Tips for the Listening Exam

To succeed on listening exams you need to do more than just listen to the overall sound of a piece. You need to dig down into the music with your ears and hear what is going on in the music. To do this you should be constantly asking yourself the question: what am I hearing? Can you discern the texture, the instrumentation, the tempo, the form, and the melodic style? Often there will be one single characteristic that will give away the genre, or at least enable you to eliminate all but a couple of possibilities. This of course assumes that you have done your homework and know what to be listening for. This document is designed to help you train your ear to listen for some of those telltale characteristics.

You will need to study the characteristics of each piece that will enable you to recognize that piece when you hear them. Often it’s best to learn how to identify the genre first. Every genre has certain general characteristics. If you can recognize them, that will often make identification of the specific title and composer much easier.

In most of the periods of history there is a clear dividing line that will enable you to eliminate around half of the genres you’ve listened to: vocal vs. instrumental. For example, later in the semester when we study the Classical period, if you hear someone singing you know the piece cannot be a symphony or string quartet. In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, however, there just wasn’t much instrumental music that was written down. Because of that, we don’t have the benefit of grouping our pieces by whether they are instrumental or vocal—all but two of them involve singing. That said, those two strictly instrumental works will stand out so much that they are probably a good place to start.

Remember, the question that should always be in your mind during a listening exam is “what am I hearing?”

I Hear Instruments Only—No Singing

There are only two pieces you could be listening to. Both are examples of anonymously composed Renaissance dance music and so only the title will change. I’ve listed the title, composer, and genre information for both pieces. Below that we’ll delve into what you should listen for in order to tell them apart.

  • Pavane by Anonymous; a renaissance dance
  • Galliard by Anonymous; a renaissance dance

There are two clear characteristics to listen for when trying to tell which one of the dances you’re hearing: meter and instrumentation. Meter refers to the organization of the beats. As you tap your foot to the beat you’ll notice that some beats are stronger than others – important moments in the music will seem to line up with those stronger beats. Try to determine whether the beats are grouped “strong-weak-strong-weak” (duple meter) or “strong-weak-weak-strong-weak-weak” (triple). Pavane is duple and Galliard is triple. Triple meter dances tend to have a more lively and fun quality to them, while duple meter dances tend to be more stately and serious sounding. This is certainly the case with these two pieces so listen for the emotion of the piece as another clue to the meter. Next, each dance is performed by different instruments. Pavane begins with a hand drum introduction. Then a group of instruments play through the dance’s melody once. Most of these instruments are relatively loud winds: shawms (early oboes) and sackbuts (early trombones). This makes for a fairly strong sound. Next, the tune is played through again by a vielle (early violin) with lute (early guitar) accompaniment. Then the initial group plays through the piece one more time, the hand drum keeping a steady beat the entire time. By contrast, Galliard is performed entirely by softer flutes with a tambourine providing an underlying rhythmic accompaniment.

I Hear Singing and Instruments

Once again, there are only two possible pieces you could be listening to. Both are pieces of medieval secular music and both feature singing and polyphonic texture. However, they are easily distinguished by the instrumentation (the various voices and instruments that perform the piece). Because there is a little more to describe, I’ll list each piece separately.

