Listening for Music’s Overall Destiny

Listening for Music’s Overall Destiny

Anthony Brandt
Photo by Thomas LaVergne

Many of the recommendations about how to make contemporary music more audience friendly focus on how the music is presented. Alternative venues, amplification, multimedia, and audience feedback are great suggestions for signaling that the concert may defy the audience’s expectations; they help make concerts more social, hip, and approachable. But at the heart of any musical experience lies the act of listening. The renovations in concert presentation are an invitation to give the music a fair hearing. But if we don’t offer new strategies for listening, the impact of the public’s encounter with the music itself risks being diluted or lost.

Typically, a listener’s attention is directed to the smallest elements of music: chords, motives, themes, etc. Joseph Kerman’s seminal book Listen opens with a “vocabulary for music,” with detailed discussion of its basic building blocks: accent and meter, scale and melody, etc. The first chapter of Leon Stein’s Structure and Style is devoted to the “figure, motive and semi-phrase.” The Concert Companion, a Palm Pilot-like device currently being tested by several major orchestras, offers a real-time running commentary on a musical work. As reported by NPR, a screen for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony reads: “With the unlikely combination of cellos doubled by violas, a songful, long-breathed melody unfolds over plucked string basses.” Over and over, the message is “Begin with the small, and build up to the large.”

This method works reasonably well in the Common Practice era, because the basic elements of the music remain so consistent. But this approach runs aground in the 20th century, where composers’ building blocks are much more diverse: Harry Partch developed microtonal scales, Olivier Messiaen created new modes, John Cage used chance operations. Each of these musical materials follows its own necessities and creates musical progressions and connections in novel ways. In an age where the singularity of one’s basic materials is prized, trying to prepare listeners for every possible building block is futile. In Beethoven, we can count on the major triad occurring in every piece. But in the 20th century, even from one work to the next by the same composer, the basic elements of the music may differ. In addition, the materials of modern music often contain greater ambiguity and complexity, making them harder to interpret as they pass by so quickly. Kerman himself acknowledges the problem. In discussing 20th-century music, he writes: “The ‘vocabulary for music’ developed at the beginning of this book, which helps to a degree in following older music, seems now to be in the process of becoming obsolete in certain circles.”

Many years ago, I attended a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The program concluded with a performance of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9. No sooner had the conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, lowered his baton, and the ensemble played the work’s first chord, than a woman in a feathered hat stood up in the front row and walked solemnly the length of the audience out of the hall. One unfamiliar chord had been enough to send her for the exits.

That is what happens all the time. Their attention focused on details, listeners feel assaulted and betrayed by sounds they don’t recognize. They become confused and tune out. Even if they stay in the auditorium, they never actually hear the entire piece—their minds have drifted elsewhere.

Trying to understand music detail by detail is a bit like following the stock market on a day-by-day basis. Television stations run ticker tapes at the bottom of the screen. Web homepages include up-to-the-minute updates on the Dow Jones. Stock tips clog up our e-mail. However, the coherence of the stock market—and thus its success as an investment—lies in its long-term trends. A good broker can’t predict what will happen tomorrow, but he or she should be able to manage your stocks over longer timeframe. Amateur brokers often flee the market because they can’t endure the stress of its daily ups and downs. To be a successful investor, it is very important to track long-term progressions.

Listening to music—especially when it is novel—is similar to managing one’s stock portfolio: It is crucial to develop a comprehensive, rather than detail-oriented, hearing of a composition.

One way is by listening for a work’s “overall destiny.” Overall destiny is a way of describing the outcome of a musical composition, similar to the way we would describe the outcome of a narrative. There are three types of overall destinies: a strong roundtrip, a weak roundtrip, and a one-way progression. In Jules Verne’s 1872 adventure novel Around the World In Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg uses “every means of conveyance—steamers, railways, carriages, yachts, trading vessels, elephants” to return to the doorstep of the Reform Club and complete his voyage around the world. His return is emphatic, secure, and complete. Similarly, a piece of music may create a strong roundtrip by returning with emphasis and conviction to its starting point.

The 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre, based on real life events in 16th-century France, tells of a different kind of return. Unexpectedly, after many years, the solider Martin Guerre makes it back to his village. Scarred by years of battle, he is barely recognizable. Many are skeptical of his identity, but he is familiar with the histories of the village and its people and is a loving husband to his wife. His return at first seems secure. But those suspicious and even jealous of him eventually prove that he is an impostor, trained by the dying Martin Guerre to console and protect his wife. The hero is merely a stand-in, a vessel for the true Martin’s memories and hopes. Though noble and caring, the false Martin’s return ends with his execution. This is a weak roundtrip. Similarly, a weak roundtrip in music is one in which the return is ambiguous, insecure, or incomplete.

Finally, Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel Anna Karenina is an example of the third type of destiny: a one-way progression. When the story begins, Anna is married with two children. But she is vulnerable and unhappy, and falls for the charms of Count Vronsky. Her marriage eventually disintegrates, and she runs off with Vronsky. However, their relationship, too, comes to an end. Ashamed and betrayed, Anna cannot return home; instead, she throws herself beneath a train.

The overall destiny of a narrative is crucial to its meaning. If Phileas Fogg crashes while crossing the Atlantic and never makes it to London, Verne’s tale takes a more tragic and bitter turn. If Anna were reunited with her family, Tolstoy’s story would have a far different import.

Similarly, the overall destiny of a piece of music is central to its meaning. If the piece is a strong roundtrip, it speaks of the music’s essential stability and endurance. If it is a weak roundtrip, than instability has begun to intrude, leaving the music unresolved. If it is a one-way progression, then progress and flux are even more strongly emphasized.

An impression of a work’s destiny can draw the listener deeper into it. If it is a strong roundtrip, several questions then arise: How far away from its origin does the music stray? How long does it take to make it back? If it is a weak roundtrip, one might ask: What makes the end ambivalent? Is there advance warning of this outcome? If the piece is a one-way progression, one might consider: How does the end compare with the beginning?

An overarching view of the work’s destiny, then, begins to draw the listener into the details. In Anna Karenina, Anna and Vronsky first meet at a St. Petersburg train station. In a foreshadowing of Anna’s fate, a man commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. Similarly, in music, details are at the service of the work’s overall destiny. That is how they are often best understood.

Directing the audience to listen to a work’s overall destiny has several advantages: First, every piece has a destiny—it’s up to the listener to interpret what it is. Second, the destiny is style-independent: You don’t have to recognize the music’s basic materials to apprehend its destiny. Third, listening for the destiny guarantees that the audience will follow the music all the way through. Finally, a work’s destiny is always relevant to its meaning: If Beethoven’s Ninth ended with a whimper, it would be a different piece.

If the feather-hatted lady had stayed in the hall for the entire Chamber Symphony performance, she might have heard Schoenberg’s first chord return as a structural pillar at strategic points. She might have sensed the chord’s constant presence as it reappears in different guises in the course of the composition. She might have heard the piece end with a strong roundtrip, as Schoenberg excitedly recapitulates his main themes. Instead, because of her focus on details, she was chased from the hall by one unexpected sound. If we want audiences to invest in the new, the unexpected, and the adventurous in music, we must teach them to listen with patience and resilience to music’s larger shapes.


Composer Anthony Brandt is the author of Sound Reasoning, a free, web-based, interactive music appreciation course hosted by Rice University’s Connexions Project that presents strategies for listening to classical and modern music. Dr. Brandt is an Associate Professor of Composition at Rice University and is the director of the Houston-based new music ensemble Musiqa.

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