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Music 270 Some Thoughts on Writing About Music

The term "music" covers both individual pieces which can be studied in their own right and an aspect of a culture which provides an important window on that culture. . We will be considering music in both senses. This sheet provides some distinctions and perspectives useful to our work.


Here are distinctions and perspectives useful in making an objective description of any music. Some are crude, some more detailed; learning to hear and describe distinctions between different musics is a basic part of your work this semester.



COMPOSER (if known)_



As closely as you can. . For live performance, the actual date of the performance is what is needed here. For performances recorded in a studio, both when the album was recorded and when it was released can be important, especially for compilations of previous recordings.


Number of performers/Vocalist(s)/Instrumentalists/ Are there drums?

If the number of performers is large, just say "chorus", "orchestra", etc.; but the difference between solo, duet, trio, quartet is important. I


List all the instruments used if the ensemble is small; otherwise, just the types.


List the performers if possible; often, the identity of the performer is more important than that of the composer.

professional ___amateur ___ folk ___

Most commercially available recorded music is made by professionals; but we will also be using many documentary recordings. If you attend campus concerts by students, those are amateurs, as are most church performances, by friends, etc. "Folk" in this connection does not refer to style but to relationship of the singer to his/her audience: a "folk" performer in this sense is a person recorded on a documentary or field recording singing what he/she sings in their folk culture. Thus Pete Seeger is not a folk singer in this sense (He is a professional folk singer.) but the singers you hear on some of the New World Records, Smithsonian records and others are very often folk singers in this sense.



(source, type, rhyme scheme, form (see below ), subject, other prominent characteristics) (You may want to quote some portion of the text to illustrate its important characteristics.

How does the music support the text?



what instruments/voices are happening at any given moment and the role different parts play in making up the whole. Here are some sample textures: melody/accompaniment; melody/chords/rhythm; solo/rhythm section; imitative (like a round). Texture is an element that stays the same in some styles, and changes drastically within a piece in others; how the texture changes you should also indicate here, though that is really a part of



What sort of shape the piece has in time. Text and music typically differ in their forms. The music of a folk song that repeats the same music for every verse has AAAAAA form for the music (This is called strophic form); but if the text for each verse changes, like in a ballad, the text form would be ABCDE... for as many verses as the song has. The music of a blues also is also strophic "in the large"; each full blues chorus has the same basic shape. But the standard blues chorus has an internal text form of AAB--a line, that line repeated, then a second line. Tin Pan Alley Songs typically have a verse then a chorus; this form looks live AXBXCXDX… where X is the chorus, which doesn't change, and the verses are A, B, C, D. Form can operate on many levels. We use letters to indicate the basic form; show variations ' marks; thus AA'BA' means a piece with three sections basically the same, but the second two (which are exactly alike) differ a little from the first. Think about Oh, Susanna this way. The text form is verse chorus; musically, the verse is AA' (sing it for yourself to see this), the chorus ("Oh Susanna....") is BA'. Hearing the form is, in many styles of pieces, one of the best ways to focus on the piece. Take a song you know well and figure out how you would describe the form of its text and the form of the music; how do they relate to each other.



the tune. Here you describe whether the melody has a lot of internal repeating (Oh, Susanna ) or whether it is more through-composed (without repeating, like the first section of the Beatles' Yesterday); is it smooth or has big leaps between notes; is it easy to remember; how much does melody contribute toward making the music move forward. Include here whatever stands out to you about the main tune of the piece. For many--perhaps most--listeners, and in many types of music, it is melody that is the most memorable aspect of a piece. Tune is the only musical part of a piece that can be copyrighted easily; the melodic material of a piece is regarded legally as its essence.



the chords. Is their progression familiar, easy to follow? Are there many different chords, or only a few--even just one? Are the chords used simple or complex in sound? Can you describe the style of the harmony--blues, pop, church, etc.? How much does harmony contribute toward making the music move forward?



the most inclusive term on this list; everything in music reduces down to 'when"--and that's what rhythm is about. For this sheet, though, rhythm refers to two aspects of the music. First is the beat. Is there one? Is it steady or varying? Easy or difficult to follow? Is the beat grouped into regular units that repeat throughout the piece? (The beat for Oh Susanna is grouped into 2's; On Top of Old Smoky is grouped in 3's--sing these to see this. Try other songs you know to see how they group their beats.) The second is the overall character of the rhythm. Is their a rhythmic pattern that repeats all the way through? (Most rock and Latin American music works this way.) Are there many different rhythmic layers or just a few--even one? (Many church hymns just have one rhythm layer, even though there may be several different vocal parts singing.)

