On how to listen to music

From Brian Wren’s book “Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song”:

As we listen to music, our minds reach back and forth. Memory and anticipation work together. They “maintain a sort of map, partial and imperfect, of the composition passing before us.” Listening is led by anticipation, as our cerebral cortex draws on memory and searches for familiar patterns and devices. We anticipate what we already know, and in that sense “re-cognize” musical devices. Using a variety of examples from Western music, Leonard Meyer analyzes some of the ways good music keeps our attention as it unfolds across time. They include anticipation (he calls it expectation); surprise and suspense (“What’s going to happen? Where is this going? How will it ‘resolve’ itself and come to an end?”); repetition– which creates an expectation of eventual variation; and continuation– change within a continuous process. Listening is interactive. As we listen to music, “we are constantly revising our opinions of what has happened in the past in the light of present events… constantly altering our expectations.” Our anticipations are not merely intellectual, but felt: an instinctive mental and motor response.

We also anticipate, and hope for, completion and closure. Completion is not merely change or cessation. Music can change, or be stopped, without being completed. Completion arises from what has gone before, from relationships between antecedents and consequences. It is the musical equivalent of casting off knitting, coming home after a journey, or ending a story. “Completion is not simply cessation– silence. It involves conclusion.”


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