  • A Chantar M’er by Beatriz, Countess of Dia; a troubadour song. Troubadours and trobairitz were solo artists so this piece features a single, female vocalist and two instruments, namely a vielle and a lute. This is the only piece on the exam sung entirely by a solo female voice. In the beginning the vielle and the singer take turns presenting the melody and the lute plays with the singer only. On the final verse of the text the violin plays the tune simultaneously with the singer. Remember that the Countess was writing around 1175AD and polyphony was in its early stages at this time. It is not surprising that the texture of this piece, while polyphonic, is quite simple. The only thing Beatriz wrote down was the melody that was to be sung (and in this performance played by the vielle also). Any additional lines were improvised on the spot, which is one reason they were so simple. This provides a contrast with the later chanson. Chansons evolved as a combination of the tradition of the troubadours’ secular songs and the more complex polyphony that had developed in the composition of sacred masses and motets. It’s also worth mentioning that we really have no idea how these pieces would have been performed in their day. In this performance, the musicians are clearly using a regular beat, though it speeds up and slows down somewhat. However, this is not something indicated in the written music that has survived. It is entirely possible that these pieces would have been performed without a steady pulse, much like a Gregorian chant. I have heard performances of this piece that take that approach. So while you should focus on the specifics of this performance as you prepare for the listening exam, keep in mind that there are many possible was to perform the piece since there is no way to know what Beatriz intended.
  • Ce Moys de May by Guillaume Dufay; a chanson. As was just mentioned, this piece was composed much later—roughly 250 years after A Chantar M’er. By this time polyphonic composition had become more sophisticated. This piece has three composed melodic lines, meaning nothing is improvised, and they are each quite active and involved. This more complex polyphony is one way to recognize this piece as compared to the troubadour song. The lively tempo and active lines will help you distinguish this piece from A Chantar M’er, which again is the only other piece with both instruments and voices. The tambourine is a pretty big clue as well. As with the troubadour song, however, there is a lot we don’t know about the composer’s intent. Did he mean for all three lines to be sung or just the highest part? In our performance all three lines are both sung and played by instruments, but if you search this piece on Spotify you’ll find other performances where a solo singer performs the top line and the lower lines are played by instruments.

I Hear Singing Only—No Instruments

We’ll need to find other ways to narrow down the possibilities: there are nine pieces that are performed by voices alone. I think the best characteristic to zero in on during the Medieval and Renaissance periods is texture. In some cases, such as monophony, texture will give you the genre, namely Gregorian Chant. In some others it will greatly narrow down the possible genre choices. Again, ask yourself “what am I hearing?”


There are only two monophonic pieces on this exam. If you hear monophonic texture it can only be one of the two chants. Remember that monophonic texture means that everyone is singing the same melodic line and there’s nothing else going on in the music. Imagine if we all sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in class. Even though there would be a lot of us singing, we’d all be on the same part or line of music. That’s what monophony is, and all chant features this simplest of textures. There are only two chants (and therefore only two examples of monophony) in your listening so if you can pick up on the texture you can narrow it down to two pieces: Gradual Viderunt Omnes and O Rubor Sanguinis. From there, listen to who is performing. They are listed below with some characteristics to listen for that will help you tell them apart.

  • Gradual Viderunt Omnes by Anonymous; a gregorian chant. On our recording, this chant is sung by men. You’ll recall that in the monasteries, all-male establishments, these chants would have been sung on an almost hourly basis. O Rubor Sanguinis, on the other hand, is sung by women.
  • O Rubor Sanguinis by Hildegard of Bingen; a gregorian chant. Because Hildegard of Bingen established an abbey, a place where the nuns lived and worked, this chant would have been sung by a female chorus just as it is in the performance on our Spotify playlist. That will also make it easy to distinguish from Viderunt Omnes.


If you hear a piece where some of the lines are held out and other lines are quite active, then the texture you are hearing is polyphony. There are seven pieces on the listening exam that are entirely vocal (no instruments) and polyphonic. Each of these has distinctive characteristics that will enable you to identify the piece on a listening exam if you know what to listen for. Let’s start with two examples of medieval polyphony.

