaps looking for a beginner’s book on the subject that spoonfeeds the material rather than helping the reader to grow as a listener.  That’s not what this book is about.  This book was written by one of the great composers of the 20th century, who also worked as an educator, to further aid his students.  The book assumes some basic familiarity with musical terms and phrases, composers, and eras of composition so as to have a foundation from which to build.  Building on the foundation is what this book is all about.

Written in 1939 and revised in 1957 to account for the complete sea change in artistic expression following World War II, Copland’s book does what few books have readily been able to do so well: translate the abstract listening experience in to verbal explanation.  Given the above outlined foundation, Copland offers instruction in musical forms, texture, and styles in such a way as to offer the means for the student to open up the next level of appreciation.  Alongside these explanations are examples of music that illustrate his points, sometimes offered with a bit of sheet music for highlight.  As part of the re-editing of this book, Slatkin listed out all of the examples within a chapter at the end of each chapter for easier referencing.  When this book was written, some of these pieces had perhaps one recording that could be obtained.  With each passing year, the digital catalog of music grows by leaps and bounds, and what may not have had a recording in Copland’s time may have dozens today.  I took full advantage of this and applied the material in the book to the musical selections listed.  The result was everything I hoped for.  While the focus of the book is the broader heading of classical music, I will be able to apply these lessons to other pieces of music, and across virtually every style and genre imaginable.

Following the epilogue that discusses more contemporary developments since the revision of the book (such as minimalist composition and the advent of the compact disc), there are three appendices.  The first two further break down concepts discussed in the material dealing with variation and contrapuntal devices.  The third appendix is the real treasure.  Copland offers a complete analysis of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, Op. 53 (aka Piano Sonata No. 21).  If you’re willing to meet Copland halfway, you can apply what you learned to this writing and walk away from the sonata with a feeling of satisfaction.

All in all, this entire book was time well spent for me.  I lament that musical appreciation of the level this book invites gets more rare all the time outside of professional musicians, largely due to the idea that music has become ubiquitous as background noise rather than an art to be actively appreciated.  Even so, I suggest that even our modern, “easy” pop tunes have something more to offer than most people might think.  For those looking for something more in their listening experiences, this book is an excellent foot in the door that demystifies some of what drives people away.  The rest is a simple matter of vocabulary.  Look up a word when you need to, and the rest should fall into place nicely.

5 stars

What to Listen for in Music

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