Tips for the Listening Exam

As on the last test, the question you should ask yourself when you are listening to a piece is “What am I hearing?” Specifically listen for the musical characteristics that would enable you to recognize the genre (concerto, fugue, etc.) or individual movement (1st–4th movements of a symphony). Unlike the last test, there are very few pieces of vocal music so the “vocal vs. instrumental” question won’t really narrow things down much. We’ll need to be able to hear more specific characteristics within the music.

I Hear Singing

If you hear a singer or ensemble of singers, then the only two possible answers are “Notte e giorno fatticar” and “La ci darem la mano,” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. These should be fairly easy to distinguish by the performance forces. In other words, the number and type of singers you hear will provide the most obvious clue as to which piece you’re hearing. Both pieces contain a great deal of stylistic and variation as well. Understanding the order of the styles (e.g. recitative, ensemble, aria) in each piece will also be a key to identification. First, a quick primer on operatic voice parts: male voices (from lowest to highest)—bass, baritone, tenor; female voices (from lowest to highest)—contralto, mezzo-soprano, soprano. In “Notte e giorno fatticar,” we begin with a lively, comical bass aria, followed by a very frantic ensemble consisting of three voices (soprano, baritone, bass). A duel is fought, and then our recording ends with a somber ensemble (two basses and a baritone). Our exam excerpt of course will not be long enough for you to hear all of that, but you will certainly hear some of the dramatic emotional changes for which Mozart is so well known. In “La ci darem la mano,” you hear only two characters (soprano and baritone). First they sing a simple recitative, listen for the speech-like delivery of the recitative accompanied by harpsichord, and then they sing a lyrical duet (essentially an aria for two). Again, if you understand the performance forces and styles found in each piece, you’ll be in good shape on these two pieces.

I Hear Instruments Only

On this test you not only need to be able to recognize the various genres (serenade, symphony, concerto, sonata) but, in certain cases, the individual movements of a piece (Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor). Let’s start with the pieces that don’t involve individual movements as separate listening examples.

I Hear Solo Piano

This has to be Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, 1st mvmt.. The first movement is the only one on your CD, though you should remember that this work, like all sonatas, consists of 3 movements. Remember that in the Classical period a sonata was played by either a piano/violin or piano/cello duet, or by a solo piano. Also remember that the solo piano sonatas are considered the “New Testament” for piano players (Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier being the “Old Testament”) so his solo sonatas are very significant. Don’t get this confused with the concerto by Mozart. A concerto must have an orchestra. Although the instrumentation of this piece gives it away, it is worth remembering that the 1st movement of any multi-movement instrumental work in this period is going to have a fast tempo and sonata-allegro form. Beethoven likes to bend the rules so he starts off with a slow introduction followed by the first (very fast) theme.

I Hear Orchestra and Solo Piano

This has to be Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, 1st mvmt. A concerto features the contrast between a solo instrument and full orchestra and we definitely hear that contrast in this piece. Remember that in the Classical era the term concerto refers to a solo concerto as the concerto grosso falls out of favor at the end of the Baroque. If you were to hear this piece from the beginning you might think it was a symphony as the orchestra plays the first exposition (the first movement of any multi-movement instrumental work is going to be in sonata-allegro form) and the piano doesn’t enter until the repeat of the exposition. Once you hear those solo piano passages though, the genre becomes clear. Solo piano and orchestra must be the piano concerto by Mozart. Again the instrumentation of this piece gives it away, but it is worth remembering that along with the sonata-allegro form, the 1st movement of any multi-movement instrumental work is going to have a fast tempo and duple meter.

I Hear Orchestra and Solo French Horn

This has to be Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E flat major, 3rd mvmt. As a concerto, this piece is based on the same solo vs. orchestra contrast as in the piano concerto. While the alternation between the orchestra and the horn should give this piece away, it’s also worth noting that the form of this movement is a rondo. That means that the opening theme heard in the horn will return over and over throughout the piece.