  • Viderunt Omnes by Perotinus; organum. When polyphonic texture first began to be used in sacred music it was called organum and it was quite basic. It began with two parallel melodic lines that moved in lockstep with each other. Gradually composers began to experiment with ways to make this more interesting, and some of the most significant developments took place in Paris at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Viderunt Omnes is Notre Dame school organum, and it has a very distinctive sound. The low part holds out the notes of a pre-existing Gregorian chant for a really, really long time. This creates a drone over which higher parts were composed. These upper parts were very active and used a repeated rhythmic pattern. Because the notes of the original chant are being stretched out, that means the text proceeds very slowly. The upper voice is therefore singing lots of pitches on each syllable of text. We call that a melisma. The long melismas in the upper voice of Notre Dame style organum constitute another really obvious characteristic. No other polyphonic genre from this period has such long melismas.
    I should mention that at about the 7:08 mark, the lower voices become more active. This is a brief exception to what you generally hear in Notre Dame style organum so I won’t use that portion of the piece on the exam. If you get Perotinus’ Viderunt Omnes on your exam, the musical excerpt will feature the long, droning low notes for which Perotinus is generally known. Along those same lines, you’ll notice that at times this piece reverts back to the original chant. Organum was the practice of embellishing monophonic Gregorian chant with sections of more musically interesting polyphony. When we use the word organum we are referring to those polyphonic sections, so on an exam the organum excerpt won’t be taken from the chant sections of the overall piece. That would be a trick question and I don’t do trick questions on listening exams. You’ll hear the characteristics you need to make the identification.
  • Kyrie from Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut; mass. Like Viderunt Omnes, this “Kyrie” from Machaut’s most famous mass features alternating sections of monophony and polyphony. Just as in the organum, any exam excerpt will come from the polyphonic sections as they are what constitute the most historically significant portions of this composition. Unlike the organum, however, the pre-existing chant melody on which this piece is based is not held out to nearly the same degree. For this reason the melismas in this piece are not nearly as long as the ones in the Notre Dame organum. You can hopefully hear how angular and dissonant medieval polyphony is compared to that of the Renaissance. So if you hear the clashing sounds and irregular rhythms of the middle ages without the long drones of organum, you’re hearing this Kyrie.

Next let’s examine two secular pieces from the Renaissance period. Both are madrigals that are clearly meant for entertainment at court and that makes them stand out. The madrigal genre developed in Italy and the first piece is an example of the Italian madrigal. The second is from England. The English fell in love with Italian madrigals and then over time adapted the genre into something uniquely English. Both pieces make use of word painting, but of course are sung in their respective languages.

  • Ecco Mormorar L’onde by Claudio Monteverdi; a madrigal. The madrigal genre arose out of a desire to more fully express the imagery and emotion found in poetry. In this text the poet describes a peaceful seaside landscape at sunrise. Monteverdi composed music that enables us to hear the murmuring waves (that’s what “ecco mormorar l’onde” means), feel the gentle laughing breezes, and watch the glowing sunrise (represented in the poem by the Roman goddess Aurora). Monteverdi is so skilled at writing expressive music that you’ll almost certainly recognize the piece by the fact that it makes you feel the way you would if you were standing on the peaceful shore at dawn. However, it’s also worth noting that because of this desire for expression the tempo changes to fit the text. In the beginning, the tempo is moderately slow as we hear the murmuring waters. When the text talks about the laughing breezes the tempo becomes faster. As the sun rises the polyphony becomes imitative. Imitation was common in sacred music at the time so it provides an element of majesty for the arrival of the goddess of the dawn.
  • “As Vesta Was” from Latmos Hill Descending by Thomas Weelkes; an English madrigal. The genre of this piece really stands out. First of all, it’s the only piece in English. I wouldn’t rely too much on that as it’s easy to get the language confused in a polyphonic texture (everyone sings different words at the same time), but it is a characteristic that sets it apart from all the others. Second, it is the fastest, happiest sounding piece on the test. That’s really what English madrigals were all about—fun and frolic. In case you’re worried that you might get this mixed up with the Medieval chanson Ce Moys de May which is also somewhat lively, just remember that our English madrigal is sung a cappella, meaning there is no instrumental accompaniment, while in Ce Moys instruments play along with the voices.

Now the last three polyphonic pieces are probably the most difficult to distinguish as they are all examples of the Renaissance a cappella style of sacred music. The good news is that if you hear rich, flowing, serene Renaissance polyphony it can really only be one of these three so you’ve narrowed your choices considerably. We’ll start with Josquin’s motet.

