Tips for the Listening Exam

This exam contains such a wide variety of musical styles that it may seem overwhelming. However, that can actually work to your advantage. Because many modernist composers (at least in the West) were determined to sound completely different from anything in the past or any of their contemporaries, there are often very obvious characteristics to listen for. In fact there are two pieces on this exam that can be identified by a single characteristic. That will make it easy if you ask yourself “What am I hearing?” We’ll start with some of these “single issue” pieces.

I hear electronic noises (no traditional instruments)

This is Poeme Electronique by Edgard Varese. Whatever you may think of this piece, there is no questioning Varese’s postmodernist aim. He is completely leaving melody, and most of the other elements of music, behind in favor of a single-minded focus on color and texture using electronically generated sounds along with electronically altered recordings of sounds.

I hear solo piano (traditional)

This is the Trio from Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano. If you look at the table below you’ll see that even though this is technically a suite, I’m calling the genre “Twelve-tone music.” This compositional style was so influential that I wanted to highlight it by listing it as the genre. While this piece will be easy to recognize because it’s the only piece for solo piano, I hope you’ll take the time to really understand the information in your reading assignment on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system as it relates to the music. Whatever one’s opinion of twelve-tone music may be, there’s no denying the ingenuity of the compositional method Schoenberg developed.

I hear prepared piano

This is John Cage’s “Sonata V” from Sonatas and Interludes. While technically there are two works for solo piano on our playlist, this piece involves prepared piano. This means that the sound of the piano has been altered by laying objects across and/or wedging objects between the piano strings to create non-traditional sounds. Depending on the degree of preparation, the piano may not sound like a piano at all. This is certainly the case in this piece where the modifications to the piano result in an assortment of tinny, percussive effects.

I hear Sprechstimme (alternate title: I hear some really funky singing/talking)

If you hear any singing it can only be Madonna from Pierrot Lunaire, also by Arnold Schoenberg, an example of atonal music composed prior to his development of the twelve-tone method. Sprechstimme is a kind of half-spoken, half-sung vocal style which maintains the rhythm of notated music but slides around the pitch. While the Sprechstimme is the obvious characteristic, it is worth noting that the singer in this piece is female, and she is accompanied by a small chamber ensemble. That’s it for the most straightforward examples. Now let’s dive into some of the other pieces that will require an understanding of more than one musical element for identification.

I Hear an Orchestra

We’ve got a whole lot of orchestra on this exam. This is where this exam gets a bit challenging. Do keep in mind that some of these pieces are quite long, and you’re only hearing a 1 minute clip on the exam, so I’ll try to describe multiple musical elements to listen for. It is likely that not all the characteristics I list will be in the clip, but at least one of them will be.

I hear a cowboy dance

This is “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo. It is by far the most tonal and least dissonant of all the orchestral works on the exam. Copland intended for the western folk elements to be immediately recognizable. If you find yourself thinking that this music sounds like something from the soundtrack of a Hollywood western, that’s because the composers of film scores for Hollywood western’s have been copying Aaron Copland ever since he tried to capture American landscapes and traditions in orchestral music for ballet. I think the American cowboy flavor of this piece will make it relatively easy to identify.

I hear Impressionist music

Debussy and Ravel are our two Impressionist composers. Impressionism in music generally has an indistinct quality. It seems to meander gently rather than driving towards a clear melodic or harmonic conclusion. I tend to think of this music as hazy or shimmering. Impressionists also tended to favor the woodwinds over the strings. Classical and Romantic orchestras were dominated by the strings so Impressionists wanted to take the tone quality of their orchestral works in a different direction. The instruments of the woodwind family—flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, etc.—produce a wider variety of timbres than the strings, so in addition to simply being different tonally from previous eras the emphasis on winds gave these composers more colors with which to paint their music. Lastly, you’ll also notice that it is difficult to tap your foot along with the beat. Impressionists generally tried to obscure the basic pulse of their music as that contributed to the overall indistinct and gauzy sensibility mentioned earlier. If you hear Impressionism in a listening example, you’ll need to listen for some characteristics that are specific to either Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun or Ravel’s Daphis et Chloé.

