Listening, part 2: stories

In listening, part 1, I mentioned closing one’s eyes when listening to remove the visual stimuli. This can have much more of an effect than we think, for example check out this illusion!

I also talked about ignoring the sound quality of the recording to focus on phrasing. Both of those tie into what I want to talk about today: stories and narrative.

As humans we always try to find meaning and narrative from everything we see and experience. It’s no different when it comes to listening to music, which means if we’re focused on listening to phrasing, it’s good to be aware of any stories we have around what we’re hearing and try to ignore them.

I’m not talking about, by the way, stories we might make up about what the music itself is saying (“and here we go deeper into the wood as the birds are singing“) but narratives around the performance/performer or anything that is not the music.

For example, I had to include this version of the Chopin Nocturne when I saw the photo:

I’m immediately intrigued and I want to like the performance – before I’ve even listened to it…

Visuals can create narratives; watching someone young perform we might have the narrative of a prodigy (whatever that means to us). Watching someone who seems totally involved/immersed in the music also creates a narrative. Or a beautifully filmed video/performance. All can add to the experience, but are also distractions if we’re trying to work on our ears.

I mentioned that I can be moved by, and learn from, phrasing even on old, scratchy, recordings , but there is a narrative trap here, too – many of my favorite musicians are from the period of the LP, and so when I hear that distinctive sound of an old record, my mind may auto-complete a story of “oh, this is old, it must be good!

The reputation, the story, of the performer can have a big effect – a famous musician, whom you recognize, might “sound” better to you than someone unknown.

It’s not to say that these stories or narratives aren’t real or worthwhile. The way you experience something is real and valid – if something is deeply moving to you, in a way it doesn’t matter why. And I will often talk to students about hand and arm motion and how that can help “create” the sound/mood/narrative that we want, for example.

But at the same time, as far as training our ears, ignoring the “story” is helpful – closing your eyes, trying to forget who it is that is playing, or what other people think of it, etc. and just focusing on the shape and transition from note to note!

I will return to the Chopin Nocturne from part 1 with a video looking at a very small section and three interpretations of the same short sequence of notes. But for now, let me leave you with another playlist.

This time of the Prelude (and in most cases, the Fugue) No. 4 in C Sharp Minor from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. Interesting to contrast the different interpretations, but mainly shared because I love the music and hope you will, as well :)

Would love to hear your thoughts on listening and phrasing!

Stay well, Josh

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