Working with hundreds of young musicians over the last twenty years I have come to an observation: most kids hear music, but don't really listen to music. Sadly, this holds true for many adults, too. TV, computers, and video games have made people desensitized to the power of good music. Many people have forgotten about really sitting down and simply listening to music, for music’s sake. I began to think about ways of combating this problem. About 10 years ago, while talking to my good friend Kevin Cotellese, a distinguished choral conductor and singer, he mentioned his use of listening journals in college. When he was working as a university music school graduate assistant he said they used journals at the beginning of music history classes as springboards to meaningful discussions about the music which was to be focused on that day, be it to dissect it for theoretical analysis, compare it to other pieces or dig into interesting arranging and compositional techniques.
Based on this discussion, we devised a chart that breaks down a piece of music in to seven concrete aspects, that all listeners should be able to identify if they are going to begin to understand any piece of music on a deeper level. The aspects are: Timbre, Dynamics, Meter, Tempo, Style, Time Period, and Intertextuality.
The great thing about this process is that you can make it as in-depth as you'd like. With most kids we just touch the surface of a piece, but for the more mature students it is a great threshold into the mind of the composer and performer.
In classes, lessons and workshops I'll typically dedicate the beginning of the session to listening. It is a quick exercise, but one that really helps students understand their music and/or music in general.
Here's a Listening Journal with the basic grid a student could fill out while listening to a music selection:
A brief explanation is as follows:
Timbre [tam-ber] refers to the 'what' or ‘who’ in the music making. On a large scale is it an orchestra? rock band? jazz band? more specifically is it a guitar? if so, is it acoustic or electric? if electric what sort of effects pedals? chorus, overdrive? If there are singers are they male or female? How many, etc.?
Next we address the Dynamics of a piece, that is - the intensity of the volume. Is it loud or quiet? Does it change? Are there crescendos/decrescendos? These can all be answered in English or in the traditional Italian, i.e. forte, piano, mezzo forte, mezzo piano, etc...
Meter is next...that is how many beats per measure. It is very surprising to me that this seems to be the most elusive response to get correct among some musicians and non-musicians alike! Obviously this one might need some kinesthetic help, i.e. tapping your toe, marching in place, or doing everything and anything possible to feel beat one.
Tempo this addresses how fast the music is moving. Again feel free to express this in English: fast, slow, very fast, etc... or in Italian: allegro, largo, presto, etc..
Style: with everyone using Ipods now, I suppose we could also call this one Genre. With this one, try and make the students be as specific as possible. Here’s a good example: perhaps your student is a fan of The Adolescents, so you try to expose them to some different music in a similar vein by playing something like T.S.O.L.'s “Dance With Me” (featuring the ever slammin' Anthony Tiny Biuso on drums). If your student says the tune is in a rock style, that is correct in a broad sense, but rock doesn’t really tell us enough. What type of rock is it? punk? hardcore punk? This goes for tunes in any genre, saying a Bach cello suite is classical is only correct in the very broadest sense of the term classical, to get even more specific it should be notated as a Baroque composition. This goes for other classifications like jazz, funk, and country, too. Those terms might not be specific enough for a valid description of the music.
Time Period: Wow! This one is always interesting, because when they get it wrong, it is usually really wrong. One well meaning student was checking out Elvis' "Rubberneckin’” and wrote down time period as 1880's... yes, seriously. So needless to say this opened up a whole other can of worms about why there is no way it could be from the 1880's, we talked about the invention of the electric guitar, the development of blues and jazz then it metamorphosis into rock in the early 50's and Elvis’s movie career. This category especially, crosses many fields of study. From this one block you can get into history, technology, science, or as they say in schools, this is definitely a cross-curricular topic.
The final category on the grid is the seemingly ominous Intertextuality. Intertextuality allows students to write down their thoughts about the allusion and influence a piece of music has on them, personally. To quote the great Philly based guitarist, Rick Smith, “…every time you hear a piece of music it does something to you.” Music can makes us happy, sad, angry, excited, or bored. It can make us think of someone, something, or someplace. It can remind us of other music, a movie, or events. This place on the grid is where the kids can write all of that stuff down. There is essentially no wrong answer for this one.
Using these journals on regular basis can be very useful for any and all music teachers, regardless of instrument or field of music teaching. Looking at the students’ answers and having a discussion can be very eye-opening for the students and teachers. Of course the exercise of keeping a log of tunes is not the be-all and end-all to making people better listeners, but at least it is a way to keep a concrete account of their progress, and hopefully will inspire students to go home and dedicate some time to meaningful listening, even if they’re not taking notes.
Having been privileged enough to sit- in on quite a few masters classes conducted by the musical phenom, Jeff Coffin, I can’t help but be reminded of his answer to a young student’s question, “What is the most important thing for a young person to do, in order to become a better musician?” In response, Jeff wrote one word on the chalk board: Listen.
+Special thanks to musicians and friends: Kevin Cotellese, Rosemary Buetikofer, Randi Mount, Rick Smith and Mae Huang for helping to develop and use the Listening Journal model with their classes and students over the past ten years. Copy editor: Heather High-Kennedy.
Philadelphia-area drummer, Sean J. Kennedy is equally at home on the concert stage or in the teaching studio. Due to his versatility, Kennedy has been able to record and perform with some of the world’s best musicians, including Bob Mintzer, Liberty DeVitto, Ricky Byrd, Donald Nally, Richie Cannata and the late Dr. Frederick Fennell.
In June 2009 Carl Fischer Music Publishing released “Rock Solid: Drums” a rock drumset method book co-authored by Kennedy and Liberty DeVitto. Kennedy holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in percussion performance, and endorses Zildjian Cymbals, Casio Keyboards, Vic Firth Drumsticks and Evans Drumheads exclusively. To contact Sean visit www.seanjkennedy.com.