Appreciating Music: Can We Learn to Hear?

Thanks to NPR reporting about this study, I came across this article:

Study: Hearing Music as Beautiful Is a Learned Trait – Lindsay Abrams – The Atlantic.

I found it fascinating, and quite apropos for this blog.  I know my musical tastes have certainly evolved over time, there are certain composers whose work I “get” more now.  Like Debussy.  It took me a while to warm up to his tonalities. I certainly didn’t seek out his music in high school.  I don’t think it was until I played an arrangement of his Sarabande from Pour le Piano in a clarinet choir after I graduated college that I felt more comfortable with him.  A few years later I played a band arrangement of his Engulfed Cathedral, which helped me even more to understand and like his music.  Heck, I went so far as to do my own transcription of Sarabande for my current clarinet choir.  I hope my fellow musicians can enjoy the piece as I have.

Colorful piano keys
From Pixabay user Speedx (CC license)

Contributing factors

For me, rehearsing and performing the piece lead to understanding it better.  Someone else (the director) choosing the piece forced me into studying it; I probably would have just seen “Debussy” and tossed it aside thanks to my preconceived notions him. And because I had those preconceived notions, I heard very little of his work. In my case, studying music theory for my undergraduate degree helped me.  I know of some people who, once they know theory, are distracted too much by identifying all the chords and structure as they listen.  Not me.  I’d wager that, for most of us, learning about something helps us to understand and enjoy something more, not less.  I can still be swept away by the music, even if I happen to know the chord progression underneath it.

Some challenges still exist

I’ll admit I still have trouble with some of the ultra-modern music out there.  I do need some sort of melodic hook, although my definition of melody is quite loose.  And maybe I just need to listen to and study more of it for it to make sense to me.  There will still be music of all genres and ages that I just won’t like.  There’s one band piece in particular I’ve played several times and I’d be perfectly happy never to play that piece again, although my dislike doesn’t have to do my familiarity with it.  There are other pieces I don’t dislike quite as much after getting to know them, but they’re still not my favorites.

Part of my motivation behind this blog is to give you a starting point to make musical discoveries, regardless of your musical knowledge.  Perhaps I can help ease you into some of the “weirder” stuff and show you that dissonance can be delicious.  When I decided to talk about Malcolm Arnold’s Three Shanties I asked myself if I was going too quickly into the “ugly” notes.  But I decided that’s the piece I really wanted to discuss, weird notes or not. 

Give it a chance

I don’t expect everyone to develop the same love as I have for any of the pieces I discuss. However, I do hope you’ll at least give them a chance.  Consider revisiting some you didn’t like initially in a few months to see if anything’s changed.  If you still don’t like it, that’s okay – there’s certainly no shortage of music in this world!

Have you learned to like something? I’d love to hear about it!

Lori Archer Sutherland

Lori Archer Sutherland earned a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition degree from the Ohio State University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She composes, performs, and teaches clarinet. She plays bass clarinet with the Crystal Lake Community Band and the Woodstock City Band, clarinet with Winds Off the Lake Woodwind Quintet, and is the founder and organizer of the Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir, where she plays an even bigger clarinet. Check out her site and podcast at tonaldiversions.com