Hearing Voices

Hearing Voices

J. Mark Scearce

On a cross-country flight several years ago, I was seated next to a pilot deadheading to his next gig. After I exhausted him with questions about what he did, he turned the tables and asked the inevitable question all composers dread. It’s not, I don’t think, that we’re ashamed of what we do; it is simply a sighing in advance for all the trivialities we’re usually put through when explaining to a musically untrained public what we do as separate from performance.

But on this flight, with this particular pilot, in a pre-9/11 world, there was nothing to dread. For when I replied that I was a composer, the pilot got excited and informed me that in the home-schooling text he and his wife used to teach their children, a composer was chosen to represent a particular trait, but try as he might, he couldn’t think what that trait was. I asked him to tell me some of the other occupations and corresponding traits and he said (rather presciently for what was to come): Firemen and Courage, Nurses and Compassion, and then I knew it.

Composers and Listening.

Yes, he said, that was it: composers were used to teach schoolchildren examples of listeners. Listeners listening. Can you imagine it? Most composers I know, musicians in general, are very poor listeners, and yet that is the entire point of what we do. We listen. We create or re-create so that others might…listen.

In the music education of our young, listening—truly active processing and internalizing of sound—is not valued. And we are paying the price for this when audiences—and the composers they all too often come to dread—are not able to hear what is before them. In its passive stead, audiences seem more tuned out than in, experiencing a general wash of comfort or discomfort seemingly tied neither to thought nor feeling, process nor program.

What amusingly used to be the false dichotomy of tunesmiths vs. the atonalists in a kind of World Wrestling Federation for audiences has devolved to the amorphic vs. the arrhythmic. And what we are left with is an impoverished anorexia musica: no one eating for lack of utensils. For a true public service, the American Music Center should put out bumper stickers that read Listening: it’s not as easy as it sounds.

As trained composers, you would think we would be taught more how listening really works and how to teach that to others. I know I didn’t learn to listen until I learned to think. In college I started feeling railroaded into a career in music, partly by my own talent and partly by the notoriety a small mid-western town bestowed on those who dared to succeed. It was then, at that moment of self-doubt and reflection, that I decided to study philosophy instead.

I learned first of aesthetics, that branch of philosophy that could address my musical world. Then came logic, that language of mathematics—algebra, geometry, and the higher forms—kissing cousins to music to be sure. I dropped fencing one semester to take metaphysics, something I remember my academic advisor wore as a personal badge of honor. Then came ethics (which itself would make a fair bumper sticker). There was also much talk of a fifth branch, epistemology, but I never saw a class in it and no surprise, because epistemology is within all the others, as learning every branch of the tree of philosophy has to have its ways of knowing built in (this is logic and this is how we know it is logic). It is what I used to call in my own teaching "ways into the house."

It wasn’t until I’d spent time away from music, studying philosophy, that I was able to come back to music with a better understanding of just what our field is and what it can do. The more I learned of what it is we do—not within the field, mind you, but what the field was capable of, what it could do potentially—the more I could hear, imagining just beyond what I had learned. For the mental ear we need to exercise is stimulated by education. A sound of a trumpet recorded in memory is only as good as the integrity of its recall. Thus, learning is incorporated and tested in the fires of new and personal kilns. Imagination—for that is what we are hearing, imagined sound, following the acoustical properties witnessed and learned—imagination is dependent upon education as its fuel. When I began to teach, I attempted to marry these disciplines into a matching game to reveal the layers beneath the listening.

In my Matching Game you match the five areas of philosophy:

a. Aesthetics
b. Ethics
c. Epistemology
d. Logic
e. Metaphysics

with the five aspects of music as defined by the New Grove Dictionary of Music‘s entry for “analysis”:

1. The Idea
2. The Score
3. The Sound-Image
4. The Performance
5. The Experience

What is learned, each and every time, regardless of audience, specialists or generalists, happy amateurs or budding professionals, is that the idea and the score are easily assigned.

1. The Idea = e. Metaphysics
2. The Score = d. Logic

Even the two value systems gravitate to their most likely associations.

4. The Performance = b. Ethics
5. The Experience = a. Aesthetics

And what is left in music is what is left in philosophy: the foundation of all.

3. The Sound-Image = c. Epistemology

Within every branch of philosophy is the way to know it, the way to learn it, the way to understand it. Within every aspect of music is the very same key to unlocking it. Yet we are never taught this way of knowing—this listening beneath, behind, before the music.

There are those of us who hear voices, who have the propensity—the gift, the talent, whatever you want to call it—to hear what we write before we lay it out on the page. And reading the scores of others reveals their music to us like a book tells its story. Actually, it is more like a giant mixing board of the mind where what is needed is "potted up" and adjusted to meet the projected performing forces within our minds.

