Guidance to making notes on classical music

This information was taken from the OCA website and I think it would be useful to include in my blog to remind me how I evaluate and record what I listen to as part of my studying:

Music can be enjoyed in many different ways, and beginning a listening log can be daunting at first, especially if you are trying to broaden your range of known repertoire. Here are a list of hints and tips which might help you to explore the world of classical music:

  • Aim to hear as broad a range of music as possible. Find out what styles you like best, by being as inclusive as possible. It is not always necessary to listen to complete works; excerpts of longer works, for example a movement of a sonata, concerto or symphony, are often sufficient to get a sense of the composer’s style and musical ideas.
  • If you can, try to focus your listening experiences on good quality, professional performances, either live or on CD or radio, or through web resources such as Naxos Music Library or Spotify.
  • Find a suitable place to listen, either through headphones or speakers, where you are comfortable and won’t be interrupted. Have a notepad and pen close by to jot down some of your thoughts.
  • Try to listen without distractions, but if your mind starts to wander, make a note of it! This is a valid observation and it is worth finding out if you lose interest at the same place on each hearing, or if it was just a concentration lapse on one occasion.
  • Try to keep an open mind and don’t allow your pre-conceptions of what the music might be like, or any previous knowledge of the composer get in the way of the music. Take the music entirely at face value, and expect to have several hearings before you form any kind of judgment of the work.
  • Begin by making observations about the sounds you are hearing. What instruments are playing? Is the music fast or slow? Consonant or dissonant? How hard or easy is the music to understand? What are your first impressions of the music?
  • Consider the impact of the music. Does it conjure up any emotions or images, or maybe even tell a story? These are your personal responses and there is no right and wrong!
  • Consider the music on a more technical level. What are the main themes? How is the music structured? How are the instruments used? Are there any solo lines, or prominent instruments? How often does the harmony change? What kinds of chords does the composer use? How is dissonance used?
  • Think about the circumstances of the piece’s first performance. Who would have played it? Where? What sorts of people would have been in the audience? How different would a performance today be from how it was written?
  • Begin to form your own opinions. What is it about this piece of music that appeals to you? What are the most successful aspects of the piece?
  • Think about the context of the work. How did it influence other composers? Can you hear any similarities with other composers? Are there any elements of the circumstances of the piece’s composition that can be heard in the music (for example, use of folk music, political influences, practical constraints etc.)? How does this piece compare with others by the same composer? Are there any obvious differences or similarities of style?
  • After a few hearings, consider how your feelings towards the music have changed. How do you think of the music now, compared to your first impressions? Are there any details that you noticed on subsequent hearings that you missed initially? Are there any observations you can make which might help you when listening to other works by the same composer? Anything to listen out for? Any lasting impressions? Does listening to this piece of music cause you to seek out music of a similar style? Or a different style?

Many of your thoughts when listening might pass by, unrecorded. Your listening log does not need to include every single observation, but the ideas above could give you some ideas of things to consider. Brief comments on each piece are sufficient, but make comparisons where you can with the other works you have heard, and feel free to write more about the pieces that particularly inspire you!

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