Book Review: COPLAND What to Listen for in Music – INKPOT

What to Listen for in Music


ISBN: 0-451-62880-2
(Mar 1999)
288 pages

by David Chew
Often, as a beginner to classical music, one can get inundated and overwhelmed by the deluge of unknown terms and forms of this particular genre of music. A good intro to the difference between a sonata and a fugue would be this book by Aaron Copland.

One of the most renowned American composers of the 20th century, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) very systematically analyses what music is all about. Based on content from his series of lectures between 1936 and 1937, Copland introduces us to the magical process of how music is born, made, refined, polished and served.

In general, Copland writes in rather simple language, simplifying many technicalities, describing how all the different components of music come together to make a great piece of music, great. The range of topics covered is thorough, ensuring one obtains the basic knowledge of knowing how to appreciate music by the end of the book.

This one-stop guide to classical music covers the following topics: how we listen to music; the composer’s creative process; the four elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony & tone colour); musical texture, musical structure; five fundamental forms (sectional form, variation form, fugal form, sonata form & free forms); opera & music drama; contemporary music; film music and lastly every composer’s, interpreter’s and listener’s responsibility in listening to music.

Every chapter begins with a brief history of the topic at hand, with famous composers (or important contributors) and their contributions to that particular topic infused liberally throughout. Copland also uses numerous examples of music to illustrate points of theory, examples of the components involved (the odd musical bar, for example, shows the reader visually how musical structure is employed). Best of all, a list of useful recordings that illustrate the elements discussed are included at the end of every topic.

I especially found the section on contemporary music engrossing. Belonging to the very group that Copland describes “flinches” whenever modern music is played, I read with interest as Copland clarifies a number of issues (more like misconceptions…) about ‘modern’ music, to “bring some order into the apparent chaos of contemporary composition”. He questions many listeners’ standards of comparison “that really do not apply”.

Throughout the book Copland provides effective analogies for his readers to better understand him, and it is no different here. He uses books as an analogy, saying just as it would be unfair to compare works of Thomas Mann or T.S. Eliot with Victor Hugo or Sir Walter Scott, “why then should Bartók or Sessions be expected to sing with the voice of Brahms or Tschaikovsky?” Instead he suggests that we view it as a challenge, and embrace controversy in music, not avoid it.

Concise and exploding with information, Aaron Copland’s What to Listen For in Music is an essential introductory reading for every beginner wanting to fully appreciate and enjoy classical music, also exposing them to more complicated and abstract forms of music. As William Schuman states in the introduction, this is “a book written by a man deeply committed to spreading the Gospel of … good music, This book is an invitation, and one that you would do well to accept.”

DAVID CHEW was recently caught indulging himself in chocolate fever and tanning by the pool while waiting to finish his Ann-Ass.

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866: 20.3.2001 David Chew

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