How to Listen to Music: Q&A with Professor Kip Haaheim, Music
Q: What can a student expect to encounter when they attend a concert?
A: Generally speaking, classical music concerts are more formal, which means that, for example, the audience will be there, the performer will come on stage, and then everyone claps, and the performer bows and sits down to play, and then everybody is quiet. It’s important to be quiet during the performance, because a lot of the music is very subtle. So things like talking that you might do at a rock concert just wouldn’t be appropriate in that situation. Then generally what will happen is that the performer will perform the piece and then people clap and the performer will bow and leave the stage. And if people continue to clap, then the performer will come out and take another bow. So if they played really well, they might come out one, even two times, to acknowledge that.
One thing to know is that when a person is performing a piece by Beethoven, often what Beethoven would do is write a single piece that had 3 or 4 different parts to it, and you’re not supposed to clap in between the parts. You’re supposed to wait until the end. This is something that many people find to be tricky, because you really oftentimes want to clap in between because the individual parts are so good. On the other hand, let’s say you go to a jazz concert, then you oftentimes will clap or show appreciation even during the music. If a saxophone player plays a brilliant solo, you oftentimes would clap even if the song is still going. I guess the thing to do would be to pay attention to what the other people are doing. Because a good portion of the audience will kind of know how to act, so you can just follow their lead.
One other thing that’s a little bit different is that if you’re late to the concert, they don’t open the doors until the clapping for the next piece comes in. So if you get there late you might miss quite a bit of the show, because they won’t let people in, because it’s considered rude.
And then the typical things like don’t use your cell phones. At least for all the concerts we do here on campus, they are always recorded. The people that are playing have spent months of their time preparing, so it’s a big deal for them. They’ve put a whole lot of time into it. So just as a courtesy to them—they’re trying to get a recording that’s as good as possible, so they’re recording something and a cell phone goes off in the background, it kind of ruins it.
Here at KU, it’s not usually a formal thing; you don’t have to dress formally to go to a concert. If you’re going to see a show at the Kansas City Symphony, though, it is an opportunity to dress up and make a formal evening out of it.
Q: Is there any specialized lingo that students would need to be familiar with in order to engage with a concert?
A: One thing is that they’ll see a lot of things that are in foreign languages, because the music that you’re likely to see is generated, or was generated, from all over the world, and so you might see song titles in French or in German or in Italian.
The styles for naming music come and go. So nowadays, the trend is for you to give a piece a descriptive title. Now in the past, there have been times where that wasn’t the idea at all, you didn’t give pieces titles, you just said something about them, like “Sonata in D minor, Opus 31.” So knowing some general terms might help. Like “sonata” for example, is a general term that means “music” or “piece of music.” A lot of the compositions will have “OP” and then a number. Like Opus 29 or something like that. And what that means is that the “opus” literally translates as the word “work”, and it was a publishing number, so that means that every year, or every time that a composer would make a new publication, it would get the next opus number. So if you went to see Beethoven’s string quartets, and you saw “opus 18, number 6”, “opus 59,” and so on, then you’d know that opus 18 was written way earlier than opus 59. If you know what those numbers mean, you can get an idea of whether they wrote it when they were a young person or later in their career.
The term “movement” means a part of. You might have a sonata, which has four movements, so each of the different parts would be called a movement, and usually they are numbered, like one, two, three, four, and they usually have their own titles. The titles sometimes describe something about the music, and sometimes they mean something about the tempo of the music, and other times they have really creative titles.
One thing that could be really useful would be to read up a little bit on things before you go, or even after. Each different style of music has its own unique set of terms and phrases and meanings. If you think about jazz, there’s swing, there’s Latin jazz, and within that there’s mambos and sambas and there are all these different elements of the music. And there are hundreds of years of music just sort of floating around. Learning about that musical style will help you appreciate it.
Q: Should students take notes during a performance?
A: It depends; I wouldn’t unless you can write silently, which would be hard to do. It’s disruptive to the performer. It also depends on the concert though. At a loud jazz concert, writing isn’t going to be a problem. Musicians are trained to deal with stuff. They learn through their experience to stay focused, but it’s better to let them do things without having to deal with distractions.
Q: Is there anything else a student might need to know before going to a concert?
A: Well, after almost every concert, the musicians will come out and be available to talk to you, and they would be delighted to talk to people who had come who weren’t experienced concert goers, and most of our musicians are good ambassadors in that sense, they’re friendly. So I’d encourage people to hang around, ask some questions--no question is dumb.
