August 9, 2022

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The Gifted Listener: Composer Aaron Copland on Honing Your Talent for Listening to Music

“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote to a friend, including the requisite flamboyance of a Nineteen Twenties radical: “Without music I should wish to die.”

Months after Millay’s demise, Harvard provided its prestigious Charles Edward Norton Professorship of Poetry for the 1951–1952 educational yr to the composer Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900–December 2, 1990) — the primary non-poet to carry the put up since its inception 1 / 4 century earlier. More than a decade earlier than he obtained the Presidential Medal of Freedom for capturing the human expertise in music, Copland delivered to his six lectures, later revealed as Music and Imagination (public library), not solely the thoughts of a rare musician however the central concern of his life — the artist’s function within the human household and the important mutual nourishment between those that make artwork and people whose lives artwork touches, with a selected deal with probably the most generally underappreciated agent within the musical universe: the gifted listener.

Aaron Copland on his approach to a live performance in Paris, early Nineteen Twenties. (Photographer unknown. Library of Congress Archives.)

Copland begins by contemplating the floor contrasts and deeper resonances between poetry and music:

I used to harbor a secret feeling of commiseration for poets… attempting to make music with nothing however phrases at their command. I suppose there exist always some few males* who’ve that a lot magic in them, however phrases at greatest will at all times appear to a composer a poor substitute for tones… Later… I got here regularly to see that past the music of each arts there may be an essence that joins them — an space the place the meanings behind the notes and the that means past the phrases spring from some frequent supply… The poetry of music… signifies the most important a part of our emotive life — the half that sings.

The poetry of music, Copland intimates, consists each by the musician, within the creation of music and its interpretation in efficiency, and by the listener, within the act of listening that’s itself the work of reflective interpretation. This makes listening as a lot a inventive act as composition and efficiency — not a passive receptivity to the thing that’s music, however an energetic apply that confers upon the thing its that means: an artwork to be mastered, a expertise to be honed. (In the identical period, the nice humanistic thinker and psychologist Erich Fromm was making the identical countercultural level about the art of loving, as distinct from the damaging cultural notion of affection as an object to be discovered and passively obtained.)

Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Copland observes that as a result of the method by which music provides voice to our inside lives is so delicate and sophisticated, it turns into “a very hazardous undertaking,” for there are lots of factors at which it will possibly break down:

At no level are you able to seize the musical expertise and maintain it. Unlike that second in a movie when a nonetheless shot all of a sudden immobilizes an entire scene, a single musical second immobilized makes audible just one chord, which in itself is relatively meaningless. This unending stream of music forces us to make use of our imaginations, for music is in a continuous state of turning into.

This sentiment he borrows from Auden, who thought deeply and widely about the life of art and who believed that “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate; it goes on to become.” This turning into, Copland argues, is an imaginative act each for the musician and for the listener:

The extra I reside the lifetime of music the extra I’m satisfied that it’s the freely imaginative thoughts that’s on the core of all important music making and music listening… An imaginative thoughts is important to the creation of artwork in any medium, however it’s much more important in music exactly as a result of music gives the broadest attainable vista for the creativeness since it’s the freest, probably the most summary, the least fettered of all the humanities: no story content material, no pictorial illustration, no regularity of meter, no strict limitation of body want hamper the intuitive functioning of the imaginative thoughts.

While elsewhere on the Harvard campus the psychologist Jerome Bruner was incubating his pioneering perception into the key to great storytelling and positing that inventive writers each want and make inventive readers, Copland writes:

All musicians, creators and performers alike, consider the gifted listener as a key determine within the musical universe.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, Nineteen Twenties, impressed by the artist’s expertise of listening to a Wagner symphony. (Available as a print.)

