To hear and to listen
I recently had an appointment with a medical specialist to deal with a malady of the annoying but hardly life-threatening variety. As I told the doctor the symptoms I was feeling, he nodded and noted them down. Then, as we discussed it further, I thought of another symptom I definitely felt when the condition came on. Or so I thought. For upon hearing this new information, the doctor shook his head and said no, I was probably confusing that symptom with something else.
With that answer, the doctor earned himself a huge demerit in my book. When he told me I was wrong about what I felt, he showed me that while he had heard me, he wasn't listening to me. His job, as I saw it, was not to disagree with what I told him. Rather, it was to try to get at what I meant by what I said, and to use that information to help him figure out how to help me.
Of course, this kind of thing happens all the time, especially in conversations where one person has lots more specialized knowledge than the other about the topic under discussion. I mean, haven't you been in conversations where you, with less knowledge, will fumble for a technical term, and the other person, with more knowledge, will tell you how you've just misused the term, and therefore don't really know what you're talking about? And boy, does it ever happen in classical music — ironically so, since classical music, one would think, requires close, careful listening to enjoy it to its fullest.
For instance, think about some fairly common musical terms, like consonance, dissonance, tonality, atonality and syncopation. Each has a specific (if occasionally changeable) meaning to musical insiders. And each gets misused all the time, even by people who otherwise know their way around music. It even happens on NPR! I heard an "expert" on NPR once describe the opening guitar chords on the Beatles' "Taxman" off their Revolver album (that qualifies as classical, right?) as "weird, dissonant syncopation." To a quasi-insider like me, this stuck out as incorrect. Rather than being notably dissonant, meaning that the notes of the chords clash, these are actually standard blues chords that could be heard on hundreds of other records. Most listeners, hearing these chords, would not expect them to resolve to sweeter, more consonant chords; they were fine as they were. And yes, with their strong accents on the normally weak second and fourth beats of the measure, the chords were indeed syncopated, but syncopated in the most basic, vanilla, far-from-weird manner. You can hear "weirder" syncopation on a Glenn Miller record.
At first, I was pretty ticked off that such basic musical terminology should be thusly defiled on my own station. And frankly, I still don't like the idea of NPR bringing on an "expert" who can't express himself more precisely. But as I thought about it more, his description of the opening chords of"Taxman" made a kind of sense, in the context of rock music of the period. Maybe it was their gritty timbre (tone color). Maybe it was their aggressive attack and bitten-off release. Maybe it was the jolt of electricity that went down our expert's spine as he first heard them. He may not have used the terminology correctly, and may not really know the official definitions of these terms. But if decoded properly, he was telling us something about what these chords meant to him. If I was interviewing him, it would be my job to not just hear what he said by "weird, dissonant syncopation," but to listen for what he was trying to tell me.
Maybe we could apply this to our own music listening. I think it would help, when confronted with a piece of strange music, if we went beyond merely hearing the notes, rhythms, harmonies and all the other choices the composers make in their works. Instead, we could try listen for what the composer meant by writing it that way. The music could be, according to our private definition, dissonant, atonal and downright weird. But before rejecting the music and deciding we don't want to hear it, we should at least give it a good listen. Only then can we really weigh in as the only true expert in one important field: our own opinion.