When compared to the mixture of book reports done on this blog to this day, What to Listen for in Music is rather unique. It isn’t a philosophical analysis on the history or purpose of music. It lacks the cerebral prose of the scholars we’ve engaged with thusfar — in fact, this is the first book I’ve reviewed here that was written by a native English speaker, and an American no less. What we have here today is a beginner’s guide to classical music, or “what to listen for when you listen to ‘serious’/’art’ music.”

I wasn’t sure what I would find when I read this book, but now that I’ve done it, I’m glad for the knowledge that was imparted to me. Lacking any college-level education in musical composition or theory, Copland’s book marks the first time that I have ever been exposed to the underlying principles of classical music. Since it has been a goal of mine over the past couple of years to develop that knowledge, it’s a shame I hadn’t read such a book sooner.

We’ll begin with some outside information about Aaron Copland and his book. Copland was one of the first and most important composers ever to come from the United States. He wrote several fairly mainstream compositions that are considered instrumental in defining “the American sound”: that pastoral, pioneering tone that has flourished in our consciousness through everything from Disney to the Olympic Games. His most famous work is Appalachian Spring. It, like many of his popular works, borrows from American folk songs for some of its melodies. However, his works were not always limited to this style: compositions like Passacaglia demonstrate his more technical side. There is debate among critics about the quality of some of his more accessible pieces, but there can be no debate about his influence on composers in the United States.

What to Listen for in Music was originally written in 1939, so it is important to note that it predates the LP record by nearly a decade. Hardly any semblance of the music industry as we know it existed at the time of Copland’s writing, and thus in most cases the only way to hear classical music would be to attend a concert in person. Nonetheless, Copland provides copious suggested listenings with each chapter to demonstrate whatever concept he is explaining.

Another important distinction to consider is that the book also predates a substantial subset of “modern” classical music. When Copland talks about modern music, he is referring more to the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky than to Stockhausen or Cage. Copland came back and added an update to the book in 1957, but even he admits at that point that anything is possible.

So, to recap, the book is about what the listener should know about and pay attention to when listening to classical music (of any period), and inasmuch as Copland could never have anticipated what music sounds like today, Theodor Adorno has already taught us that popular music is pedestrian trash so it doesn’t really matter.

I will briefly summarize the contents of the book and then provide my thoughts at the end of this post.

The Creative Process

Copland begins by addressing what he views as a misconception about composers: that they wait for inspiration before composing. Rather, he says that composition is more natural than that. It’s like sleep: you either feel like sleeping or you don’t. A composer either feels like composing or he doesn’t. “A composer can sit down day after day and turn out some kind of music. On some days it will undoubtedly be better than others.”

Beyond that, he states that every composition starts with a musical idea — not any kind of “mental, literary, or extramusical” one. For the first of many times, Copland stresses that it is important to separate the idea that the beauty of a song is contingent on the theme. Themes are manipulable — you can notice even in popular music how changes in tempo, volume, or other characteristics can make the same melody seem completely different. There is more to the composition than that (and of course that is what the rest of the book is about).

He finishes the chapter by describing three types of composers:

  1. The Inspired Composer (e.g. Schubert) – characterized by prolific output; massive amounts of music, as if it is welling out of them. Often specialize in shorter pieces.
  2. The Constructive Composer (e.g. Beethoven) – begins with a theme and builds upon it over time.
  3. The Traditional Composer (e.g. Bach) – taking the style of music of your period and making it better than anyone before you has done

Music’s Four Elements (Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Tone Color)

This is the first large section of the book, and it covers in detail what goes into the four elements of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color. He doesn’t make any groundbreaking points about any of these elements — this part, as with most of the book, is purely educational. My summary will be brief, as you can find even more than what Copland shares simply by consulting Wikipedia.

