Dreamwaltzes and understanding music

Over the summer I read through a very interesting book in an attempt to improve my understanding of music. I will try to use these techniques for the upcoming season of the Pittsburgh Symphony. For instance, with Pictures at an Exhibition, the ideas below helped with understanding of the work, and increased my appreciation of it as well – which is an understatement because I’ve always appreciated this work.

Likewise, Dreamwaltzes, American composer Steven Stucky’s fantasia on Viennese composers Schubert, Brahms and Mahler, is much better understood when concentrating on some of these aspects. When listening to Dreamwaltzes I was able to perceive some of the following: Form – there was form, but a much more complex form than the classical type I’m used to – it seemed somewhat abstract, and ranging over various forms. Rhythm – certainly there existed an overall rhythm which was one of the more interesting parts of the piece. Melody – The melody existed in different forms throughout, some were more abstract, as with the sliding scales of the strings and other instruments, the musicians would bring the pitch down through several octaves by sliding their fingers along the string. This generated an eerie effect somewhat reminiscent of perhaps the music heard in Hitchcock or other films, but I don’t want to generalize the effect – it must be heard to be understood. Other times the melody would be more classical as with Schubert, a slight interlude in that form then back again to the thinly veiled high frequency strings which would accompany much of the dramatic woodwinds and brass.

Perhaps others would be interested in these techniques when attending a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra…

The Understanding of Music“, 5th ed., 1985 Wadsworth, Inc.
Charles R. Hoffer

Attitude in Listening
Ask “What is the composer trying to achieve in this portion of the music?” and similar questions. In this way, listeners gain a much better understanding of the work and will probably increase their appreciation of it as well.

Improving Listening Skill

1. Give undivided attention to the musical sounds.
2. Concentrate attention first on the main themes of the work.
3. Remember the main themes of the work.
4. Notice what happens to the themes and musical ideas as the music goes along.
(extract motives – change rhythm, bob in and out, unifying ideas, two themes vie with each other)
5. Apply knowledge to what is heard. (what form, theme presented, developed, presented again)
6. After the main themes are grasped, become more aware of the subtler and smaller features of the music.
(slightly changing pattern of chords, brief interruption of a rhythmic pattern, new combo. of instruments, insertion of a fragment of a melody)
7. Notice personal reactions to what happens in the music (note the response to what is heard, as they change, does a second appearance of a melody seem more emphatic?, a third time, is there a duration or pitch change to a note or notes, accented? – Can the reaction be accurately be put into words? , is there a sense of energy? calm? ?)
8. Don’t conjure up visions or fantasize when listening to music, unless it is work specifically composed for that purpose (program music).
(distracts from the qualities of the music itself).
9. Practice learning to listen to music more effectively.
(themes, solos, form – listening for main features – then subtle musical qualities; repeated hearings of a work )

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