Structural Listening

By: Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas, Austin) //

If music is organized sound, then the most distinctive quality of a musical work or tradition is its organization—the patterns of sounds and silences that make it unique. And since music is also a cultural practice, musicians organize their sounds in predictable patterns so that their musical meanings might be shared and understood. This aspect of music is known as form, and we might call an approach that is especially focused on form structural listening.

In order for musicking to be effective as a shared practice, both performers and avid listeners have to understand the forms in their tradition. As a listener, you are likely familiar with the formal conventions at the core of your favorite songs or other musical works—even if you’re not directly conscious of them. If you’ve ever sensed the approaching chorus of a song you’ve never heard before, you know what it’s like to listen to music structurally.


In “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls, each verse sets the same melody to a different stanza of text; the refrain that follows is marked by a new melody, a complementary countermelody, and a new strumming pattern in the guitars, signaling a structural shift to the listener. In concert, the Indigo Girls often encourage the audience to sing along with the refrain, giving their fans the chance to join them in the musical-structural satisfaction embedded in the song.

But when we encounter an unfamiliar tradition, it may seem incomprehensible or strange because we don’t recognize the patterns that organize it. What we call “good” music merely matches our expectations for what we already understand and think we like.

Human brains love patterns, but since each brain is different, each of us will respond more or less willingly to different formal approaches in music. Some people thrive on density and complexity, seeking out music that has many layers (polyphonic or polyrhythmic) and/or establishes formal patterns that are lengthy, irregular, or a challenge to figure out. Others prefer clarity and simplicity, opting for music that has fewer layers (homophonic, with a primary melody and accompaniment; or even monophonic/heterophonic, with a single melody that might be performed by a single player, in unison by many, or interpreted differently but simultaneously by several musicians), and/or more straightforward, concise, or repetitive formal patterns.

On the other hand, we can train ourselves to recognize and understand new or unfamiliar patterns, challenging our natural preference for simplicity or complexity and giving our brain a greater menu of formal “sonic food” to dine on. This is why many of the books designed to train appreciation of Western music place substantial emphasis on structural listening—a focus on the patterns of Statement / Repeat / Contrast or Modification / Return that make up the “contract” of expectations between the composer and the listener.

Rose Subotnik of Brown University suggests that “structural listening is an active mode that, when successful, gives the listener the sense of composing the piece as it actualizes itself in time.” 1 In other words, this kind of listening promises a glimpse into the pattern-creating process of the composer, or even, in a more abstract sense, a connection to the unfolding of an independent work of art, one that creates abstract meaning through patterns of sound. 

Subotnik also observes, however, that structural listening is often presented not as just one possible strategy, but as the most elevated approach to listening. It has been used to judge not only the quality of musical works, but also their place in the musical canon, beginning explicitly in the work of Eduard Hanslick on the nature of beauty in music, and then implicitly in the creation of concert traditions and pedagogies of “music appreciation” in the twentieth century. Those who would appraise music based solely on its structural elegance and coherence believe that its value comes from abstract patterns and nowhere else. 2

Let’s consider the ethics of this position. If “good” music reveals its quality only to a disciplined listener who is prepared and willing to receive the composer’s message in this particular way, then a meaningful connection to music can only be achieved through extensive technical training and serious self-discipline, both of which are often characterized as evidence of superior moral or philosophical character. If a listener is so prepared, Subotnik asks us to consider if the sound of music is even relevant: “[S]tructural listening can take place in the mind through intelligent score-reading, without the physical presence of an external sound-source.” 3

Structural listening might then be a way to transcend the potential sloppiness and imprecision of a musical performance. Without a soloist to go flat or a reed to break, the written musical score is seen (!) as having more integrity than any concert that originates from it. The ultimate structural listener becomes a silent reader, one who can perfectly imagine the unfolding of sound inside the mind. This of course risks suggesting that the highest form of listening requires a superhuman level of musical literacy, one to which most avid listeners—quite reasonably—do not aspire.

At some level, structural listening is an essential skill, one that we develop, more or less consciously, in order to understand music that’s near and dear to us. By honing this skill, we can comprehend subtle nuances we might otherwise miss. Without words or images, musicians must rely on form to express themselves. But though an understanding of form is crucial to any avid listener’s musical literacy, it shouldn’t be seen as the only way to build musical meaning. There are those who will champion formal complexity as a marker of aesthetic superiority, dismissing any music they consider too simple as less artistic, moral, or philosophical—a claim that can lead to categorizing some traditions as inferior on the basis of unexamined cultural prejudices.

Implicit in the process of structural listening is a close attention to the musical event. After all, if we are to perceive patterns as they unfold over time, we must “tune in” to the entire musical work. If we miss something, we miss a piece of the structural “puzzle.” Structural listening can instill patience, the ability to focus our undivided attention on the entirety of a musical “argument” from start to finish. Teachers of structural listening repeatedly warn against distracted or “background” listening, suggesting that it is not just lazy but even disrespectful to the integrity of the music and thus to the creative purpose of the composer. But is that really so? We’ll come back to that mode of listening in our next post.

For Discussion

What kinds of structures can you perceive in the music that you listen to most regularly? How do those structures help to emphasize important text if there are words connected to the music?  How might they contribute to your ability to remember specific sections of favorite songs and/or beloved melodies?

1 Rose Rosengard Subotnik, “Toward a Deconstruction of Structural Listening: A Critique of Schoenberg, Adorno, and Stravinsky,” in Deconstructive Variations: Music and Reason in Western Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 148-76), 150.

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