Anastasia Tsioulcas writes at NPR Music for “Deceptive Cadence” (http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence). Widely published as a writer on both classical and world music, she is the former North America editor for Gramophone Magazine and the classical music columnist for Billboard. She has also been an on-air contributor to many public radio programs, including WNYC’s Soundcheck, Minnesota Public Radio’s The Savvy Traveler, Public Radio International’s Weekend America, and the BBC’s The World.
You love the music you love, but you'll love it even more if you listen closely.
Analysis will never trump feeling: The way a piece or a song moves us is ultimately what makes music lovers (addicts, really) come back for more. But the more you understand how composers and musicians manipulate the fundamental four elements of music — rhythm, melody, harmony and color — is a peek behind the curtain.
Before we go any further: this little cheat sheet comes with apologies to Aaron Copland, whose short and brilliant 1939 book What to Listen for in Music remains the ur-text, and from whose wealth of ideas I am stealing shamelessly. As fellow composer William Schuman rightly wrote in his introduction to the 1988 Copland reprint, "The uninitiated can gauge its significance by imagining a book by Rembrandt called What to Look for in Painting."
Obviously, this guide isn't meant to replace a more thorough study and grounding (or, more to the point, basic music education in the schools). But our hope is that when you're approaching a piece of music either for the first time or revisiting an old favorite, you might ask yourself a few of these questions as a way of digging into what makes it tick.
1. Rhythm And Meter: Does the music move quickly, or slowly, or somewhere in between? Can you hear the meter? (That is, can you easily hear the downbeat? Does the music divide neatly into, for example, one-two-three-four or one-two-three over and over again?) Do certain rhythms pop up again and again? Where are the stressed accents? Do stresses pop up in unexpected places? Does the composer string together rhythms in interesting ways, or layer different rhythms in different ways on top of each other? And how does a particular performer or group play with a given rhythm? Or does the composer play with polyrhythms — layering rhythms on top of each other — like the way Steve Reich does in Drumming?
2. Melody. A catchy melody can be the make-or-break of music — and it's not just a matter of what the most important notes are, but where they go. Does a particular line contain a lot of notes, or just a few? How big is the range of pitches you hear — do they all cluster on low notes, for example, or mostly high, or do they go all over the place? Does it sound like all the notes in a melody could "fit" together on the same scale, or does the melody wander more widely? Is there a main melody that the composer returns to again and again or uses as a springboard, or are the ideas more diffused? Think of the insanely catchy melody to "La donna e mobile" from the opera Rigoletto: Verdi kept this famous aria secret (even from the singer) almost until the very hour of the opera's debut, for fear of a leak.
3. Harmony: This is what music sounds like "vertically," so to speak — not the melody or rhythms, which both move linearly, but the chords, or stacks of notes, that would exist if you froze any particular moment in a piece of music. Do you hear just one line of melody, or are there different voices or instruments weaving in and out on using different pitches from each other? If it's the latter case: Do those lines sound close together in pitch or far apart? Do they move in the same direction as or away from each other (or some of both) — and when they come to rest, how does it sound? When three or more pitches sound together at the same time (which is called a chord), what does that sound like? Do you feel like the music is rooted in a particular universe of pitches, or more like it's floating untethered? Take a listen to the Spem in Alium, a motet written by the 16th-century Thomas Tallis for voices singing 40 different lines simultaneously, for a sublime example of what's called counterpoint — how voices move against each other. Bach's very familiar chorales are an excellent opportunity to hear how beautifully he could use basic Western harmony.
4. Color And Texture. Each instrument produces a different range of "colors" — the metallic brilliance of a flute, for example, sounds a whole lot different than the warmth of a female singer, though they have similar pitch ranges. And in an age where electronics hold such a central role, a composer can choose between a synth, an electric guitar, and a cello, for example — and each instrument would lend a very specific mood to the music. (And dropping in digital samples or loops draws in whole other worlds of references.) Or take, as another example, the very useful piano, with its handily wide range of 88 possible pitches: it's very much a melodic instrument, but can also be used quite percussively. How does the composer partner up instruments? Does she or he use very familiar combinations, like a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello), or a much more unusual array? A full orchestra is also a great means to show off the differences in color: Think of Ravel's Bolero, in which the rhythm and melody never change — only the instrumentation does.