Aaron Copland: What to Listen for in Music

Copland, Aaron: What to Listen for in Music (New York: Signet Classic/Penguin, 2002)

What to Listen for in Music, a 1957 revision of the 1939 original, is Copland's attempt at making serious music more accessible to the lay person. While sometimes idiosyncratic, Copland does an impressive job at remaining impartial about what music is being listened to while being quite sympathetic to contemporary classical music:

Most people seem to resent the controversial in music; they don't want their listening habits disturbed. They use music as a couch; they want to be pillowed on it, relaxed and consoled for the stress of daily living. But serious music was never meant to be used as a soporific. Contemporary music, especially, is created to wake you up, not put you to sleep. It is meant to stir and excite you, to move you--it may even exhaust you. But isn't that the kind of stimulation you go to the theater for or read a book for? Why make an exception for music? (p. 199)

I have often observed that the mark of a real music lover was an imperious desire to become familiar with every manifestation of the art, ancient and modern. Real lovers of music are unwilling to have their musical enjoyment confined to the overworked period of the three B's. (p. xxxi, Preface)

Copland wrote this long enough ago that "the three Bs" referred to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms; today, one might as well be referring to Berlioz, Bruckner, and Bizet. Or Bartok, Britten, and Bernstein. (Or even Berg, Berio, and Boulez.) Alan Rich has added a foreword and an epilogue to help bring the book up to date, but it is the mark of a classic that it is still relevant after the passage of half a century.

Copland discusses the "four essential elements of music" (rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color) in a suitable manner, and follows up by describing the sonorities of the orchestra's instruments and the compositional forms common to the orchestral repertoire. This book is excellent throughout, and I can't think of another volume so accessible for an orchestral neophyte. Copland closes with these words for the listener:

Music can only be really alive when there are listeners who are really alive. To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one's whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glories of mankind. (p. 219)

It's unusual to read a book that so strongly pushes the reader to put it down and listen to music, but that's what Copland has done with What to Listen for in Music. Read it, and then open your ears.


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Thank you for the recommendation. I'm adding this to my list :)

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