I Hear a Chamber Ensemble that Features Only Stringed Instruments

Okay, now we have to listen a bit more carefully. There are three pieces for chamber strings: movements 1 and 3 of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and Haydn’s Emperor Quartet, 2nd movement. These pieces feature only strings, namely violins, violas, and cellos, so if you hear any other instruments, such as piano, woodwinds, or brass, it must be another piece. The size of the ensembles will help you distinguish between Haydn and Mozart. The Emperor is a string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello. It will have a very delicate, intimate sound compared to the larger string ensemble that plays the Mozart movements. So even though the same instruments are in use, being able to hear the difference between the large group and the small group will be a big help to you. However, the best way to tell these three examples apart is to listen for tempo and meter. Those distinctions are as follows:

  • I hear a fast tempo and a familiar theme. This is the 1st movement Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It is faster than the 3rd movement and a lot faster than the Haydn quartet. The opening theme should also be a big clue. It’s very catchy and most of us have heard that tune before. If you haven’t, consider committing the tune or theme to memory so that you can easily recognize the 1st movement. No matter where the excerpt is taken from, you’re bound to hear that theme.
  • I hear a triple meter and moderate tempo. The triple meter gives away the 3rd movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. This movement is a minuet and trio, two dances with a 1-2-3 beat. Minuets are typically stately and crisp, while trios are more flowing and lyrical. The moderate or medium tempo is also a good clue that you’re hearing the 3rd movement.
  • I hear a slow tempo. Slow tempo has to be the Emperor Quartet, 2nd movement by Haydn. 2nd movements are always slow and lyrical so the tempo, along with the small size of the ensemble, should be a pretty strong clue for you.

I Hear an Orchestra

A full orchestra without soloists indicates a symphony or an overture. This category will probably present the biggest challenge for the identification questions as you’ll need to hear the difference between a larger number of pieces or movements: Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Mozart, the Overture to Don Giovanni by Mozart, and the four individual movements of Symphony No. 5 in C minor by Beethoven. Remember that a full orchestra will feature instruments from all four orchestral families: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. If all you hear are the strings, you aren’t hearing a symphony – you’re hearing chamber music, such as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It should be easy to tell when you’re hearing the Beethoven symphony as it features the largest orchestra and makes much greater use of brass and percussion, along with the strings and woodwinds, than the other pieces. The challenge with the Beethoven symphony is to correctly ID the movements. Knowing the characteristics of the multi-movement cycle work will be vital to your success so be sure to study those slides carefully as you listen to the CD. Let’s start with the movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor.

  • I hear a fast tempo and a familiar theme. This is the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. As in the Mozart serenade, the first movement should be easily recognizable by its fast tempo and first theme. Most of us have heard the “da-da-da-dum” tune before. If you haven’t, I suspect you’ll have it memorized quickly after listening to the symphony a few times. It’s a very memorable, powerful theme. Remember that this is in sonata-allegro form you’ll hear all the themes in the exposition, some of the themes being modified in the development, and then all the themes again (along with an oboe mini-cadenza) in the recapitulation. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of characteristics that would rule this movement out. If you hear a slow tempo or a triple meter, it can’t be the first movement.
  • I hear a slow tempo. If you know you’re hearing Beethoven’s symphony and it’s slow, it must be the 2nd movement. 2nd movements are always slow and lyrical. Unlike most second movements, this one is in triple meter. The form of this movement is theme and variations. That means you’re going to hear theme 1 (the lush, lyric opening theme) coming back with changes in its rhythm, instrumentation, and mode (major vs. minor). Furthermore, theme 2 is very majestic. While it doesn’t get varied, it is quite heroic. I like to say that Beethoven’s music often seems to depict a struggle of good against evil. In that context, the 1 st movement is the theme music for the villain, while the 2nd movement is the theme music for the hero.
  • I hear a lot of activity in the low strings. This is the 3rd movement. While this movement features a triple meter, this characteristic can be a little tough to pick out. Most 3rd movements feature a moderate (medium) tempo, but this movement is marked Allegro, or “fast,” and that makes the triple meter harder to hear or feel. It should be said that the trio section seems faster than the opening scherzo, but they’re both pretty fast for a 3rd movement—not to mention the fact that Ludwig throws us a curve ball by putting the 2nd movement in a triple meter. What can I say—Beethoven was a rule-breaker. Instead of tempo and meter, I suggest listening for an emphasis on certain instruments, namely the low strings. They start off the scherzo (this is a scherzo and trio, not a minuet and trio) with a rocket theme in the low strings (cellos and basses). Then when the trio begins, the trio theme is treated fugally. The instruments that start off this series of imitations are, you guessed it, the low strings. The trio theme really gives those bass players a workout so if you find yourself imagining low string players breaking a sweat, you are hearing the trio. If you hear the pitch run from low to high in the low strings, you’re hearing a rocket and that means scherzo.
  • I hear a fast tempo with heroic quality. The 4th movement is the most heroic sounding of all four movements. While I can’t confirm this, I’m 99.9% sure that the transition theme was copied by the composer of the film score for the old (the real) Superman movie with Christopher Reeves. It must sound heroic if they’re copying it for Superman, right? Remember that fourth movements are essentially the finale, and in Beethoven’s hands there is usually a very strong sense of triumph. Remember our struggle of good against evil analogy? The fourth movement is the hero beating the villain, getting the girl, and then coming home to a ticker tape parade. Now let’s get down to some musical specifics. Often the 4th movement of a work like this is the fastest. That really isn’t the case here. The 1st movement has a tempo marking of Allegro con brio, which means “fast with brilliance.” The 4th movement is just Allegro, or “fast.” For this reason, tempo by itself isn’t going to give this movement away, though it certainly can eliminate the 2nd and to some extent 3rd movements as possibilities. However, tempo combined with mode is another story. Mode refers to whether we are hearing a major, which often seems happy or joyful, or minor, which often seems sad or foreboding, tonality in the music. The symphony begins, as the title indicates, in C minor. Remember how dark and foreboding the 1st movement seemed? The symphony ends with a triumphant C major. So if you hear a fast tempo in a minor mode, chances are it’s the 1st movement. Fast tempo and a triumphant major mode would indicate the 4th movement.