  • I hear lengthy solo passages for individual instruments (flute, clarinet). I hear more contrasting sections within the piece. I hear more variations in orchestration. This is Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. This piece is a symphonic poem that attempts to depict Mallarmé’s poem of the same name. Let me start with the second characteristic listed above, namely the contrasting sections. Almost any work of literature or poetry is going to involve some contrasting elements, ideas or scenes that are different from each other, so a musical work that tries to render those elements is going to feature some similarly contrasting material. Those contrasts can be seen in the structure of the work (a more sectionalized form), and in the orchestration (different combinations of instruments at different times). Our listening example from Ravel, on the other hand, is just the first scene of the third act of the ballet. Since it’s just a small portion of a story there is less need for contrast. While the musical contrasts can be heard throughout Prelude, the solo passages mentioned above are heard in the beginning of the piece. The piece starts with flute all by itself, and then as it gets underway you hear long flute solos over the orchestral texture. Within a few minutes those solos are handed off to a clarinet. Speaking of the use of different instruments, that characteristic is not limited to the solo passages. You’ll hear different combinations of instruments throughout the piece as those contrasting sections come and go. In fact the changes in orchestration from one section to the next are one of the ways Debussy provides that sense of contrast. Once again, depending on where the musical excerpt on the exam comes from you may or may not hear every single musical characteristic listed above, but you’ll definitely hear at least one.
  • I hear a sweet, shimmering orchestral quality. I hear a chorus singing along with the orchestra (no words). I hear homogeneous orchestration and musical structure. This is “Lever du jour” (daybreak) from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. As an impressionist composer he, like Debussy, wanted to create a kind of hazy, ethereal sound by emphasizing the woodwinds over the strings. But instead of the lazy, meandering of Prelude, we hear sparkling patterns of high notes meant to represent trickles of dew from the rocks. This “shimmering” quality can be heard through a great deal of our listening example, and serves as a difference you can listen for between the two impressionist works. As also noted in the description of the Debussy piece above, our listening example by Ravel represents a small portion of the larger ballet. As a result, you won’t hear contrasting sections to the same degree. The musical structure and the instrumental combinations are more homogeneous throughout this listening example. Lastly, if the excerpt on the listening exam contains a choir singing wordless harmonies along with the orchestra, you are definitely hearing “Lever.” Ravel uses a chorus as a kind of fifth orchestral family (strings, winds, brass, percussion, and choir). The chorus does not sing any text so you have to listen carefully to pick out the vocal color, but it does provide a very convenient way to tell the two pieces apart.

I hear music that is loud, aggressive, and bold

There are three pieces that involve at least some big, bold passages and a healthy dose of dissonance: Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring, Part 1; Shotakovich’s Symphony No. 5, 4th mvmt.; and Bartok’s “Interrupted Intermezzo” from Concerto for Orchestra.

  • I hear lengthy passages of ominous, dissonant woodwinds. I hear a repeated, pounding chord in the orchestra. I hear irregular, almost violent rhythms punctuated by brass and percussion. This is The Rite of Spring, a ballet by Stravinsky. Like the two impressionist pieces, this work brings the woodwinds to the forefront of the orchestral color, but I don’t think anyone will mistake this for an ethereal, impressionist piece. Of the three pieces that I’m categorizing as bold and aggressive, Rite of Spring contains passages that are the most dissonant and harsh. Remember this is an example of primitivism. While there are milder passages of woodwinds, in the more active passages Stravinsky is trying to depict ancient, imaginary, and pagan Russia complete with human sacrifice. Perhaps this is why, in 1940 when Disney animators were creating a concert feature called Fantasia, they drew scenes of primordial life and dinosaur predators as a visualization for this work. The piece opens with ominous woodwinds and then graduates to crashing drums harsh chords in the brass. Notice too that while there is a very clear beat to the piece (again, unlike the impressionists), those groups are not always grouped into a regular triple or duple meter. Stravinsky used irregular rhythms and accents to heighten the sense of primitivism. Just as a reminder, our listening example is the first half of the ballet.
  • I hear a more traditional orchestral sound—almost Romantic. I hear clear, though at times dissonant, melodic ideas in the strings and brass. I hear extensive use of orchestral brass. I hear a slower, quieter contrasting section. This is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, 4 th mvmt. Like the Rite of Spring, this piece features bold, aggressive passages. However, I think you’ll easily distinguish it from the other two in this group. That’s because of the three it is the most traditional – no surprise there since Shostakovich is making use of a traditional genre, namely the symphony. Also, while the composer incorporated dissonance into the piece, he had to keep it restrained to avoid getting in trouble with the Soviet authorities. The middle section of this symphonic movement is slower and more subdued than the opening and closing sections. While that might make it easy to confuse with some other slower, ominous sounding pieces, I would consider that overly misleading to give you an excerpt that just featured the middle section because the big, bold, brassy triumphant sound is such a big part of what this piece is about. If your excerpt features the middle section it will also have a portion of the opening or closing fanfare.
  • I hear irregular meter. I hear lots of short, folk-like solos by woodwind instruments. I hear a lush melody—a serenade—in the strings. I hear harsh “interruptions” of a clarinet tune. This is “Interrupted Intermezzo” from Concerto for Orchestra by Bela Bartok. This movement is very sectional so you will likely hear more than one section of the piece. Remember that the solo-like passages for the woodwinds in the A section are why Bartok calls this a concerto for orchestra. The solos are short and played by lots of different instruments. You’ll hear a clarinet, then a flute, then back to the clarinet, then a horn, then an oboe. That should stand out if you hear that section. The interruptions are also pretty striking. They mainly involve percussion instruments such as cymbals, but after the first interruption of the C section we hear a trombone sliding upward. This piece has a very clear story that should assist in keeping all the different sections tied together in your mind.

