Composer Study Resource - Listening Maps
I recently was posting in a Charlotte Mason group about how much I love listening maps! Although they are not necessary for the enjoyment of classical music, they can be a wonderful tool of allowing your brain to pick up on "timbre" within the piece.
If you're not familiar with the term "timbre" let me give you a quick music lesson! I'll start with a question - when you would pick up the phone as a teenager did the person on the end of the phone ever confuse your voice for another member of your family? That sound quality of your voice is unique, but because you belong to a family you develop similar characteristics to the other people under your roof! Kids these days might not ever experience that phenomenon because of the predominant use of cell phones! Maybe a better example for moms reading this post is when you say "is that my kid calling?" when you hear the loud shout of "MOMMY" from across the playground!
To put it simply, "timbre" (pronounced 'tam-ber') is the quality of sound that can be distinguished from other sounds.
I led our homeschool co-op in a listening activity a few months ago using a Verdi string quartet recording and had the kids draw different colored lines as they heard the instruments enter. I made the comment "oh! Listen! I hear the cello enter now!" and a mom asked me "How can you hear that?!" I take it for granted that my ear has been listening for musical qualities most of my life and not everyone has the same trained ear.
In fact, Charlotte Mason wrote about the importance of training the ear in many places of her education volumes including this quote:
Discrimination of Sounds––A quick and true ear is another possession that does not come by Nature, or anyway, if it does, it is too often lost. How many sounds can you distinguish in a sudden silence out of doors? Let these be named in order from the less to the more acute. Let the notes of the birds be distinguished, both call-notes and song-notes; the four or five distinct sounds to be heard in the flow of a brook. Cultivate accuracy in distinguishing footfalls and voices; in discerning, with their eyes shut, the direction from which a sound proceeds, in which footsteps are moving. Distinguish passing vehicles by the sounds; as lorry, brougham, dog-cart. Music is, no doubt, the means par excellence for this kind of ear culture. Mrs.Curwen's 'Child Pianist' puts carefully graduated work of this kind into the hands of parents; and, if a child never become a performer, to have acquired a cultivated and correct ear is no small part of a musical education. -CM Volume 2 pg 185
There are a lot of levels I could go into on how a trained ear is important to music but for this specific post, I want to call attention to how a listening map can help direct the ear to hear specific sounds. What is a listening map? Anything that can direct the eye - to call attention to the brain - in order to distinguish the hearing of a sound quality. It could be as simple as drawing a shape on a board and following it with your finger to show how the musical line moves from a high pitch to a low pitch.
I included the listening map below in the playlist for Haydn as part of the Composer Study Companion lessons:
Through the development of technology, my favorite listening maps are "animated listening maps" where people have used symbols to represent the sounds in a score. I will use this example by Stephen Malinowski who took shapes to represent the timbre of the orchestra playing Mozart's Symphony 41.
He uses the size of the shapes to show how fast and slow the sounds go by and places them high and low to show the melodic direction. The different colors and different shapes also represent the different sounds of the instruments. I especially like the flute representation at minute 1:09-1:25.
This is a great place to ask kids to listen for the sound of the flute!
Here is an example of a listening map that just uses pictures of the instruments to help students listen for the timbre of the orchestra:
I love this listening map because not only does it guide a student to hear the different sounds of the instruments, but it also teaches the musical concept of "form." Each melodic theme can be heard during a specific section.
The example that I shared in a homeschool Facebook group was this fun listening map:
You can't take your eyes off the screen!!! That little guy falling down every time the bass clarinet played lower just captures your attention! Not to mention how fun it is to see the sled hit a shape on the downbeat!
Finally, a very easy search to find visual cues for a musical example is to search for "synthesia." This is an electronic resource that can take a "Musical Instrument Digital Interface" or MIDI file and create a visual map for each line of code. I actually have piano students that learn popular songs from these tutorials on their own time at home! I think it can be a great resource as you learn more about music!!!
To close out the post I will leave you with three different listening maps for Beethoven's Symphony no. 5! Disney's Fantasia did a great job animating several pieces of classical music for students to enjoy! I hope you give this resource a try throughout your composer studies!