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Roger Bissell

Hospers on Copland, Lang, Machlis, etc.

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What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland

Music in Western Civilization by Paul Henry Lang

The Enjoyment of Music by Joseph Machlis

Reviewed by John Hospers

There is only one way to learn to appreciate music, and that is to listen to it over and over again. There is no substitute for personal exposure to the music. That’s a general limitation on “how to do it” books: you cannot really learn to swim from a book—you have to get experience in the water.

Still, it is possible to use a book to give you a better idea of what to look for. One way to do this is to study the techniques of music. For this, there are many books on harmony, counterpoint, and musical composition in general. But these require you to become something of a specialist, and they all presuppose an ability to read music from the printed page. Another way is to study the history of music. There are countless books on this, of which Paul Henry Lang’s Music in Western Civilization is perhaps the most comprehensive and among the best.

But the appreciation of music is different from both of these, and it is something very difficult to write a book on. Most such books turn out to be a mixture of music history and musical forms and techniques, and presumably that is not exactly what the readers of BFL want. What they wait is a kind of “aid to listening” which will help them get into the music more easily and help them discover some clues to intelligent listening. Aaron Copland is one of America’s most noted contemporary composers, and it is interesting that a man who is himself a composer should be the one who has written the best non-technical guide to music listening.

There is an interesting chapter on the listening process, followed by a chapter on each of the main elements of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, and timbre (tone-color). This is followed by a discussion of musical texture and musical structure, and analyses of some of the main musical forms: sonata fugue, theme-and-variation, and so on. There is a chapter on music accompanied by words (particularly opera), one on music for film, and one on the special problems of appreciating contemporary music.

Copland’s book does not contain analyses of specific musical works. For this, you must go on to more detailed studies. Of these, the six-volume Essays in Music Analysis, by Sir Donald F. Tovey, has never been surpassed. He does not analyze every musical work you might be interested in (for example, he has many detailed analyses of Beethoven works but none on those of Mahler), but those works on which he does focus his microscope are superlatively illuminated. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: if you listen, for example, to a Beethoven quartet, and cannot make much sense of it at first, then turn to Tovey’s analysis of it; I believe that whatever patience you have to exert in doing so will be rewarded.

Also worthwhile for those who wish to go more deeply into music appreciation, is Joseph Machlis’ The Enjoyment of Music. And for those who would like historical background material on the period of music they are listening to, there are many volumes, among which I recommend Gustave Reese’s Music in the Middle Ages and Music in the Renaissance and Oliver Strunk’s The Baroque Era.

There are many books on the works of each major composer as well as biographies, of which I particularly recommend J. W. N. Sullivan’s Beethoven: His Spiritual Development. Two particularly interesting books are Greatness in Music, by Alfred Einstein—Albert’s musician-brother—and The Shaping Forces in Music—on the various elements in a musical composition—by the contemporary composer Ernst Toch.

On the aesthetics of music, particularly the nature of musical expression and the connection between music and the life of feeling, I recommend Eduard Hanslick’s The Beautiful in Music; an anthology of essays on expression entitled Artistic Expression, edited by myself; two systematic accounts of the nature of expression, Mind and Art, by Guy Sircello, and The Concept of Expression, by Alan Tormey, and (exclusively on musical expression) two books by Leonard Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music and Music, the Arts, and Ideas.

But for a brief introduction to music appreciation that may spur you on to listen carefully and enjoyably, you cannot do better than Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music.

[This review essay first appeared in Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 7 (July 1974) and was posted to Objectivist Living with the author's permission on Thursday, September 14, 2006.]

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