I seldom listen to a piece of music for the first time with a score in hand. The first hearing is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I prefer to at least have a memory of innocence when digging into the score later.

On the other hand, I seldom listen to recordings when I am first learning a new piece. Again, the first contact with the printed page only happens once – why sully the process of discovery by comparing it with a possibly less-than-perfect reproduction?

And yet, nothing compares with the experience of listening to music while following the ideas as they scurry across the page. I’m starting to fully realize the obvious, that the thousands of times I have delighted in following music in the score as it’s being played has had a profound effect on the way I listen. When I attend a performance, I’m listening actively, anticipating the next moment, whether I know the piece or not. I’m not only listening to ideas as they occur, but also as they progress through the course of the composition.

I say this not to express anything out of the ordinary – musicians listen this way all the time – but to express a renewed astonishment that most listeners have never followed music in a score, have never had what for me is a fundamental listening experience, an experience that all other listening experiences relate back to.

What is it like to listen to music, if one has never followed along on the page? Can I imagine such a thing? Well, yes, I can, to a degree. One of the things I imagine is a focus on the juicy moments in a piece of music, or the overall ambience, as opposed to the way all the moments, juicy and otherwise, add up into a compelling whole over the course of time.

But I wonder, does it make sense for me to try to relate to someone who doesn’t read music? Is it appropriate for me to disdain one of the aspects of listening I enjoy the most?

On the other hand, does it make sense for me to write as if everyone could read music? Isn’t that presupposing an ideal that is not only unrealistic, but also condescending?

And if I reject those two extremes, where is the middle ground?

Leave a Reply