How to Listen to Music (Part One)

You’ve probably been listening to music your whole life. It’s simple, right? Just pop in a CD, turn on the mp3 player, slip on the vinyl, go to the live show. Why would you need to learn how to listen to it? It’s all around us!

But learning to hear phrasing and structure can be one of the most important skills a new musician can learn. It is the basis for creating a really musical way of playing and can really help when you are trying to figure out how and where to put ornamentation or variation.

First it’s important to understand the basic structure of most Irish or old-time melodies. There is usually an A part that is played twice and a B part that is played twice. Sometimes there are more parts, but most melodies are two-part tunes. Then the whole thing is repeated 3 or more times before moving on to another tune. It’s a simple classic structure. And it’s pretty easy for a beginner or non-musician to hear when listening to music.

More advanced listeners may also notice that the A part and the B part are usually differentiated by one being lower in pitch (usually the A part) and the other being higher in pitch (usually the B part). Sometimes the parts will even change key, though this is more rare. Old-timers might in fact never call something an A or B part but might refer instead to the low part and the high part of the tune when they are talking about it.

There are of course the more technical parts of the structure that you can see when you look at sheet music for the tune. Typically, the A and B parts are each 8 bars long, the time signatures usually stick to 6/8 or 4/4 depending on the type of tune, and most tunes rely heavily on eighth notes with an ending half or dotted half note to end the final phrases (well that can really vary but it’s a pretty common structure).

But there is a deeper and more important structure beneath these melodies and that is what is known as PHRASING. The way a tune is phrased is dictated both by the melody AND by the way the player plays the tune. A good player can vary the phrases with every pass through the melody, giving greater or less emphasis to certain notes or passages in the music.

So how can you, as a beginner or intermediate player begin learning to hear the phrasing?

A really good way to start is by listening for the CALL and RESPONSE in the tune.

Within a typical A or B part, there are usually 4 phrases.

The first and third phrases are usually the same or similar and can be thought of as the CALL or the QUESTION.

The second and fourth phrases can be identical to each other or wildly different from one another. These are the RESPONSE or the ANSWER. Usually the answers are slightly different from each other with the second “answer” rising or falling to lead into the next part.

For those who read sheet music, the standard phrases are usually 2 bars of a tune, at least in the structure of the melody. Of course a good player may blur this structure and create phrases of greater or lesser length. But starting with the 2 bar phrase can be a helpful way to start hearing the tune.

Graphically you could show this structure like so:

Question 1 | Response 1 | Question 1 | Response 2

(2 bars) (2 bars) (2 bars) (2 bars)

One device many Irish tunes use is to place Response #2 at the end of the A part AND the B part. It’s by no means universal, but you see it often and it could be represented like this:

A part

Question 1 | Response 1 | Question 1 | Response 2

B part

Question 2 | Response 3 | Question 2 | Response 2

If you read sheet music, seeing these phrases in the music is a bit easier but if you play by ear, try listening to the SIMPLEST versions of tunes you have. Use recordings intended for slow play learning or musicians who do not do lots of melodic variation. See if you can hear the call and response structure of the tunes and see if you can identify the phrases that repeat. Is the ending of the A part the same or different from the ending B part? Occasionally you’ll even run into tunes where the 4 phrases are repeated over and over and the questions are the same as the responses! These are usually the more droney, simpler sounding tunes and usually only the A part or B part will have this repeating structure.

Next time we’ll talk about how some amazing players use this structure to create expressive, individualistic settings of tunes and how you can use the structure to start varying your own playing and giving the music more life.

And go play!

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