Now there are two other works for orchestra besides the Beethoven symphony. Both of these works are by Mozart, the Symphony No. 40 in G minor and the Overture to Don Giovanni, which means that there will generally be a more elegant, understated, even delicate quality to these pieces. They are no less masterful than the Beethoven symphony, it’s just that these two geniuses each spoke their own expressive language. To oversimplify, Mozart’s music has grace and class, while Beethoven’s music has raw emotive power. To oversimplify even more, Mozart wore a powdered wig and Beethoven did not. So as I said before, I think you should be able to, once you’ve determined that you’re hearing an orchestral work with no soloists, easily determine whether you’re hearing Mozart or Beethoven. If the determination is Mozart, then here are some suggestions for distinguishing Symphony No. 40 from the Overture to Don Giovanni.

  • I hear a change in tempo (slow to fast). If you hear a slow, solemn tempo suddenly change to a fast, lively tempo, you are definitely listening to the Overture to Don Giovanni. This Overture is in sonata-allegro form but he does not immediately start with the first theme. He leads into the faster music with a kind of dark musical premonition of the Don’s ultimate end. The slow, writhing string passages of this introduction are incredibly moving. To then shift gears to the sprightly acrobatics of the first theme is a kind of contrast that in the hands of a lesser composer would just seem jarring and overdone. Mozart carries it off with ease. In case the excerpt comes from later in the piece it’s also worth noting that Mozart makes use of occasional brass and percussion in the Overture. There is no percussion in the 1st movement of his Symphony No. 40, and he makes such subtle use of the horns that you almost don’t notice the brass. One last thing: the genre for this piece is listed as opera. This overture is often performed as a stand-alone piece so I could have listed the genre as overture. I just felt that since Mozart has integrated the overture so seamlessly into the larger work, it would be best to give it the same designation as the two vocal works, namely opera.
  • I hear an insistent, urgent theme in the violins. The first theme of Symphony No. 40 in G minor is so captivating in its urgency that it’s the best way to pick out this piece. It appears in all the sections of the movement, exposition, development, and recapitulation, so it would be nearly impossible to have an excerpt that didn’t include it. I’ve also mentioned that this piece doesn’t have any of the percussion that the overture has so instrumentation will provide a significant clue.

Titles, Composers, & Genres for Exam 3

Title Composer Genre
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1st mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Serenade
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 3rd mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Serenade
Horn Concerto in E flat major, 3rd mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Concerto
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, 1st mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony
Emperor Quartet, 2nd mvmt. Franz Joseph Haydn String Quartet
Piano Concerto in A major, 1st mvmt. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Concerto
Overture to Don Giovanni Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Opera
“Notte e giorno fatticar,” Don Giovanni Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Opera
“La ci darem la mano,” Don Giovanni  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Opera
Pathetique Sonata, 1st mvmt.  Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, 1st mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, 2nd mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, 3rd mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, 4th mvmt. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony