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Formal Investigation: Finding answers using other resources

15 January, 2016 - 09:13
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After you have listened to the music a few times, and have begun to identify the things that you can hear, the things that make sense to your ears, and the things that puzzle you, you may have some questions that could be answered with a little bit of research. When you feel ready to find out what other people hear in this music, and how they discuss it, try the following:

Suggestions for locating useful information

  • Can you find any commentary about this particular piece? Commentary on a piece by knowledgeable musicians or critics can be extremely useful. Note the vocabulary they use to discuss it. Look up the definitions of words and read any background information (for example, about the composer or the genre) that interests you. Listen to the piece with their comments in front of you, and see if you can hear any of the features they are discussing. It can be a challenge to connect words on a page with sounds you hear. If you are uncertain whether you understand a term, look for other pieces that are also described using that term. Listen to them and see if you can locate the point of similarity.
  • If you can't find any commentary about the piece, can you find general information about the composer or performer? This can also provide you with useful terms and context. Be careful, though: Just because most of a composer's work is Latin jazz, classic ragtime, or microtonal doesn't mean this particular piece is! Read up on terms that interest you, and then look for and listen for any clues that they might be useful for describing the piece you are studying.
  • You may be able to find commentary written by someone who shares your musical background. You may also be able to find commentary written by the people who make and enjoy this music. Seeking out both of these perspectives will give you multiple possible routes to understanding the music.
  • Remember to follow your own interests! If the concept of microtones fascinates you, then read all about it. If it seems difficult or boring, skip it for now and pursue a different aspect of the music that does interest you.
  • If at all possible discuss your interest with others who share it. Ask your friends about their musical interests. Go to live performances and strike up conversations when the musicians take a break. With some luck, you will find someone who knows more than you do and enjoys discussing it. Serious enthusiasts may even be happy to listen to their favorite recordings with you and provide commentary about what they are hearing.
  • If the music has a sung text, and you cannot understand the words, either due to the language or the singing style, it may be very helpful to find a copy or translation of the text. If the music does not have a text, but is meant to tell a story (for example, the music for a ballet), learn the story.
  • If the music was created for a context that is unfamiliar to you (for example, music for a religion that you know little about, or music that was part of a protest movement in another country), you may find it very helpful to read a little bit about the general context and how the music fits into it.
  • Take notes in your journal on useful definitions and information that you find, so that you can refer to them easily during your listening sessions.

After you have done some research, you will want to listen to your chosen music again, to see whether the new orientation helps you hear and understand what is happening in the music. If so, you may develop new questions, leading to a new cycle of research and listening. If you do not feel that your research is helping you listen more knowledgeably, you may want to try taking a different direction; look over the research suggestions again, or get different suggestions from someone familiar with the genre. Or you may prefer to put away your journal for a time and simply listen to the piece so many times that it becomes very familiar and predictable. Then get your journal out again, and describe what you hear now, and how you keep track of the way the music develops, and see if this leads to some interesting insights or questions to research. In either case, at some point, you will be ready to pick a new piece to study.

Continuing your study with new pieces

  • You will progress more quickly if you choose a related piece, for example something in the same style, same genre, same composer or performer. If you have become interested in a particular aspect of the music, you may even want to choose something, for example, in the same raga, same meter, or same form.
  • If you feel you have made a lot of progress, you might want to choose a more challenging piece. If you're not sure whether you are making progress, try choosing something related but a little less challenging. If you find yourself becoming frustrated, remember that the learning curve is steepest at the beginning.
  • Always keep your goal in mind when choosing music. What is it you would like to get out of this music, and why? Search for pieces that sound like they are, or that your research suggests are, good examples of what you want to hear and understand.
  • Continue making notes about your observations, questions, and interests in your journal. As well as following a similar procedure to the first piece, compare each new piece directly with the pieces you have already studied. In what ways does it sound the same or different?