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.

For me, rehearsing and performing the piece lead to understanding it better.  Having someone else (the director) choose the piece forced me into studying it; I probably would have just seen “Debussy” and tossed it aside thanks to my preconceived notions about and limited exposure to his work.  Studying music theory for my undergraduate degree helped as well.  I know of a few people who, once they know theory, get distracted too much by identifying all the chords and such as they listen.  Not me.  And 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.

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 that I’ve played several times now and I would be perfectly happy never to play (or hear!) that piece again, although my dislike doesn’t necessarily have to do my familiarity with the chords in it.  There’s another piece that I don’t hate quite as much due to playing it a few times, but I’m certain I will never feel the need to talk about it on this blog.

Part of my motivation behind this blog is to give you a starting point to make some 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 Arnold’s Three Shanties I did ask myself if I was going to quickly into the “ugly” notes.  But I decided that’s the piece I really wanted to discuss, weird notes or not.  I don’t expect everyone to develop the same love as I have for any of the pieces I discuss, but I do hope you’ll at least give them a chance.  Maybe even revisit some of the ones you didn’t like initially in a few months or a year 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!

I believe I know which piece I’ll discuss next.  I might not get to it right away, as my calendar has gotten quite full thanks to some extra rehearsals and performances, plus my students’ solo and ensemble competitions and a dear friend’s wedding.  I’ll try to be back soon!

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