Nougaty Goodness

by Dwight Newton

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The Art of Creative Listening

by Dwight Newton, Nougat Magazine, January 2007

Music is not a "universal language" any more than Farsi, Quechua or Esperanto are universal languages. Music itself is universal, as language is universal, but the "languages of music" are staggeringly diverse. A listener who understands and appreciates a Beethoven string quartet might find Chinese opera completely baffling. Even relatively homogeneous cultures with a shared spoken language can have a variety of musical languages – rock & roll, country, heavy metal, hip hop, Broadway, art song, etc. – many of whose most passionate adherents have little interest in or understanding of other styles. (Certainly there are also many whose tastes and understanding cross boundaries, just as there are some who are multi-lingual. I am being overly broad in my generalizations for the sake of argument.)

We may sometimes think we understand the mood or story behind certain music, such as Indian ragas, or 16th century motets, but there is a difference between appreciation and understanding. In the case of raga, there is a complex formality of interrelated rhythm, melody, and mood that sets a strict framework for composition and improvisation. The result is something that may be pleasing to an untrained ear, but without the understanding of structure and intent, the experience lacks communication.

Music in the European art music tradition often attempts to portray extra-musical ideas such as pastoral scenes, storms, or even “The Ornithological Combat of Kings” (A.P. Heinrich). Some works, such as Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, have an extended story line that is comparable to a novel. In the case of Berlioz, the composer provided an extensive narrative so the listening audience could follow the protagonist's journey from obsession to madness. Similarly, Mahler's Second Symphony, popularly called "the Resurrection," originally included a narrative (though its action was more conceptual than literal) in which the listener is told of the human struggle with The Big Question – how can a merciful God be so cruel as to allow death? – culminating in a deeply moving personal statement of faith in resurrection. (Both the Berlioz and Mahler pieces were brilliantly performed in concerts last spring by the UK Symphony Orchestra.) In such cases, music and narrative work together to reinforce an idea and to dramatically infuse it with emotion. This is why we have music scores in movie soundtracks.

On a more profound level, this is also why humans almost universally address the divine with a musical voice. In Islam, prayers are always intoned. This is similarly true in Buddhist, Hindu, and most other religious traditions. In Hinduism, the universe is said to be contained in the single syllable “Om.” In African and other tribal cultures religious states are induced by drumming and singing. The drummers are even responsible for the health and wellbeing of the village as they play healing rhythms. Christian practices over time have paid more or less attention to the musical connection with the divine. Both Eastern and Western brands of Catholicism certainly intone the liturgical texts of the mass. Mainstream Protestants today tend to think of music more as a mood setter or community activity rather than part of the actual process of communing with the higher forces, but even they will often use a different syntax, imitating King James English or speaking with a more dramatic inflection, when addressing God directly. The more exuberant Christian traditions use highly rhythmic group singing and movement in a similar manner to tribal cultures to help induce an altered state of ecstatic communion. All of this suggests that there is something very primal about the power of music to affect the emotions.

Music does not require a program. Among musicologists, music that depends entirely on its structure for comprehensibility is called “absolute music,” as opposed to “programmatic music.” While much music is created to tell a story or create a specific mood, the greatest music, in my experience, is that which is without extra-musical associations. It doesn’t have to make me think of seagulls or war or God or spring to be meaningful. For example, the well-known Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber is achingly beautiful just because of the way the composer shifts his harmonies, resolves dissonances, and builds to an excruciating climax that takes your breath away. In mood, it seems solemn, perhaps a bit sad, maybe even anguished (it is often played at funerals). But none of these emotions are indicated by the composer. It’s simply a middle movement from a string quartet that he later arranged for orchestra. He clearly knew its emotional impact, but he let it speak for itself.

What the listener perceives is conditioned by his ability to find relationships with that which he already knows. We bring a lifetime of experience and emotions to the musical interaction. The quality of a musical transaction (musician to listener) is largely determined by the experience and depth of understanding brought to it by the listener. With a Beethoven symphony, for example, the more we know about the structure of symphonic form generally, about how a symphony orchestra is used to express ideas within a formal style, and about how Beethoven expresses ideas and emotions by playing fast and loose with the rules, the more we will respond to the true depth of that which the composer is trying to communicate.

This is not to say that a deep listening experience can’t be had without an intellectual basis. In fact, it’s the novelty in music – that which we have never heard and are not expecting – that often makes it compelling. By opening up to new musical experiences we make new connections (including literally new synaptic neural circuits), notice structures, and so on. As we learn more about a type or style of music, we begin to anticipate its direction, and when it goes somewhere else it becomes interesting. It’s this sense of novelty and surprise that stimulates the endorphins and keeps us engaged and yearning for more. Then after we’ve heard a well loved piece over and over again, it can lose its novelty and may become trite.

This is as good an argument as any to expose oneself to new musical experiences. Symphony orchestra conductors know this and they often arrange their concert programs accordingly, with an interesting lesser known work first, followed by a solo concerto with a guest artist, and finishing up with a big warhorse that everybody knows. An exciting variation on this theme will be presented in February when conductor John Nardolillo and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performs an important work for orchestra and voices by American composer George Frederick McKay. They will be recording the work for the prestigious Naxos classical label’s American Masters Series. The work, called Epoch, is a major work which celebrates four American Poets and their place in history (Poe, Lanier, Whitman, and Sandburg). Also on the program will be a concerto (or possibly two) by the winner(s) of the UK Symphony’s annual Concerto Competition (tba). The concert is Friday, February 9, at 7:30 PM in the Singletary Center for the Arts. For tickets call 859-257-4929 or

-Dwight Newton is a musicologist and is the Public Information Coordinator for the UK School of Music. His personal websites are at and