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What's It Like to Listen to Music?
Daniel Grabois

A composer sits down at the piano, a blank sheet of music paper in front of him. A melody comes to him, and he writes it down. He harmonizes
his theme – puts some chords underneath it. Like an author who has imagined a character, the composer now has to develop his theme in some way,
to give some action to his thematic character. He can repeat it (Frere Jacques …….. Frere Jacques), he can fracture it (Mary had a little
lamb ……… little lamb), he can introduce a small change (My bonnie lies over the ocean ……….. My bonnie lies over the sea), and so on. As
he puts pencil to paper, he discovers that there is a second musical phrase that feels right. And a third. Every composer works with a different
combination of logic and intuition, of conscious and unconscious thought. And every composer knows when the music is behaving as it should –
when it is “right.”

Now the listener hears the piece. “I (don’t) like it.” Music can be hard to talk about because it is abstract. Our tastes sometimes broaden (or narrow) as
we hear more music or as we age. Our response to music occurs at such a deep emotional level that it can be hard to imagine how we might be able to
become more intelligent listeners, to take control over our own listening process. Yet there are ways to learn about the behavior of musical themes that
can deepen our response to a piece of music. Melody tells a story; the better we understand that story, the more we will appreciate the music.

A composer is in many ways a story teller. A story consists of characters, plot, setting, surprises, and a climax. A piece of music consists of themes,
style, changes of key, and resolutions both achieved and foiled. Musical themes, once declared, can behave in ways that are in character or out of
character or, otherwise put, predictable or surprising. Themes can be developed by lengthening or by abbreviating, and they can be transformed by
being set to different harmonies (for instance, a melody in a major key can be reset in a minor key).

Consider, as a simple example, the nursery rhyme “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Here is a reminder of the words:

All around the cobbler’s bench
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey thought ‘twas all in fun –
Pop! goes the weasel.
In this traditional song, the notes of the first three lines are almost identical. They establish a pattern, both melodic and rhythmic, that creates an expectation:
a simple, repetitive song. That expectation is violated in the fourth line. The rhythmic isolation of the word “Pop” provides the surprise. A single syllable
replaces the lilt of the first three lines. The pitch (how high or low the note is) is higher by a step than anything heard yet, and the volume (known in music a
s the dynamic) is much louder. In the first three lines, the musical emphasis falls on the middle word of the line (cobbler’s, weasel, all in fun). “Pop” shifts
the emphasis to the first word. The word “Pop” also signals a change in the melody – the rest of the last line of the song is a variation of the age-old
childhood taunt “nyah-nyah … nyah-nyah-nyah.” This is a classic example of musical surprise and is not at all subtle. The cleverness of the surprise lies
in the repetition of the first three lines, which in effect lull the listener. If the music changed during those first three lines, the surprise would lose power.
Every child loves the surprise; understanding the musical cleverness behind it makes it that much richer.

A subtler example of musical surprise comes in the song Happy Birthday:

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear ______,
Happy birthday to you.

Here we have an example not of shocking surprise, but of a gently blossoming surprise that develops the tune and gives it power. In the first two lines,
the words “Happy birthday” are set to the same pitches. “To you” is one step higher in the second line than in the first – a gentle and slight variation. The
third line is the pay-off. Here, the word “birthday,” instead of rising one step up from “happy,” soars up a full octave, eight steps. This is a classic gambit in
musical development: state the phrase, develop it through repetition or small variation, then break the pattern the third time. We can call this the Rule of
Threes (the simplest example of this rule is “Hip, Hip, Hooray”). Surely nobody stops to analyze “Happy Birthday” while the cake is carried to the table,
but the power of that octave jump is evident to anyone singing or hearing the song. And by thinking about the structure of the melody, the singer or listener
can deepen his appreciation of the song and understand why, of all the birthday songs that must have been conceived in our long folk tradition, the one we
sing today has survived.

Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony, justifiably one of the best-known works in all of classical music, provides an excellent example of the Rule of Threes.
The opening statement is one of the most terse themes in our musical tradition: dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaaaah. Four notes, two pitches. Its reply is given one step
down. Shockingly for music of this period, neither the first nor the second melodic statement has any harmony (chords) at all – the orchestra plays in unison.
For the third statement, we return to the opening pitches, but with important differences: the third statement is much softer than the opening, and the theme
is harmonized. And now the theme begins to snowball. Each piece of the long phrase Beethoven unveils is itself composed of dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaaaah
(indeed, most of the first movement of the symphony consists of transposed iterations of these four notes, a revolutionary use of such economical means
of musical development). If you sing the opening to yourself, you will come to a pause after the long third phrase, followed by another thunderous
dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaaaah, this time up a step, and in extremely uncertain harmonic territory despite the loud dynamic. In three phrases, we have taken a
journey in which a statement is heard, is echoed, is extended, and now we find ourselves in a new environment in which the resoluteness of the opening
has turned into a monumental question mark.

Furthermore, the theme itself is brilliantly ambiguous. When we hear those first four notes for the first time, the fourth note sounds like it might be the home
note (called the “tonic”). Sing the theme again to yourself: dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaaaah. Imagine that the fourth note (E-flat) is the tonic, putting the piece in the
key of E-flat major. Sing the answering phrase, and then return to E-flat. This note makes perfect sense to the ear as the tonic. The harmonies of the third phrase,
however, establish the key as C minor, a shift not only of tonic but of mode, from major to minor (an important emotional difference). Because Beethoven sets
the opening theme without harmony, he is able to play on this ambiguity not only of key but of mood. To a listener hearing the opening of the symphony for the
first time, there is simply no way to know whether the piece is in a major or minor key. This kind of obfuscation was revolutionary. Where are we? How are we
supposed to hear this music? The unfolding of the first movement answers that question.

In virtually all music from this period, the opening section of the first movement of a symphony (known as the “exposition”) is repeated. When we hear the
opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the second time, we hear them completely differently. Even though the theme is played in unison as before,
the ambiguity has been resolved, since we have in the interim learned what the tonic is. So the exact same music sounds completely different. Beethoven has
exploited the traditional form of symphonic writing (repeat the exposition) to create a slow dawning of understanding, a musical voyage from darkness to light.
This journey’s culmination, incidentally, comes in the final movement of the work, where the key shifts from dark C minor to triumphant C major.

Another example of thematic development following the Rule of Threes comes in the song “Yesterday,” by Paul McCartney of The Beatles. The opening lyrics:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

The descending pitch on the opening word “Yesterday” suggests a look backward into the past, mirroring the lyric. This descending step is repeated, six notes
higher, on the lyric “far away” – note that the rising six notes of “all my troubles seemed so” in fact take the music “far away” (as does the exotic harmony).
Whereas the first word, “Yesterday,” occurs with no preamble, the scale leading up to “far away” puts the thematic element (the drop of a step) in a new
metrical context. The third iteration of the descending step (at “here to stay”) is again preceded by a scale, this time descending instead of ascending (note
that the resigned quality of the text, “Now it looks as though they’re” – is mirrored in the sighing descending line). These scales running up and down create
a feeling of searching, which is what the lyrics are about. As is typical with our Rule of Threes, the third descending melodic step, “here to stay,” moves to a
new place, here extended with the final line of the stanza, “Oh, I believe in yesterday.” But this time, the word “yesterday” is set differently, with a slower
rhythm and a questioning upward rise. The singer’s professed belief in yesterday is cast into question by the shape of the musical phrase. Should we hear the
rising interval in the final “yesterday” as a question? As a melancholy memory? We are left only with questions, not resolution. McCartney sets the text with
beautiful ambiguity.

Did Paul McCartney think in these terms when he wrote this song? Assuredly not. Undoubtedly, the music just felt “right” to him. The song has power, and a
receptive and intelligent ear not only grasps the brilliance of the song, but provides the listener with a deeper emotional experience of the music. As we listen to
music more closely, we discover that the logic of musical composition and the emotional power of melody operate not as separate elements of a work, but as
partners, compounding the impact of the musical work.

Many questions remain unanswered. Why do human beings react so strongly to groups of three? How does our brain process sequences of notes into cogent
melodies? Why do some kinds of harmonies appeal to us while others do not? Composers throughout the history of classical music have brilliantly used our
powers of perception to create a body of work that moves us. Great pieces of music can be heard over and over, never losing impact, because, as we hear them
over and over, our greater understanding of the music deepens our emotional response. We listeners know when a piece is “right” because of the way it makes
us feel, time and again, when we hear it.

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