Aaron Copeland: ‘How We Listen’

“Music which always says the same thing to you will necessarily soon become dull music, but music whose meaning is slightly different with each hearing has a greater chance of remaining alive.”

~ Aaron Copeland

The legendary American composer, Aaron Copeland (1900 – 1990)

Born in 1900 in Brooklyn, New York, Aaron Copeland became one of the century’s foremost composers with highly influential music that had a distinctive blend of classical, folk and jazz idioms. Among his most prominent pieces included Fanfare for the Common ManEl Salon Mexico and Appalachian Spring, for which he won the Pulitzer. An Oscar-winning writer of film scores as well, Copland died on December 2, 1990.

Here is Copeland sharing his insight on how we should listen to serious music. Adapted from his classic guide, What to Listen for in Music (1957).

“In a certain sense, we all listen to music on three separate planes. For lack of a better terminology, one might name these: (1) the sensuous plane, (2) the expressive plane, (3) the sheerly musical plane. The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself. This is the sensuous plane. It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it in any way. One turns on the radio while doing something else, and absentmindedly bathes in the sound. A kind of brainless but attractive state of mind is engendered by the mere sound appeal of the music.

The sensuous plane is an important one in music, but it does not constitute the whole story. Don’t get the idea that the value of music is commensurate with its sensuous appeal, or that the loveliest sounding music is made by the greatest composer. If that were so, Ravel would be a greater creator than Beethoven. The point is that the sound element varies with each composer, that his usage of sound forms an integral part of his style and must be taken into account when listening.


The second plane is what I have called the expressive plane. All music has an expressive power, some more and some less. All music has a certain meaning behind the notes and the meaning behind the note constitutes what the piece is saying, what the piece is about. The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, “Is there a meaning to music?” My answer to that would be, “Yes.” And “Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?” My answer to that would be, “No.”. Therein lies the difficulty. Simple-minded souls will never be satisfied with the answer to the second of these questions. They always want music to have a meaning, and the more concrete it is the better they like it. The more music reminds them of a train, a storm, a funeral, or any other familiar conception, the more expressive it appears to be to them. This popular idea of music’s meaning should be discouraged. Still, the question remains. How close should the intelligent music lover wish to come to pinning a definite meaning to any particular work? No closer than a general concept, I should say.

Music expresses, at different moments, serenity or exuberance, regret or triumph, fury or delight. It expresses each of these moods, and many others, in a numberless variety of subtle shadings and differences. It may even express a state of meaning for which there exists no adequate word in any language. In that case, musicians often like to say that it has only a purely musical meaning. What they really mean is that no appropriate word can be found to express the music’s meaning and that, even if it could, they do not feel the need of finding it.

The third plane on which music exists is the sheerly musical plane. Besides the pleasurable sound of music and the expressive feeling that it gives off, music does exist in terms of the notes themselves and of their manipulation. Most listeners are not sufficiently conscious of this third plane. Professional musicians, on the other hand, are if anything, too conscious of the mere notes themselves. They often fall into the error of becoming so engrossed with their arpeggios and staccatos that they forget the deeper aspects of the music they are performing.

When the man in the street listens to the “notes themselves” with any degree of concentration, he is most likely to make some mention of the melody. Either he hears a pretty melody or he does not, and he generally lets it go at that. Rhythm is likely to gain his attention next, particularly it seems exciting. But harmony and tone color (timbre) are generally taken for granted, if they are thought consciously at all. As for music’s having a definite form of some kind, that idea seems never to have occurred to him.

It is very important for all of us to become more alive to music on its sheerly musical plane. The intelligent listener must be prepared to increase his awareness of the musical material and what happens to it. He must hear the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies, the tone colors in a more conscious fashion. But above all, he must – in order to follow the line of the composer’s thoughts – know something of the principles of musical form. Listening to all of these elements is listening on the sheerly musical plane.

Perhaps an analogy, with what happens to us when we visit the theatre will make this distinction (of musical planes) clearer. In the theater, you are aware of the actors and actresses, costumes and sets, sounds and movements. All these give one the sense that the theatre is a pleasant place to be in. They constitute the sensuous plane in our theatrical reactions. The expressive plane in the theatre would be derived from the feeling that you get from what what is happening on the stage. You are moved to pity, excitement, or gravity. It is this general feeling, generated by particular words being spoken, a certain emotional something which exists on the stage, that is analogous to the expressive quality in music.

The plot and plot development is equivalent to our sheerly musical plane. The playwright creates and develops a character in just the same way that a composer creates and develops a theme. According to the degree of your awareness of the way in which the artist in either field handles his material will you become a more intelligent listener.

What the reader should strive for, then, is a more active kind of listening. Whether you listen to Mozart or Duke Ellington, you can deepen your understanding of music only by being a more conscious and aware listener – not someone who is just listening, but someone who is listening for something.”

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