Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fun with SHMRG

When I was teaching in college, my students often asked what they were supposed to listen for and I said “anything you hear.”

How do you learn to hear something? Well, that sounds obvious – you listen – but sometimes there's so much to listen for, you don't know where to begin. And if you don't know that much about the technical aspects of music, you can easily be intimidated.

Here's a way you can “break this down” to get started. This is better to do when you're listening to a recording that sitting at the concert, but mentally you make notes too about certain things. What's great about this method is, the more you know about music the more you can write down or the more specific you can be; if you don't have that much experience listening to music – and I mean ANY kind of music – your observations will be more generic but you can still notice things.

It was really cool that while I was writing this up, Ms. Robbins, one of the school district's music teachers, sent out a diagram of things you can listen for and discuss when listening to a piece of music. It's very similar to what I was using with my students years ago.

So take a piece of paper and right these letters

S – H – M – R – G

in different parts of the page – leave yourself enough space in between to write several random observations.

What do these letters mean?

S = SOUND which means what kind of sounds do you hear? With 8 string players, talking about what instruments are playing is fairly easy, but at some points you might focus on the first violinist (Odin Rathnam) or another of the players: what are they doing that caught your attention?

Sound also means “how is this sound created?” What is the TEXTURE like – are all the instruments playing, just a few, maybe only one or two? Is the sound “thick” or “thin” sounding? That's texture.

H = HARMONY which basically means how notes are put together to make chords and how chords move from one to another to create different moods: are they moving slowly or rapidly? What kind of feeling do you get from that? Is it creating a relaxed atmosphere or is it very energetic or unstable? For musicians, you could notice if the chords are more vertically oriented – like chords you'd play on the piano – or are they the result of different parts moving horizontally in such a way that chords are created out of the different lines they're playing together (this is also called “counterpoint).

Of course, by the time you write something down, the music keeps going and you may look back later and have no idea where in the music was that thought you just wrote down! Don't worry. Music moves forward in time: it's not like a picture you can look at in your own time and stare at one item for a while before moving on to the next. Music moves at its own speed – fast or slow – but you have to go with the flow!

M = MELODY which is usually what people listen for. Not everything HAS a melody and not all melodies are “tunes” you can hum or sing along with. Sometimes “melody” is just the most prominent line which could be in the top part or in the bottom part.

Melody is also made up of fragments, like I'd said: you have a note, you take several notes and make a word out of them – these are MOTIVES and you can build melodies out of these. These might be “recognizable gestures” you'll notice when they come back. Sometimes they come back in places you might not expect, not always in the fore-ground. Maybe it's in the middle-ground or the back-ground.

You can also jot down ideas about the shape of these main motives – maybe a line that represents the shape of the music: in the opening of the Octet, the first violin plays a rising line that contains three fragments. You might draw a short rising line, separated by a small space, then a higher rising line, another 'breath' and the one more rising line that expands into a descending squiggle. How often does that “shape” come back as you continue listening?

R = RHYTHM. Everybody knows what “rhythm” is but you don't need drums to have rhythm (they do make it easier, though!). In the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Mendelssohn has several melodic ideas that are different from one another by their rhythms – if not the exact patterns of short and long notes, then a sense of how the notes are grouped together. Are all the notes bustling along really fast? Are there notes that sound slower (for musicians, the difference between eighth-notes and half-notes)? Do these set up patterns you can recognize when you hear them again?

G = GROWTH which means how things grow. If you look at a seed, you have no idea what it's going to look like when it's full grown. Even after a few sprouts, you can't always be sure what the flower or the leaves will look like later on. Music is the same way: when a piece starts, do you know what the whole thing is going to be like? No, unless you've heard it before and really know it well. Even then, there might be things – small details – you'll pick up on another hearing that you didn't notice before. Have you ever walked past a familiar place and suddenly something catches your eye? “Oh, I hadn't seen that before.” But it was probably there all along.

This is where you might notice these “small details” of how a melody is put together, taking a musical “word” and turning it into a musical motive that you hear again and again. Is it different from before? Is it the same or maybe only slightly different? How does the composer make it sound different? If it sounds REALLY different, is there something about it that kind of sounds like the earlier one did? Is this a complete contrast? What impact does this contrast have: does it change the mood, increase the drama, make it sound like another character in the scene has just walked into view?

One of the basic concepts of music is “UNITY” and “VARIETY.” How does a composer use either one? What does this do to the overall sense you're getting from the music?

A lot of these ideas will give you “small building blocks” which can be put together to make “larger building blocks.” What you have might be like starting with a single brick, but eventually you start seeing how these bricks can make a wall that, when you get a chance to see it, is actually the side of a house. How does a brick house look different than a wooden one? How does an apartment building look different than your school building or the State Capitol? How does something built 5 years ago look compared to something built over 100 years ago? These are elements of “growth” - how you develop a larger sense of “FORM” and how the surface differs from piece to piece. But just like those houses and buildings, no matter what they look like to you or how big they are or what they're used for, they all have similar things in common: they're built out of small things, they have walls, a roof, windows and doors. Different kinds of music can have the similar kinds of things in common but yet be completely different in how they sound to you.

There's another one I left out – I guess it would be T for TEXT (or W for WORDS). Since a lot of music, especially “pop culture music,” sets words – even though a lot of classical music is just instrumental – you can also jot down ideas about the words they're singing. More importantly, how does the rest of the music – what accompanies the words – get across what the words mean (or imply)?

Even if there isn't a text that's being sung, maybe it's part of a movie or TV show's scene that's telling a story or serving as background to a dialog. How does the music help the scene? What would the scene be like without the music? Are you even aware there WAS music in that scene?

So when you're done with your SHMRG, you'll have a mess of rambling observations but maybe, as you think about it, it begins to give you an idea of what you're listening to.

Try it with music you're familiar with – take your favorite song and really “listen” to it (don't just “hear” it). If there's something you really like, what is it that makes it like that? How do all these different details that make up a song help you enjoy it? Can you SHMRG a rap song or a country ballad? Sure – try it!

And the next time you find yourself listening to something you don't like at first, rather than sitting there being bored with it, try SHMRG-ing it and see what kind of things you discover in the music. It may help you realize, “hey, there's something here, after all.”

- Dr. Dick