  • Rhythm: the primeval element of music. As of 1150, rhythm became “measured”, for better or for worse. Copland mentions that “meter” represents the “ONE two three ONE two three” count of music, but rhythm comes from the notes that get played with respect to that meter. He also introduces music notation with regards to whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, et cetera. He finishes by talking about the ever-popular polyrhythm, in which a composition involves two or more different rhythms at the same time.
  • Melody: “if rhythm is connected in our imagination with physical motion, the idea of melody is associated with mental emotion.” This is the chapter in which Copland discusses scales and keys, because this is the framework in which melodies operate — even though many times a melody can be so complex or abstract that it requires technical analysis of the paper composition itself to identify where the melody fits in that framework. And of course, there are no rules or guarantees about what a melody may sound like. It is only through exposure to many melodies over time that the listener can identify a banal one from an inspired one, however it may present itself.
  • Harmony: harmony is the most sophisticated musical element, and also the most recent invention of the group. Here we learn about intervals and chords, as the earliest harmonies were simply 4th and 5th intervals of the melody (apparently 3rd and 6th intervals, relatively more common today, were proscribed). This chapter again demonstrates how any semblance of “rules” with regards to the construction of proper harmonies have dissolved in the past century or so. Copland states that dissonance is relative; it’s another example of the need to divorce oneself from assumptions about what music is supposed to sound like, because such assumptions are highly biased against any new creations. He briefly mentions the rising prevalence of polytonality and atonality in modern compositions, but admits that many composers still prefer good old tonality.
  • Tone Color (or timbre): “the quality of sound produced by a particular medium of musical tone production,” or in other words, the “voice” of an instrument. Copland outlines all the instruments of the classical orchestra and describes their timbre. He also expounds upon the difference between single tone colors (i.e. the sound of just one instrument) and mixed colors (the sound of different groups/ensembles of instruments together)

Musical Texture

Copland describes the three textures of music (texture being how the elements of music combine into one composition):

  • Monophonic: e.g. Gregorian Chant. Music that consists of a single, unaccompanied melodic line.
  • Homophonic: e.g. Caccini. Music that consists of a melodic line with chordal accompaniment (the chords may be arpeggiated).
  • Polyphonic: e.g. Palestrina. Two or more independent melodies going on at once. This form of music requires the listener to pay close attention, and may require multiple listens to identify all of the melodies taking part. He also discusses counterpoint in this section, which Copland describes as a type of polyphony in which the rhythm is also independent. Large periods of classical music were characterized by the use of counterpoint.

Musical Structure (Forms)

This section comprises most of the book, and talks about the various forms that classical music takes. Needless to say, there are a lot. They can be initially broken down into “form in relation to a piece as a whole” and “form in relation to the separate, shorter parts of a piece.” One way to notate this is to use letters like “A B C” and “a b c” to represent divisions in a composition. More importantly, there are forms that are based on repetition, and forms that are not. The latter, free forms, are described briefly: they are more common today than in the past, and involve any composition that doesn’t rely upon repetition. The symphonic poem is an example of a free form.

Repetition forms:

  1. Sectional or symmetrical repetition – music “obviously” made up by a combination of separate sections (he says “obviously” because practically all music is sectional in some way)
    1. Two-part (binary) form
    2. Three-part (ternary) form
    3. Rondo
    4. Free sectional arrangement – sections can be arranged in any way, but as with all forms in this category, after the sections have been played in whatever order the composer specifies, they are repeated
  2. Repetition by variation – music in which the structure of the section relies upon varying what is being played each time it repeats
    1. Basso ostinato
    2. Passcaglia
    3. Chaconne
    4. Theme and variations – you take  a theme in the music and make a variation in any of the (1) harmony (2) melody (3) rhythm (4) counterpoint (5) combination of the aforementioned properties. The other three variation forms are much more strict about what varies.
  3. Repetition by fugal treatment – variations that necessarily involve polyphony or counterpoint (required properties of a fugue). This requires techniques such as imitation, canon, inversion, augmentation, or cancrizans.
    1. Fugue
    2. Concerto grosso
    3. Chorale prelude
    4. Motets and madrigals
  4. Repetition by development
    1. Sonata – It should be noted that sonata means two things: the sonata as a whole, but also “sonata-allegro“, also known as “first-movement form”. Copland describes both, but his primary concern is the latter (as it is the form). He also goes over symphonies, which utilize sonata-allegro as their first movement.

He orders his exposition of these forms from most basic to most complicated (or from “a b c” to “A B C”). Symphonies will include several movements that can involve multiple types of forms talked about above. As such, it is important to be familiar with all of the forms so you can spot them when they occur.


