The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How should you listen? Try these four ways to get the most out of classical music. Then tell us your own. | February 8, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

What is the best way to listen to classical music?

How can you get the most out of what you are listening to?

listening to music

One way is not to use the music as wallpaper – as background music to brunch or some other social event or personal task.

It is also probably not a good idea to multi-task, to listen while watching TV or a DVD, or reading a book.

But even if you give the music your full attention, what is the best way to get the most of out of your listening?

The Ear suspects that a lot of people — especially performing musicians and composers — have a lot of different answers.

But one of the best is the short essay by Anastasia Tsioulcas (below), who writes for the exceptional classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” that is featured regularly on NPR.

anastasia tsioulcas

Tsioulcas lists and elaborates on four ways to turn your listening experience into a richer and more informative as well as enjoyable experience.

Here is a link:

Of course many of us have learned other lessons in listening over the years.

The Ear, for example, would suggest not always comparing the performance you are listening now to the first or favorite performance of the same work that you heard live or recorded long ago and grew to love. Otherwise you are more likely to overlook whatever originality the new performer you are listening to brings to the score.

For example, comparing all Chopin performances today to those by Arthur Rubinstein (below top) or Vladimir Horowitz (below second) might cause you to overlook what some of the new young Chopinists like Daniil Trifonov (below third) and Jan Lisiecki (below bottom, in a photo by Mathias Bothor for Deutsche Grammophon) bring with them, as I will explain further in another posting.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Vladimir Horowitz

danill trifonov 1

Jan Lisiecki CR Mathias Bothor for Deutsche Grammophon

The same goes for orchestral, chamber music, vocal music and opera performances: Try to remain open to newness and difference.

But different kinds of music an instruments might even demand different approaches to listening, as the deaf but acclaimed and popular percussionist Evelyn Glennie explains in a widely circulated YouTube video about whole body listening at the bottom.

Do you have suggestions or tips about listening to classical music that might help others? Share them in the COMMENTS section.

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  1. hi, I would like to ask you wether I may use one of your pictures. What about the rights of the first one, the boy with the headphones? Thanks for replying to anannrei at gmail dotcom

    Comment by annreilaufktter — July 10, 2014 @ 10:20 am

  2. Michael, my suggestions are aimed at the non-musician who is new to listening seriously to serious music. I assumed the NPR blog aimed at those people as well: Musically-literate people don’t need to be told what to listen for. You are a musican, I have degrees in music theory and music history, we automatically notice things you describe, but many people in today’s audiences are musically illiterate. Telling them what to listen for in terminology they don’t understand is unhelpful to them. For example, many people know the word ‘downbeat’ but have no idea what it actually is and won’t know what Brahms has done when it disappears. Your advice to “pay attention” (listen mindfully) is what they need — without the terminology.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — February 9, 2014 @ 9:04 am

  3. there is a time to listen to music to keep you focused (while driving), a time to listen to music to keep you motivated (while doing housework), a time to listen and sing the parts you know badly (when no one else is around), and a time to go to a concert hall/opera house–and when that happens, just as everyone who looks at art does it in their own way, every individual is listening in some different way shaped by their background knowledge and the foreground knowledge of what else is going on at the moment, and a rich conglomeration of memory, experience, processing of loose ends, something like a dream or a prayer that takes you out of yourself–i think you have to find your own way–i don’t think anyway can tell you how to do it

    Comment by Mary Gordon — February 8, 2014 @ 10:36 am

  4. IT would not be distracting in the least, because if the performance is recorded, you get to listen AGAIN, with or without your Thinking Cap on. If it is live, you can hear some recording again, if not that same piece and ensemble.
    What this blogger has done is simply but quite rightly pointed out the four main elements of ALL music everywhere, and told us to Pay Attention. Easy, simple, and yet SO complete.
    The downbeat is so vital to hearing Brahms and funk accurately. The shape of a melodic line is central to all solo and vocal music, along with motivic development. Harmony is either under control or left to the whims of counterpoint. At the piano, or in chamber music and orchestral compositions it is a central organizing and energizing force.
    Tone, of course, is one of the main characteristics by which we can distinguish one performer and performance from another, along with agogic rhythm, the way musicians treat the space between each note or sonic event.
    So, to listen mindfully is to be quite aware of all of these four essential elements of music. One’s appreciation will flow between the pure sensory, the intellectually perceived aesthetic, and the critical comparative kinds of listening in as interesting a Dance as the Music itself. As a composer, performer, and listener, these aspects are central to ALL of my experiences of music. As I am a musician, I experience music from within. It is truly a blessing, and I have never experienced it as a curse or hindrance.
    Side note: I do a lot of crossword puzzles. Whenever there is a music-related clue, I almost ALWAYS fail to figure it out, because I cannot think like a non-musician, which is what most of the puzzlers are! Eventually, I get the word, and go, ” they meant THAT, sheesh!…

    Comment by Michael BB — February 8, 2014 @ 10:18 am

  5. While the suggestions are good, I should think it would be distracting to try to keep them in play while listening. I would just say “listen mindfully.” Be curious. Notice what surprises you. What’s interesting (not necessarily ‘pleasing’)? Let your mind participate with the performer(s).

    Comment by Susan Fiore — February 8, 2014 @ 8:40 am

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