  • Ave Maria by Josquin des Prez; motet. Josquin had a taste for very clear sections, each section sounding somewhat different than the one before. Some sections feature imitation, meaning a polyphonic texture in which a melodic idea is repeated in every voice part successively. Other sections feature what I like to call dialogue – an imitative texture in which two parts are woven together in a long phrase which is then imitated by two different parts. Finally there are sections of the Josquin motet which are homophonic—a texture in which all the parts move together. This makes the text very clear as everyone is singing the same syllable of text at the same time. Josquin liked the contrast and variety that these different sections provided. Palestrina, on the other hand, strove for greater consistency—his music just seems to flow continuously from beginning to end. If you hear serene Renaissance polyphony with contrasting sections you it can’t be one of the Palestrina pieces. It must be Josquin’s motet, Ave Maria.
  • “Gloria” from Missa Papae Marcelli by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; mass. This movement from the Missa Papae Marcelli (or Pope Marcellus Mass) not only avoids contrasting sections, it almost entirely avoids imitation. While there are six voice parts, each part moves in sync with the others. This means that everyone is, for the most part, singing the same words at the same time. This is called homophonic texture. While the Josquin piece has some short sections of homophony, the fact that the Gloria is consistently homophonic provides a clear difference between the two that you can hear.
  • “Agnus Dei” from Missa Papae Marcelli by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; mass. The Agnus Dei is as consistent in its texture as the Gloria, but the texture is imitative polyphony. However, the imitation in this piece is less obvious than in the Josquin piece because Palestrina made sure that the listener would be able to follow the text. He does this in two ways: the use of long melismas and keeping each phrase of text separate (e.g. the 2nd phrase “qui tollis peccata mundi” doesn’t begin until each voice has completed the 1st phrase “Agnus Dei”). This is helpful for us as those long melismas provide a clear contrast with the Gloria which is much more syllabic. It also means that the Agnus Dei has an even more smooth and flowing quality than the Gloria. So basically if you have narrowed your choice down to these three pieces, and you hear clearly contrasting sections within the piece, it must be Josquin’s motet. If you hear a fairly consistent texture throughout the piece then you’re hearing Palestrina’s famous mass, and you need to then figure out which of the two movements it is. At that point listen for texture (homophony = Gloria, imitative polyphony = Agnus Dei) and overall text setting (syllabic = Gloria, melismatic = Agnus Dei).

I hope this has been helpful in training your ears for what to listen to. Please don’t think that you can read these tips once and then recognize these characteristics during the listening exam without any additional preparation. It takes a lot of practice to hear some of these things, especially some of the details that are not immediately apparent on the surface of the music. You’ll want to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the contents of this sheet so that you’re not wasting time looking things up during the exam. One thing I do suggest you look at during the exam is this final table below. During the exam, double check this list after you’ve selected your answer (title, composer, and genre) for each question. That won’t cost you much time but it will help prevent mistakes where you accidentally clicked on the wrong composer or genre for a piece you recognized. Good luck on the test!

Titles, Composers, & Genres for the Medieval & Renaissance Music Exam

Title Composer Genre
Pavane Anonymous Renaissance Dance
Galliard Anonymous Renaissance Dance
A Chantar M’er Beatriz, Countess of Dia Troubadour Song
Ce Moys de May Guillaume Dufay Chanson
Gradual Viderunt Omnes Anonymous Gregorian Chant
O Rubor Sanguinis Hildegard of Bingen Gregorian Chant
Viderunt Omnes Perontinus Organum
Kyrie from Messe de Nostre Dame Perotinus Mass
Ecco Mormorar L’onde Claudio Monteverdi Madrigal
As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending Thomas Weelkes English Madrigal
Ave Maria Josquin Des Prez Motet
Gloria from Missa Papae Marcelli   Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Mass
Agnus Dei from Missa Papae Marcelli Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Mass