Two groupings used to organize and categorize music


a grouping based on some shared relatively surface characteristic of the music. Genre groupings we will be using are based on the performing forces (voices and instruments), function in society or time of composition. Examples of performing forces-based genre distinctions are choral piece, piano-bass-drums trio, string quartet, piano solo, songs for voice and piano. Function-based genres are bar music, church music, dance music, concert music, home music. Examples of time of composition-based genres are Civil War music, 1940's music, 20th century music. Genre names are often combinations: Civil war songs, 19th century home piano music. 1930's orchestral concert music.



a grouping based on shared aspects of the music that deal with textural, formal melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic characteristics (as well as the more surface characteristics used to define genres). Style is a more specific characterization of what you hear. Bluegrass, honky tonk, avant garde, or heavy metal are style distinctions.


A "snapshot" of the social and cultural context appropriate for any piece. Some of this material is fact, some will involve your opinions. What is important here is connecting music to an extra-musical framework; becoming sensitive to the relationship between music and its function in society at different times, in different places and for different groups of people is an important aspect of our work this semester.

geographical setting

rural ____ urban ____ any ______

intended for

children____ teenagers___adults _____ seniors_____all ages ___

rich _____ middle class ____ ghetto _____ any _____

white collar ____ blue collar ______

audience primarily

white ___ black ___ Spanish__ other ethnic _______________ all ___

gender focus

male___ female __ both __N/A____

audience attitudes

fans ____ curious ___

know what they like _____looking for something different ___

like it loud ___ mellow only____

movers ____sitters___

demanding ___ accepting ___ discriminating ____

regular listeners ___occasional listeners___

original ritual setting

concert __religious service __driving __exercise__ participating ___performing for yourself ___other ___

performance was

live concert__ informal live ___ live concert recording __ studio recording___ field recording ___


live at ________________at home ____ in car ____at dance ___ in Media Center ___other ______________

function of music

listen__ perform for pleasure__ dance__background___entertain__provide moral instruction__provide aesthetic experience__other___


How do the characteristics of the music relate to, derive from or depend upon, reflect or otherwise relate to these functional, social, societal and cultural characteristics


As an ongoing part of your work in the class, you are expected to listen to pieces carefully; the questions and concepts on this sheet are desigend to help you draw from your listening observations to include in your written work for the class. . You are not expected to answer all or even most of the questions here, or to use all of the concepts in refrring to every piece. And you will not be tested on this material. But I do encourage you to use the attributes of music as object and the context of music as artifact as points of departure for your own descrptions of the individual pieces you discuss in your listening.

How will this work affect your response to music outside a class environmen?t After the class is over, you will probably ignore completely the conscious part of this sort of listening (trying to classify according to the terms, the forms, the styles described in this document). So far as I am concerned that is probably desirable; after all, rarely do composers assume prior study of the music they write or perform, and they certainly do not expect you to be classifying as you hear! It is the effect of this work on "unconscious" listening that is most important--the growing ability to focus on the music itself rather than on whatever comes to mind as the music is happening. Compare the results of analytic study of music on listening to music with the effect of studying literary devices like alliteration and metaphor on reading. Most of us simply don't think of such devices as we read; but the experience we had in focusing on these devices in context has sensitized us to their effects, and heightened their expressive potential.

If, as a result of your listening to music in this class, you hear more in music without thinking about it, and find pleasures in listening you did not have before you took the class, then the class will have accomplished an important purpose.