On Listening to, and Performing, Familiar Music

‹-- PreviousNext --›

This post is the result of two remarks made in different contexts ganging up on my brain and making me think about them together. Both were made by Jay Dougherty during BABS Directors Academy back in January.

The first (well, it came along second, but has muscled to the front of the logical queue for consideration) was in his class on Audio Illusions, where he demonstrated the phenomenon of phonemic restoration. This is where the brain fills in missing or masked fragments in a heard linguistic utterance, leaving us with the impression that we have heard it in its entirety. This is very useful for intelligibility, helping us make sense of what we hear despite environmental distractions or indistinct speech.

This is itself a subset of the wider phenomenon of Temporal Induction, in which the brain fills in missing or damaged moments in a sound stream of any kind to create the illusion of continuity for the perceiver. Most examples you find are still from language (like this one), but this article explores it in other kinds of listening experiences.

The main corollary of this for singers is that you can get away with much sloppier diction in well-known songs than in music your audience hasn’t heard before. Likewise, if the unfamiliar music sits clearly within a genre’s norms, people will be able to fill in any gaps in the lyrics reasonably readily. But if your words are surprising or unusual, you’ll need to make sure you really nail the diction for the message to get across.

For musicians in general, it also has implications for how we listen to ourselves as we practise and rehearse. The performances we prepare are led by and modelled on internal, imagined renditions of how we want the music to go. It is all too easy for these idealised musical images to provide the perceptual continuity that glues our external performances together across the glitches and imperfections that are inevitable features of a work-in-progress. If we are to identify and correct these imperfections, we need to find ways to step away from the sense-making processes that smooth them away and listen afresh.

Famliarity, that is, makes the memory of music an integral part of the listening experience. It makes music easier to listen to: as we already know how it goes, we don’t need to throw so many cognitive resources at making sense of it as it unfolds. At times this can make it easier to ignore, to let it slide into a comforting aural wallpaper.

But at other times, it can heighten the experience. Because we know how the music goes, we know what’s coming, and can look forward to our favourite bits. This was Jay’s other point, which emerged in a coaching-under-glass session. The quartet was singing a well-known arrangement, and Jay highlighted a moment that anyone who has been in barbershop for any time would be waiting for. If you fluff it, or just skate over it as if it’s no big deal, you’ll leave your audience feeling let down.

And these moments, I tend to think, are an integral feature of music that we identify as ‘favourite’, in any genre. There are bits in particular orchestral pieces that if they were playing in the background, I’d have to stop anything else I was doing and just revel in, before going back to cooking or conversation or whatever afterwards. (The transition into the finale of Sibelius 2, for example, or the 11 bass drum strokes in The Rite of Spring.)

If we’re preparing well-known music in a tradition with which we are familiar, we’ll know which bits these are, as we will have heard them pointed up for our delectation multiple times before. But if we’re less familiar with the repertoire than our audience will be – either because we’re new to the genre or simply through relative youth – how will we know where they are?

The obvious answer is possibly that’s what teachers and coaches and youtube are for, but there’s a related question that makes us go beyond the obvious. This is: if we’re preparing music that is relatively new to the performance tradition, such that there isn’t a body of past recorded performances for reference, and the music is also new to our teachers and coaches, how do we tell which bits are going to become the favourite bits, once our audiences have got to know it?

I seem to have wandered from my titular subject of familiar music into possibly the more exciting territory of new music. So I’ll stop for now and come back to how we might identify the favourite bits of the future another day.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content