Review: What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland

Music was a defining part of my first 22 years of life. Unfortunately, moving every two years and moving into a 750-square-foot condo on the 37th floor of a narrow building hasn’t left much space for a piano, so it’s been over 6 years since I have even touched one. This has left me feeling not a little bit unmoored (and certainly sad), so I picked up this book hoping to introduce more music into my life, albeit in a different way than usual. And who better than Copland to be my intellectual music guide?

What to Listen for in Music is a fantastic book for the layperson who wants to become a more intelligent listener and who wants to understand more of what is going on in classical music. Copland begins with an explanation of what music is and how it functions, moves to instruments, then to forms, adds an apologist chapter for contemporary music, and finishes with a chapter of what it means to be a good listener and the very significant role listeners play in the participation of the music creation.

As a book for the layperson, I think it’s wonderful. It’s smart, detailed, comprehensive, and Copland punctuates his objective analyses with stirring descriptions of the emotional impact of music that remind readers how evanescent and mysterious good music is. It was a real joy to read a work by someone who can describe so well the technical aspects of music, but in a way that refuses to reduce music to something entirely tangible. Copland never loses emphasis on the sublimity of music and the rather inexplicability of why good music sounds and “feels” so good to us.

As a decidedly non-layperson to the music world, I found myself skimming the beginning theory sections. The chapters on forms were a fantastic refresher, however (sorry, long-lost college music theory textbooks), and I enjoyed his discussions of music history throughout. As a fan of Bartok and Villa-Lobos and Satie, I loved Copland’s apologist chapter for modern and contemporary music (contemporary for the 1957 edition), reminding readers and listeners that though m/c music is much more difficult because it breaks so thoroughly from the forms and tonal sounds with which we have become familiar (and which are scientifically verified to be mellifluous), it is the music of our day and we only do ourselves a disservice by not participating in it and working to understand it. We may never like it, but it contains riches that deserve our effort and appreciation, like any other period and form.

Copland suggestively defines music as a language for emotions that are inexpressible in written or spoken language. Like any language, true appreciation and fluency requires what Copland asks of his readers/listeners: a commitment to intentional, repeat, thoughtful, engaged listening across all historical periods and art forms. That starts with a greater understanding of the technical aspects of music and composition (which Copland has provided) and culminates in being able to simply let a piece – no matter how “formless” and atonal – happen, giving it the freedom to create nostalgia, to (re)create an emotional experience that envelops us for 10 minutes or three hours. Reading Copland, you wonder why more people don’t fully engage their intellect with music. It has so much to offer, and we have so much to offer as listeners. Music really is “one of the glories of mankind.” (229)

Of equal importance to the text itself are Copland’s listening suggestions of pieces that exemplify the form or element he describes in the preceding chapter. I had intended to listen as I went along, but when I realized I wouldn’t finish the book until summer if I kept up with that model, I decided to finish the book and then spend the next few months listening to each piece after a brief refresher of its chapter context. I highly recommend every reader do something similar. It is no good only reading about music; to know music you obviously must listen to it and Copland has provided a wealth of selections for that purpose.

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