The Gifted Listener: Composer Aaron Copland on Honing Your Talent for Listening to Music
By Maria Popova
“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote to a friend, adding the requisite flamboyance of a 1920s radical: “Without music I should wish to die.”
Months after Millay’s death, Harvard offered its prestigious Charles Edward Norton Professorship of Poetry for the 1951–1952 academic year to the composer Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900–December 2, 1990) — the first non-poet to hold the post since its inception a quarter century earlier. More than a decade before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for capturing the human experience in music, Copland brought to his six lectures, later published as Music and Imagination (public library), not only the mind of an extraordinary musician but the central concern of his life — the artist’s role in the human family and the vital mutual nourishment between those who make art and those whose lives art touches, with a particular focus on the most commonly underappreciated agent in the musical universe: the gifted listener.
Copland begins by considering the surface contrasts and deeper resonances between poetry and music:
I used to harbor a secret feeling of commiseration for poets… trying to make music with nothing but words at their command. I suppose there exist at all times some few men* who have that much magic in them, but words at best will always seem to a composer a poor substitute for tones… Later… I came gradually to see that beyond the music of both arts there is an essence that joins them — an area where the meanings behind the notes and the meaning beyond the words spring from some common source… The poetry of music… signifies the largest part of our emotive life — the part that sings.
The poetry of music, Copland intimates, is composed both by the musician, in the creation of music and its interpretation in performance, and by the listener, in the act of listening that is itself the work of reflective interpretation. This makes listening as much a creative act as composition and performance — not a passive receptivity to the object that is music, but an active practice that confers upon the object its meaning: an art to be mastered, a talent to be honed. (In the same era, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was making the same countercultural point about the art of loving, as distinct from the damaging cultural notion of love as an object to be found and passively received.)
Copland observes that because the process by which music gives voice to our inner lives is so delicate and complex, it becomes “a very hazardous undertaking,” for there are many points at which it can break down:
At no point can you seize the musical experience and hold it. Unlike that moment in a film when a still shot suddenly immobilizes a complete scene, a single musical moment immobilized makes audible only one chord, which in itself is comparatively meaningless. This never-ending flow of music forces us to use our imaginations, for music is in a continual state of becoming.
This sentiment he borrows from Auden, who thought deeply and widely about the life of art and who believed that “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate; it goes on to become.” This becoming, Copland argues, is an imaginative act both for the musician and for the listener:
The more I live the life of music the more I am convinced that it is the freely imaginative mind that is at the core of all vital music making and music listening… An imaginative mind is essential to the creation of art in any medium, but it is even more essential in music precisely because music provides the broadest possible vista for the imagination since it is the freest, the most abstract, the least fettered of all the arts: no story content, no pictorial representation, no regularity of meter, no strict limitation of frame need hamper the intuitive functioning of the imaginative mind.
While elsewhere on the Harvard campus the psychologist Jerome Bruner was incubating his pioneering insight into the key to great storytelling and positing that creative writers both need and make creative readers, Copland writes:
All musicians, creators and performers alike, think of the gifted listener as a key figure in the musical universe.
A century after the underappreciated genius Margaret Fuller insisted that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Copland nuances the mathematical splendor of music with the shadings of its subjective reception in the listener’s mind. In a sentiment evocative of Nabokov’s famous aphorism “There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Copland insists that the fancy — the creative imagination of the gifted listener — is what renders “the facts of music, so called” meaningful. He writes:
Listening is a talent, and like any other talent or gift, we possess it in varying degrees… There are two principal requirements for talented listening: first, the ability to open oneself up to musical experience; and secondly, the ability to evaluate critically that experience. Neither of these is possible without a certain native gift. Listening implies an inborn talent of some degree, which, again, like any other talent, can be trained and developed. This talent has a certain “purity” about it. We exercise it, so to speak, for ourselves alone; there is nothing to be gained form it in a material sense. Listening is its own reward; there are no prizes to be won, no contests of creative listening. But I hold that person fortunate who has the gift, for there are few pleasures in art greater than the secure sense that one can recognize beauty when one comes upon it… Recognizing the beautiful in an abstract art like music partakes somewhat of a minor miracle.
Echoing Goethe’s exuberant case for the perceptive powers of beginner’s mind, he writes:
The sensitive amateur, just because he lacks the prejudices and preconceptions of the professional musician, is sometimes a surer guide to the true quality of a piece of music. The ideal listener… would combine the preparation of the trained professional with the innocence of the intuitive amateur… The ideal listener, above all else, possesses the ability to lend himself to the power of music.
Without theories and without preconceived notions of what music ought to be, [the gifted listener] lends himself as a sentient human being to the power of music… We all listen on an elementary plane of musical consciousness… On that level, whatever the music may be, we experience basic reactions such as tension and release, density and transparency, a smooth or angry surface, the music’s swellings and subsidings, its pushing forward or hanging back, its length, its speed, its thunders and whisperings — and a thousand other psychologically based reflections of our physical life of movement and gesture, and our inner, subconscious mental life.
In essence, music performs an enchanted act of subconscious storytelling. (Which might be why Maurice Sendak considered musicality the key to great storytelling.) In a sentiment at first blush inflammatory, especially for music-lovers and especially coming from a musician, Copland writes:
The power of music to move us is something quite special as an artistic phenomenon [but] I do not hold that music has the power to move us beyond any of the other arts.
The singular power of music, as Copland conceives of it, makes me think of what it feels like to stand beneath the star-salted sky beholding the universe, with all of its immensity and intimacy — that grand cosmic silence singing with everything there is. He writes:
There is something about music that keeps its distance even at the moment that it engulfs us. It is at the same time outside and away from us and inside and part of us. In one sense it dwarfs us, and in another we master it. We are led on and on, and yet in some strange way we never lose control. It is the very nature of music to give us the distillation of sentiments, the essence of experience transfused and heightened and expressed in such fashion that we may contemplate it at the same instant that we are swayed by it.
Leaning on philosopher Susanne Langer’s influential inquiry into what gives music its power and her conclusion that “music is our myth of the inner life,” Copland returns to the gifted listener as a crucial instrument for the power of music and a crucial agent in its collaborative mythmaking:
A healthy musical curiosity and a broad musical experience sharpens the critical faculty of even the most talented amateur.
The dream of every musician who loves his art is to involve gifted listeners everywhere as an active force in the musical community. The attitude of each individual listener, especially the gifted listener, is the principal resource we have in bringing to fruition the immense musical potentialities of our own time.
Complement this fragment of the wholly insightful Music and Imagination — which went on to inspire the young John Coltrane and an entire generation of other artists — with composer Elliott Schwartz, writing a generation later, on the seven essential skills of listening, then revisit Bob Dylan on music as an instrument of truth, Aldous Huxley on music as an instrument of transcendence, and a tender meditation on music and the mystery of aliveness.
Published September 17, 2021