And yet, such a concept of a Mind’s Ear was not a part of my education. Composers are not taught to listen, truly listen, before we expect others to listen to us. Why this is, is perplexing yet understandable. It takes a great deal of effort to imagine, to create something out of nothing. The very word for inspiration, that quality which the Greek Muses instilled in the artist who came calling for it, is troubling itself for some: enthousiasmos (god within you). And yet look at how language has reduced this concept to be attainable by anyone: mere passion, ardor, zeal is all it means today. It is far easier to slap on a bumper sticker praising your mediocre child than it is teaching that child to truly hear and therefore, quite possibly, excel because of it.

And yet, if we don’t (or can’t) hear the music in our own minds, how can we expect others to recreate it accurately? How can the listener’s experience be as close to the idea in the composer’s mind if we all don’t exercise our Mental Ear to make it so? The music most cannot hear is the lost epistemology to a discipline deaf to itself—a discipline dependent on listening.

The Mental Ear is a muscle of sorts, a muscle of the imagination, and, if it goes unused, it is flabby and, like stereo optigrams in the Sunday comics, impossible to “see” without the proper perspective. Even with newsprint on noses, there are those who can’t “see” what is right in front of their faces! For those accustomed to flexing this visual muscle, the image pops off of the page.

Hearing music is no different. For those accustomed to flexing the muscle of the mental ear, the aural image, too, pops off the musical page as it were, the sound pops into the mind, the mental ear is turned on, and the music—as it was truly meant to be—begins!

When I have the opportunity to work in the classroom, introducing my music or representing all of us as an example of a living, breathing artist, I often ask children, especially very young children, to close their eyes and imagine the voice of their mother calling them into dinner in one ear, and their father saying their name in the other. Then I ask them to place the father’s voice in time to that morning, and their mother calling them into dinner one day last week. Then I ask them to hear the two separate voices from two separate times simultaneously.

Introducing the sound of a bassoon and a muted trumpet playing at two different tempi from two spatial depths is not so different than the exercise of hearing voices. Remove the instruments and you are left with the same idea as hearing your mother and father from some distant past. What is left is ephemeral to be sure, but lasts long enough to hear (and to remember!) the musical memory of it, what will one day become (without actual hearing!) the sound-image that is embedded in the logic of a metaphysical idea. It is there and it is tangible.

For the performers in my matching game, it is their ethical responsibility to know the work as projected from the new score before them. The interpretation must come out of the composer’s intention and the sound-image is as close as you’re going to get to being inside the composer’s mind. It is the epistemology of that idea, that intention, that willed logic onto the page.

And let’s not confine ourselves to applying this only to new music here, for interpreters of Mozart are as desperately in need of hearing intent as anyone. Every performer of every style of music must come to know the intentions of the creator of that work they hope to recreate. The sound-image is there, behind the language, however that language is conveyed. If it is notated, the sound-image can be heard if performers are taught to “lift it off the page.” For those musics conveyed strictly by performance or by oral tradition, the sound-image is there waiting for the actively listening ear as well, in the essence common to all performance of that work. But interpretation without a knowledge of sound-image says nothing, builds upon no tradition, breaks no new ground, for there is nothing common between performances to break.

We have all heard this in performance, its emptiness called up before us most starkly when talent is extraordinarily high, but the interpretation leaves us cold and without an avenue into the work. We have all heard this in the compositions themselves, or “seen” it in looking for the sound-image that is not there, but without knowing that what these performers and composers lack is an epistemological understanding of music.

This can be taught, was once taught, and can be again; like any literacy, there is a fluency learned in translating a semiotics to sound. Music is no different; it is a literacy and America is shockingly illiterate. One study I remember reading years ago found Scandinavian countries with the highest musical literacy in the world in the seventieth percentile. America was among the lowest at one-quarter of one percent. Not much has changed since then.

But it is not all about reading, but reading and hearing simultaneously. It is about training all musicians to hear Music as Heard. To make a living, breathing music theory that informs performance and not an idle exercise of finding the meaningless theoretical catch-phrase du jour in a music whose sound-image never incorporated these trivialities in its construction. It is, for performers, about listening to the music and learning from it how it was constructed; for composers, it is about appreciating performance and the epistemology of composition so that keys to the work’s unveiling might be placed within it in the work’s sound-image.

We are not taught to listen—composers and performers—not taught to hear voices. So we must teach ourselves and others, or what we create, and re-create, will be devoid of this lost element, this obscure and vital aspect of music, this lost voice of our art, like so many children left behind.


J. Mark Scearce holds five degrees in music and philosophy, including the doctorate in composition from Indiana University in Bloomington. He is the director of the music department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and the author of a dozen works for orchestra, including the recent 9/11 memorial set to a text by Toni Morrison.

Click here to play his Matching Game.

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