Also, there are a lot of things musicians have to do in order to play. So for example, when the French horn player plays, they’re blowing air through a tube of metal, and the air they are blowing through is really moist because it was just in their lungs, and so it condenses inside the horn, and so after they’ve played for a few minutes, they have to empty the liquid that has gathered in the horn; they even call it a spit valve. Different musicians do different things. For example, oboe players have these very finicky reeds, that if they’re not right, if they’re not perfect, then the oboe sounds horrible. So they are very fussy about it. And during the concert, between movements, they’ll stop and fiddle around with stuff for a little bit, and then go back to playing. And so once you get used to it, then you can know what they’re doing.
Reflecting on the Performance
Q: Which elements of the performance would be most important for a student to observe?
A: Well, there are different ways to appreciate music. Certainly one way is to observe how the music makes you feel, so you kind of look at it inwardly. A lot of the music that you would see at a concert like this has been around for a long time, sometimes even hundreds of years. And for some reason it has been reaching, appealing to people that whole time, which is why we’re still playing it now.
Another thing is to observe the performer and appreciate their skill, because a lot of the music that they play is extremely difficult to play. We have really very high-quality and talented musicians that study here at KU and so, even if you don’t like the music, it’s possible to appreciate the skill of the performer. “Wow, how did that person even do that? How can they make that instrument sound like that?” A lot of times that’s an interesting way to get into performance.
On a slightly deeper level, you can listen to how the musicians are interacting with each other. Let’s say you go see a string quartet, you know these are musicians that have worked together quite a bit and in order to make the music work at all they have to really, really be attuned to what is going on with the other musicians. And there’s something that’s kind of intriguing about that.
If you really get into it, for most of the concerts that we do, the program is actually available before the concert. So you could call ahead and find out what’s going to be played at the concert, through the phone or an email. And then you could actually look into the music some. And say okay, here is a composer that I don’t know the name of, and you could look it up and read about it. Oftentimes that can really enhance your appreciation of it. One of the things that
is intimidating is that different pieces of music played at a concert may have been written in very different time periods, sometimes hundreds of years apart. Musical styles change dramatically over time.
Q: Afterwards, how do you think that students should reflect on the performance?
A: I guess the first thing is that music in general is supposed to communicate something. And I think it does that using both verbal and non-verbal communication. For example, listening to a singer or choir involves verbal communication, where the musicians are actually singing words. Even if they are singing in German, then usually a translation of the words are printed in the program, so you know what they’re singing about. But then beyond that, there’s the feeling that you get, the communication that happens with the music just directly. So for example, in a movie we know how we’re supposed to feel about something by how the music goes. You take your emotional cues about how to interpret what’s going on through how the music is making you feel. So ultimately that would be the first level of reflection. You can ask yourself, how do I feel after this concert? Or how do I feel after the individual pieces in the concert? (Because a lot of times the music chosen for a concert is not necessarily geared to create a unified effect at the end of the concert.)
Another thing is that music has the capacity for really changing your mood, making you feel a certain way. When you leave, you feel differently. And sometimes profoundly differently. I can think of a couple of concerts that I went to this year where I was really deeply influenced by the music. The kind of thing where you don’t necessarily realize it so much as it’s happening because you’re watching. So that’d be kind of an interesting thing to do - a kind of before and after check. You know, what kind of mood am I in as I come into the concert, how do I feel when I leave? That can really bring the effect of the music into relief.
One of the things that people find different about music, though, is that it is a more intimate "art" experience than going to an art museum or reading a book. If you go to an art museum, and there’s a painting that you find particularly disturbing, you can just look the other way or you can move on the next painting, but if you’re in a concert and the music is particularly disturbing, you pretty much just have to sit there through it or you have to get up and leave and make a big fuss out of it. Somehow you’re inviting the music into yourself in a way that is different than when you are appreciating other art forms. And some people have a really hard time with that. If the music is supposed to be disturbing, it can be REALLY disturbing. There’s music that wasn’t written to be lighthearted and joyful, and there’s some that was written to be really dark and gut wrenchingly powerful. You get a whole spectrum of things. Some of the music that you hear here at KU would be light, and would be like popular music from another era. And then other music was created as a deeper art form, as something that was supposed to be more than that. It takes more of a commitment from the person who’s listening. It’s kind of like the difference between going to see movies like Ironman and Schindler’s List. They’re both good experiences, and they can both be enriching, but they’re aimed at different outcomes.
One bit of advice is to kind of have an open mind, because a lot of this music is very sophisticated, meaning that you don’t necessarily get it the first time that you hear it. The way
our culture is right now, we don’t have a lot of stuff that you have to really work for in that sense, and some of this music is like that. The more you know it, the better you like it.