Listening to form in/through contemporary musics

2022 Pedagogy into Practice Conference, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

Anthology of New Music Resources for Musicianship—Click Here

Poster—click here


This presentation proposes parallel and intersecting avenues for listening to musical form in introductory aural skills. Contemporary musics offer opportunities for inclusive formal thinking centered on a sensitivity to gesturelocation, and texture. Each of these parameters allows for imaginative metaphorical listening—gestures as agents, location as movement through space, texture as group membership and sonic identity. Along the axes of similarity and contrast, students examine these concepts as critical listening tools encoding important formal information relevant to an array of musical styles, including: (i) moments of change; (ii) unfolding processes; (iii) retrospective reinterpretations; and (iv) large-scale organizing principles.

The presentation offers some preliminary examples, as well as an anthology of additional works. Consider Robert Glasper’s “You and Me.” Ensemble texture and vocal spatialization are the primary elements delineating change between the introduction, verse, and chorus, as the rhythm section’s vamp is consistent. The “You and Me” gesture exists surreptitiously in the intro and verse, but comes forward as the titular lyric in the chorus. Next examine the opening of Shaw’s Entr’acte, a minuet that opens with an easily identifiable homophonic gesture.  Students track the perceived nearness of the gesture in time, making observations about the intimacy of the opening, the approach in mm. 3–5, the retreat in mm. 6–8, and the sonic arrival in m. 10 which retrospectively calls into question the gesture’s initial intimacy. Finally, listen to the first movement of Thorvaldsdottir’s Spectra, a piece that explores the notion of musical ecosystems. Students map the sonic, timbral, gestural, and textural terrains of the piece, including its arch structure, the transfer of motives between instruments, and transgressive gestures that offer interpretive possibilities.

Cultivating critical, inclusive, and imaginative listening practices prepares students for formal thinking throughout the theory curriculum. Centering contemporary musics reinforces abstract formal concepts while encouraging students to listen broadly and contextually.