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Ask: Choosing the music to study

15 January, 2016 - 09:13
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This module does not include specific suggestions for which music to study. The assumption is that you have already decided that there is a type of music that you want to appreciate and understand, but that is so unfamiliar that you can make little sense of it right now. It is difficult to get satisfying, useful answers, though, when you start by asking general questions about a whole genre or type of music. You'll make more progress if you pick one or two pieces and begin by asking specific questions about them. If you have not already picked out specific pieces or recordings, the following checklist may help you choose a focus for your study.

  • First, narrow your focus of interest as much as possible. For example, "Classical music" or "Chinese music" are too general. You might find a focus based on what you like (vocal music? flute? strings? sweet melodies? powerful rhythms?), or based on your reasons for wanting to learn about it (your friends enjoy going to the opera? you bought a bamboo flute when you visited Beijing?)
  • Don't get overwhelmed. Limit your initial study to one piece, (maybe two if you get bored easily or if the variety will help you listen more carefully). If you are studying a composed style of music, you might want to listen to different recordings of the same composition, to get some idea of the variation in performances. If you are studying an improvised style, just stick to one or two specific recordings. Although you will probably want to enjoy live performances, too, choose recorded music for study, so that you can hear the same music repeatedly.
  • Try to find high-quality recordings of good performances, so that everything that is supposed to happen in the music is clearly audible in the recording.
  • If dancing or other activity is typically an integral part of a performance (for example, ballet, opera, samba or capoeira), a video recording can provide a great deal of insight into how the music is perceived by those who create it. Even when that is not the case, a video of a performance can put the music into context for you, help you understand how the instruments create the sounds, and show you how knowledgeable listeners typically react to the music. If the sound quality of the video is poor, consider alternating between studying the video and a high-quality audio recording.
  • Choose pieces that have some appeal for you, that you will be willing to listen to carefully and repeatedly. If you are choosing music for a group, consider what they might enjoy. If you're not certain, consider assembling several possibilities and letting the group choose.
  • Starting with the "great works" or core repertoire of a tradition is not necessary. If the fusion, pop, "world music", tourist, or children's versions of a tradition are more appealing and easier to understand, it may make sense to use that as a starting point. Most people find it more enjoyable and rewarding to study the masterworks of a tradition after they have developed an ear for the music.

The main question you will be asking "how can I begin to make sense of this music?"