The book takes a different direction from this point on, as Copland talks about different avenues to pursue music outside the concert hall, which he states has always been an unnatural way to conceive of music (music that is an end in itself). Copland writes at a time when opera was apparently considered peasant-tier. The purpose of this chapter was actually for him to explain the merits of opera to an audience that no longer believed it had any. He attributes this decline in stature to a long run of unoriginal productions after Wagner’s death.

Opera, he says, abides by the following conventions:

  • It is a drama sung instead of a drama spoken
  • It is broken into regularly contrasted, set musical pieces
  • The story is intentionally unrealistic with “a fatuity that can hardly be exaggerated”
  • It contains half-sung/half-spoken recitatives in order to drive the narrative

The fact that operas are often sung in languages incomprehensible to those in America can make them quite opaque, especially when it is an opera with lengthy recitatives relative to the musical sections. However, Copland points out that opera is special because it brings together nearly every musical medium: the orchestra, the voice, ensembles, choruses. It can also include ballet, pantomime, and drama. In this sense, it enables an artist to get the most out of a wide variety of art all in one setting. As such, most well-known composers tried their hand at it. The fruits of their labor are evident in works such as Boris, by Moussorgsky, Pelleas by Debussy, and Rite of Spring by Stravinsky.

Contemporary Music

This chapter, if I understand correctly, is one of the ones that Copland added in 1959. He provides his thoughts on the mixed reaction the public has toward modern music. First of all, he states that “modern” doesn’t mean one thing. Especially today, it is evident that modern music encompasses a myriad of artists. It is more sensible, if categories are required, to define them by accessibility. Artists like Erik Satie are very accessible, artists like Heitor Villa-Lobos are moderately accessible, and artists like Anton Webern are “very tough.”

Copland implores the listener to understand the objective of a modern composer, and that confusion toward new music can be mitigated by “training in listening” to become accustomed to the new sounds at our disposal. He has a great passage about our expectations for music:

Most music lovers do not appreciate to what an extent they are under the spell of the romantic approach to music. Our audiences have come to identify nineteenth-century musical romanticism as analogous to the art of music itself. Because romanticism was, and still remains, so powerful an expression, they tend to forget that great music was written for hundreds of years before the romantics flourished.

It happens that a considerable proportion of today’s music has closer aesthetical ties with that earlier music than it has with the romantics. The way of the uninhibited and personalized warmth and surge of the best of the romanticists is not our way. Even that segment of contemporary composition that clearly has romantic overtones is careful to express itself more discreetly, without exaggeration. And so it must, for the self-evident truth is that the romantic movement had reached its apogee by the end of the last century and nothing fresh was to be extracted from it.

He encourages the listener to accept the challenge of listening to unfamiliar music, and not to seek out “soporific” music. You don’t go to the theater or read a book to be bored, do you?

Film Music

Here Copland quickly introduces us to the Film Soundtrack. The question is “should one hear a movie score?” Unsurprisingly, he thinks the answer is yes. In order to elucidate the viewer/listener on ways to get more out of a movie soundtrack, he defines the following ways that music can serve the screen:

  • Creating a more convincing atmosphere of time and place
  • Underlining psychological refinements — the unspoken thoughts of a character or the unseen implications of a situation
  • Serving as a kind of neutral background filter (Copland states that this really is the kind of music that you aren’t “supposed” to hear)
  • Building a sense of continuity
  • Underpinning the theatrical build-up of a scene, and rounding it off with a sense of finality

Copland rejects the common assumption that having to write a score to accompany a film is an unwelcome burden. He says it helps the imagination, and that maneuvering the music to adhere to the timing of a film is not really so difficult as it sounds — it doesn’t alter the underlying musical fabric.

As a closing thought, he says it’s a shame that millions of people will be listening to a composer’s work, but one can never know how many are really hearing it.

My Thoughts

“Music is created to wake you up, not put you to sleep.”

This is a powerful thought from Copland that could honestly be a mission statement for this blog. Of course, I shouldn’t get too carried away. I’m as guilty as anyone of being ignorant in my consumption of classical music thusfar. It’s almost surprising that I made it this far knowing so little about it, but the fact is that Copland wrote the book specifically for people like me that wanted to know more about what they were listening to. And now I have a foundation to build on.