I hear minimalism

This is John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. This has a lot of the elements of the other two pieces: the rhythmic emphasis of the Stravinksy and the big, brassy sound of the Shostakovich. Adam’s also doesn’t shy away from dissonance. At least in the middle section of the piece he uses dissonance freely. However, the repeated chords in this piece are lighter and more active than in the Stravinsky. Think of it this way: Stravinky stomps and Adams skips. However, there are a number of key elements that will help you identify this piece. A steady beat is played on a woodblock almost constantly. Listen for that woodblock. It really ties the piece together and helps give the sense of a steam train (that’s the fast machine that comes to my mind) chugging along the track. John Adams got his start as a minimalist, and minimalism uses a lot of repetition and patterns. Listen for chords and rhythmic patterns that are repeated several times, followed by a new chord/pattern that is repeated several times.

I Hear a Choir

There are two pieces for unaccompanied choir on our playlist for the 20th century: György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna and Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat. While a cappella choral singing can sound similar, in the case of these two pieces the composer has created very different effects with the same kind of ensemble. I don’t think you’ll have much difficulty distinguishing these two totally awesome pieces. Sorry, my inner choir geek got the better of me there.

  • I hear long passages of dissonant clusters of pitches. I hear no clear melody. I think I heard this in “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the trailer for “Godzilla.” This is Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Ligeti is known for his dissonant choral music. He developed a compositional technique called micropolyphony where each singer in the ensemble sings the same set of pitches but at their own pace. This creates a wall of dissonant tone color without any melodic line. He is primarily concerned with timbre (tone color) rather than melody. Stanley Kubrick used a number of Ligeti pieces in his films, including Lux Aeterna. The eerie choral music in the trailer for the recent Godzilla movie (playing while soldiers HALO drop into New York) is also a Ligeti piece, but not Lux Aeterna.
  • I hear organum-like passages—one voice sings a melody against repeated notes in another voice. I hear minimal dissonance and a medieval quality. I hear repeated melodic and harmonic patterns. This is Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat. Much of Pärt’s music is inspired by medieval choral music, including organum. As you’ll recall, organum involved the use of a pre-existing chant tune which was held out in very long notes while a new, active melody was added as a counterpoint to those long sustained pitches. In this piece there are many passages where two voices sing the same text (no long held out notes) but one of them sings on a repeated pitch while the other moves melodically. Because of the influence of medieval music, there is little of the dissonance so common to the music of other 20th century composers, but it tends to be very restrained. Minimalism is another influence on Pärt’s music. His works are often labelled as “holy minimalism” though he does not use that label himself. This influence manifests itself primarily through short repeated pitch sets in the melody or repeated harmonic progressions.

Titles, Composers, & Genres for Exam 5

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Claude Debussy Symphonic Poem
Daphnis et Chloë, Part 3 “Lever du jour” Maurice Ravel Ballet
Rite of Spring, Part 1 Igor Stravinsky Ballet
Pierrot Lunaire, Madonna Arnold Schoenberg Art Song/Lied
Suite for Piano, Trio Arnold Schoenberg Twelve-tone music
Symphony No. 5, IV Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony
Concerto for Orchestra, Interrupted Intermezzo Bela Bartok Concerto
Rodeo, Hoedown Aaron Copland Ballet
Lux Aeterna  György Ligeti Micropolyphony
Sontatas and Interludes, Sonata V John Cage Prepared Piano
Poeme Electronique Edgard Varese Electronic Music
Short Ride in a Fast Machine John Adams Minimalism
Magnificat Arvo Pärt Holy Minimalism