A century after the underappreciated genius Margaret Fuller insisted that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Copland nuances the mathematical splendor of music with the shadings of its subjective reception within the listener’s thoughts. In a sentiment evocative of Nabokov’s well-known aphorism “There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Copland insists that the flamboyant — the inventive creativeness of the gifted listener — is what renders “the facts of music, so called” significant. He writes:

Listening is a expertise, and like another expertise or reward, we possess it in various levels… There are two principal necessities for gifted listening: first, the flexibility to open oneself as much as musical expertise; and secondly, the flexibility to guage critically that have. Neither of those is feasible with no sure native reward. Listening implies an inborn expertise of some extent, which, once more, like another expertise, will be educated and developed. This expertise has a sure “purity” about it. We train it, so to talk, for ourselves alone; there may be nothing to be gained kind it in a cloth sense. Listening is its personal reward; there aren’t any prizes to be received, no contests of inventive listening. But I maintain that individual lucky who has the reward, for there are few pleasures in artwork higher than the safe sense that one can acknowledge magnificence when one comes upon it… Recognizing the attractive in an summary artwork like music partakes considerably of a minor miracle.

Echoing Goethe’s exuberant case for the perceptive powers of beginner’s mind, he writes:

The delicate beginner, simply because he lacks the prejudices and preconceptions of the skilled musician, is usually a surer information to the true high quality of a chunk of music. The best listener… would mix the preparation of the educated skilled with the innocence of the intuitive beginner… The best listener, above all else, possesses the flexibility to lend himself to the facility of music.


Without theories and with out preconceived notions of what music must be, [the gifted listener] lends himself as a sentient human being to the facility of music… We all hear on an elementary aircraft of musical consciousness… On that stage, regardless of the music could also be, we expertise primary reactions equivalent to rigidity and launch, density and transparency, a clean or indignant floor, the music’s swellings and subsidings, its pushing ahead or hanging again, its size, its pace, its thunders and whisperings — and a thousand different psychologically based mostly reflections of our bodily lifetime of motion and gesture, and our inside, unconscious psychological life.

One of William Blake’s work for The Book of Job, 1806. (Available as a print.)

In essence, music performs an enchanted act of unconscious storytelling. (Which could be why Maurice Sendak considered musicality the key to great storytelling.) In a sentiment at first blush inflammatory, particularly for music-lovers and particularly coming from a musician, Copland writes:

The energy of music to maneuver us is one thing fairly particular as an inventive phenomenon [but] I don’t maintain that music has the facility to maneuver us past any of the opposite arts.

The singular energy of music, as Copland conceives of it, makes me consider what it appears like to face beneath the star-salted sky beholding the universe, with all of its immensity and intimacy — that grand cosmic silence singing with every part there may be. He writes:

There is one thing about music that retains its distance even for the time being that it engulfs us. It is on the similar time exterior and away from us and inside and a part of us. In one sense it dwarfs us, and in one other we grasp it. We are led on and on, and but in some unusual means we by no means lose management. It is the very nature of music to provide us the distillation of sentiments, the essence of expertise transfused and heightened and expressed in such style that we could ponder it on the similar prompt that we’re swayed by it.

Aaron Copland conducting in rehearsal on the Shed, Tanglewood. (Date and photographer unknown. Library of Congress Archives.)

Leaning on thinker Susanne Langer’s influential inquiry into what gives music its power and her conclusion that “music is our myth of the inner life,” Copland returns to the gifted listener as an important instrument for the facility of music and an important agent in its collaborative mythmaking:

A wholesome musical curiosity and a broad musical expertise sharpens the crucial school of even probably the most gifted beginner.


The dream of each musician who loves his artwork is to contain gifted listeners in all places as an energetic power within the musical group. The perspective of every particular person listener, particularly the gifted listener, is the principal useful resource we’ve in bringing to fruition the immense musical potentialities of our personal time.

Complement this fragment of the wholly insightful Music and Imagination — which went on to inspire the young John Coltrane and a whole era of different artists — with composer Elliott Schwartz, writing a era later, on the seven essential skills of listening, then revisit Bob Dylan on music as an instrument of truth, Aldous Huxley on music as an instrument of transcendence, and a young meditation on music and the mystery of aliveness.

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