For several years now I have felt very torn over the role in society of popular music, and indeed, popular art. The series of book reports I’ve done on this blog in conjunction with my other outside readings have served to make me keenly aware of a stratification in art. But it’s more than simply that there is a stratification: I think it is obvious to everyone that there exists in some sense “elitist music”, good music, bad music, and of course “really bad” music. However, that isn’t quite the way that academics see things.

It boils down to the dichotomy between serious and popular art. Serious art has an objective quality: it is something that can be executed well or executed poorly, and things such as “form” are the measure by which one makes that judgement. The entire scope of Music Criticism Proper is concerned with serious music. But what does that make popular music? Utterly insipid, apparently. Devoid of any meaningful innovation or change. We’ve heard this concept before from the likes of Adorno and Attali: that popular music is interchangeable, and designed to maximize the appeal that comes from familiarity, while being just barely different enough year over year that people are able to retain interest in it. Ironically, it is THIS type of music that the contemporary critic concerns himself with. If the academics are even close to right (and it seems like they are), it makes a passion for popular art seem like nothing more than chasing after wind (and it probably is).

My sentiment shouldn’t come off as jadedness. I like popular music today more than I ever have. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to see a reason to be passionate about it. There is the creeping fear that I have been tricked. Not by any intentional plot, for there are no actual people behind the curtain trying to dupe “the masses” into liking banal things. The trick is simply information asymmetry — a barrier to entry on High Art that those in the know rarely if ever attempt to lower. They might be guilty of elitism, but I’m guilty of foolishness.

Why had I never taken a proper class on musical composition? Because I didn’t choose to take one. Because it hadn’t occurred to me that there might be value in doing so. This thought pattern is undoubtedly shared by many, as it is evident far beyond the arts. It really bolsters the need for a well-rounded education in my mind. There is so much value in being exposed to  areas that have seemingly high barriers to entry just so you know what’s on the other side. You are free to ignore it afterward (although I question the conscience of anyone who does so in fields like history or economics), but this state of being where we tolerate mundanity because we weren’t taught that it is mundane is simply unacceptable.

Let’s step briefly over to other arts. My stance, as stated above, is that it isn’t really worth being passionate over popular art because you’re putting more of yourself into something that isn’t giving as much back. There is an obvious rebuttal to this: it isn’t about the art (the product, I should say), it is about the community.

A community of people who have bonded over something that innovated upon nothing, offered no great insights on anything, and could (at best) have been best-in-class of a class of mediocrity. In every avenue of popular culture – comic books, video games, movies, music, tv shows, cartoons, books, paintings/drawings, you name it – this phenomenon runs rampant. There are people with absolutely dogmatic views on some of this stuff, and for what? In fact, I would argue that having a strong viewpoint on ANY popular art is a waste of your own effort. Remember, in the academic sense, every e-crusade you engage in to defend the honor of your favorite box office hit doesn’t even register on the radar of “art criticism.” It is evident to me, and hopefully evident to you, that if the extent of your passion for the arts ends at the boundary between popular art and serious art, then there will be no discussion about taste. You simply have no taste at all.

Your passion and energy would be better served and better rewarded doing nearly anything else. And what of me? Well, I wasn’t kidding. I still like popular music, and I fully intend to continue writing posts about it. Beyond the basic stuff which always get boring sooner or later, there are certainly many genres of music that fall on that aforementioned borderline. They’re worth examining for their artistic merits, and even if someone were to try to tell me they had none, I would say that their use as a gateway is more than enough. Lastly, I plan to continue learning more about classical music so that I can fully appreciate it.

Writing polemics about pop artists and their fans is a lot of fun. You see it on youtube often enough. We all love doing it. I can’t say I’ll never do it again, although I have avoided it for quite some time. It’s tremendous fun, but it’s ultimately nothing more than vanity.


2 thoughts on “What to Listen for in Music, by Aaron Copland

  1. Hi!

    I really enjoyed reading this article, not least because I have copy of this very book at home on my shelf! If you’re looking to further examine classical music, you are spoilt for choice in terms of literature available, but might I recommend one in particular? ‘The Rest Is Noise’ by Alex ross. It was written about five or six years ago but looks at music in an in-depth, yet accessible matter.

    If you find it, let me know what you think! Take care!

    Tim x


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