Listening for Shape in Classical Music


One way to listen to classical music is listening for shape.  All pieces of music have a shape, and this shape informs the listening experience.  We sometimes use the word “shape” when describing the form of a piece, but at the most elemental level, shape is merely the rise and fall of the music.  The composer can shape his music with ascending and descending melodic notes, harmonies that open and close, increasingly complex rhythms, changing textures, dynamic colorings, and a host of other tools.

At first hearing we may not know exactly what tools the composer is using, but even the youngest student or the member of the audience with the least amount of musical training can follow the elemental shape.  The young composer-in-training listens for the shape, then turns to the score to see how this shape was accomplished.

It’s easier to follow and describe the shape of miniatures, so we’ll start with some miniatures and listen to their shapes.  Students can draw the shape on a long piece of paper, can follow the ups and downs of the score with their finger, or can simply listen and then draw an approximation of the overall shape.

The first miniature is the first Chopin Prelude, op. 28, in C major.

The listener will soon discover that the shape of this piece is a lovely arch, culminating in a climax almost exactly halfway through the piece.  The more focused listener might also hear the moment about one-fourth of the way through where Chopin hints at the climax to come, then backs down and rebuilds the momentum so that we feel the climax in every cell of our bodies.

The listener with musical training can analyze all the ways Chopin created this tension and release, and the young composer can apply these concepts to her own music.  Any listener of any background, regardless of training, can feel the motion as Chopin pulls us forward and upward and then releases us in a gentle repetition that tells us the motion is stopping and the piece is ending, almost as soon as it was begun!

The next miniature is Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, op. 22, #8. Although the quality of this video is not the best, the elegant and graceful performance shows us through sound and through sight how Prokofiev builds upon his original idea, by adding layers of complexity.

When a group of students was asked to listen to this piece several times and then draw a picture of it, one very young composer drew three identical houses – one with windows and a door, the next with flowers in each window and a path leading to the door, and the third with the windows, the doors, the flowers, the path, and lace curtains at each window, smoke lazily curling from the chimney. This young composer really knows how to listen!!

Here is a superb gem from Villa-Lobos, his Etude 1:

What is the shape of this piece? How does Villa-Lobos achieve the various effects of rising and falling? At what point in the piece does the first climax occur? The second climax? What compositional tools does he use to build and release tension? Younger students can simply draw the shape of this piece, and perhaps include colors in their drawings. Older, more advanced students can discuss the various compositional elements Villa-Lobos employs to build this structure.

Here is another exciting shape, portrayed by a spectrogram of the introduction to Ligeti’s Piano Etude 13 (Book II).

And here’s the entire piece, so aptly subtitled L’escalier du Diable – the Devil’s Staircase!

And now, just in case you’re exhausted from climbing that infernal and unending staircase, here’s a shape that many minimalist composers embrace.  When there is no sense of direction, no forward motion, no rising or falling, there is still a shape …    How would you draw the shape of this music, as we close the article with a piece by Steve Reich entitled “Music for 18 Musicians – Section VIII “:

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