An Online Course in How to Listen to Orchestras

Douglas McLennan
Editor or and primary instructor for S4MU

It’s a truism in the arts that the more you know, the more you’ll understand and appreciate them. But knowing “facts” about music isn’t the same as knowing how to listen. Knowing the “theory” or structure behind the music also doesn’t necessarily mean you can listen well.

Listening is an art itself and everyone hears in a different way. Maybe it’s what you decide to pay attention to or what qualities in a piece of music you think is most important. Some people are drawn more to lush harmonies than say, a driving beat or a melody. Others need a good jolt of dissonance but get bored when the music is “bland.”


CLASS #1: Great Programming
CLASS #2: Great Orchestras
CLASS #3: Popularity
CLASS #4: A Listening Strategy

Then there’s the whole issue of performance. Me, I like to hear some rough-around-the-edges. Every note in place can be a little… dull. On the other hand, there’s nothing like the thrill of virtuosity, when someone attempts the seemingly impossible and makes it… or doesn’t.

The point is, there’s no one definitive Gold Standard when it come to music or to orchestras. But it’s sure fun to debate. The more you know, the more fun the debate.

So how do you develop the ability to listen? The obvious answer is to listen a lot. But it helps to know what to listen for. It helps to know a little bit about why something sounds the way it sounds.

Turning Spring For Music Into a MOOC

Spring For Music is a much-talked-about festival of orchestras from around America. Five orchestras. Six nights. Carnegie Hall. If listening in bulk helps you learn to listen, then it seemed to us this was a golden opportunity to turn the festival into a live/virtual classroom. For four weeks online – April 1,8,15,22 – we’ll talk about the art of learning how to listen, about how programs are made, why some pieces get to be popular while others don’t, what makes a great orchestra and how you can hear the difference.

Side by side comparisons are terrific, so we’ll play music to compare. You’ll get to test your ears with online quizzes, ask questions of others participating in S4MU, hear what orchestra insiders, including conductors, managers, composers and critics listen for, and learn from and debate fellow S4MUers.

How it will Work

The cost of the online course is free. A new class will go live every Monday – April 1,8,15,22 – at 9AM Eastern. You can access that week’s class any time after it goes online. Wikis and discussion forums and social media will allow members to participate.

The videos and quizzes that make up this class are only meant as a starting point. Online discussion can take the class in many directions, and we hope to tap into the expertise of S4MUers to deepen the discussions.

How will all this work? MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are all the rage in higher education these days. There are plenty of benefits to learning in this way. We haven’t yet seen an arts organization try turning itself into a MOOC, but the possibilities are intriguing. While some developers have been working on developing on an open source MOOC platform, none was really ready for us to use yet, so we decided to cobble together various existing platforms to power S4MU, including WordPress, PHPForum, WikiMedia, Facebook and Twitter. We hope it will work.

What You Get When You Sign Up

First, it’s free to sign up and participate. We’ll start, at least by using music from this year’s Spring For Music programs as fodder for our class. That way, should you choose to come to New York in May for the Festival, you’ll know an awful lot about what you’re listening to. AND: should you decide to come to the concerts, we have a special deal for you. You can get the entire series of six concerts for the discounted price of $75. That’s less than the cost of a single ticket for most concerts. You’ll get reserved special group seating with other S4MUers, you’ll get a full set of the famous Spring For Music 2013 bandanas (a collector’s item), and we’ll arrange some social opportunities for S4MUers to get together during the week of the festival.

Hope to see you in S4MU. To sign up, hit the sign up button in the side column. Questions? Fill in the comment form below. We’ll also post an FAQ.

– Douglas McLennan
March 9, 2013

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