Sunday, July 11, 2010

Drop the needle quizzes

For the generationally challenged, the "needle" here refers to a phonograph needle. A "phonograph" is kind of like those things DJs use to make scratchy noises at dance clubs (do they still do that?), except we used to use them to actually listen to music.

In the olden days in music school, teachers would turn on the phonograph and drop the needle on the "record" (you know, those round things made of vinyl) at random, and students were expected to listen to a snippet of something and either identify it or describe what they thought it was. In my later years in school, the technology moved on to cassette tapes (um, plastic tape coated with magnetic material containing the recordings wound on tiny spools in little plastic cases). I spent the entire 15 or so years I was in music school learning how to do this. It was part of the doctoral exams I took. I don't remember what pieces they used, but I did pass the test.

I mostly use this skill now to impress my husband when we're riding in the car with the radio on. "Tchaikovsky, 'Swan Lake,'" I'll say, or "Howard Hansen," or "Mahler symphony -- not sure which one," and almost every time, I will be correct. Some of it is just recognizing the actual piece, but part is also being able to place a style chronologically by noticing the instrumentation, texture (chordal, contrapuntal, etc.), and style. Most composers also have a signature riff that they always use -- a melodic turn, a chord progression, a rhythmic pattern.

Beyond its utility as a parlor (or car!) trick, I know there must be something useful about this, too. Maybe it's simply being able to listen carefully enough to distinguish different types of music, which probably helps in understanding, which ultimately helps in playing. In the confusing world full of all kinds of sounds, part of being a musician is being able to listen and discern one from another.

1 comment:

pdxknitterati/MicheleLB said...

It also adds a layer of understanding! I was listening to a radio program (This American Life) and the music behind the introduction was "The Judge" which my son had played in jazz ensemble. It fit with the theme of the show, and to me felt like an inside joke. But I got it!