How We Listen

Music professors explore the ways we listen


Listening to everything from Mozart to Rihanna, Music professors Mary Ann Smart, James Davies, and Edmund Campion shared how they listen in this fascinating and lively panel on April 3. The panelists listened to and discussed three very different pieces :  an aria from Mozart’s opera “Le nozze di Figaro,” “Enjoy Your Worries. You May Never Have Them Again.” by Millennial collage duo The Books, and the pop song “Numb” by Rihanna.

“What we try to do in Berkeley Connect is to feature topics that are not really covered in your core music courses,” Mary Ann Smart, the faculty director of Berkeley Connect in Music, began. Among these topics? The different ways to listen! “In fact,” Smart noted. “Professors often don’t encourage different ways at all. They teach a few methods that they want students to perfect. So this is highly experimental.”

The panelists also stressed that it was a conversation. “I don’t have answers,” Professor Davies admitted. Davies, a music scholar who also plays the piano, said of listening, “I never thought of myself as a listener. I always wanted to be a performer. So I’ve always had a confused relationship with listening.” But Davies loved listening to the radio as a teenager, smiling as he recalled the days when he had to use a graphic equalizer to adjust the sound.

For Professor Campion, however, listening is what he loves best. “Listening is a form of knowledge and a way of knowing. It is a very important experience to me as a human being.” For Campion, who is a composer, it is sound that he is most interested in. “I want to ride in the frequencies.”

The first piece we listened to was Mozart’s “Voi Che Sapete,” an aria that appears in the opera “Le nozze di Figaro/The Marriage of Figaro.” Both Smart and Davies are well-versed in the piece. But although Smart is a music scholar specializing in opera who has heard this piece many times and knows Italian, she admitted she could not match parts of the song to the performance perfectly–and felt it was unnecessary. “That’s not the point.”

Davies has also taught the aria. As a performer himself, he focused on the performance of the piece. Admitting he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the performance by Cecelia Bartoli, who sang the aria, he noted, “I want performers to do a lot more.”

Campion admitted however that he chose the piece completely based on its sonic qualities. “I don’t believe in Mozart. I don’t believe in harmonies. I believe in sound,” the composer told the students. “I treat Mozart the same way I listen to everything else. I’m most interested in the way the brain interacts with sound.”

Replaying parts of the aria, Campion pointed out that at the beginning of the aria, the tones are incredibly pure, the sounds muffled to minimize the breathing and unnecessary sounds, but as the song became more agitated, we could now hear the hiss of the singer’s voice that reflected tension in the song.

“It’s the word suspiro, which means sigh, that is forcing the hiss,” Smart noted, adding that it was her favorite word in opera.

The second piece was “Enjoy Your Worries. You May Not Have Them Again.” by The Books, a vastly different work that brought together a variety of obscure sound clips to create an abstract and cacophonous experience. From gypsy music to a clip of a woman talking about her problems, the song is a collage of very different sounds.

“There is a minimalist quality to it, and the ostinato was also very distinctive,” Smart said of the piece, noting the undertone, or ostinato, that tied the piece together. “There is no repetition, unlike the Mozart.”

Also interesting, as Campion pointed out, was the use of monologue pieces as part of the song. “The woman speaks with a rhythm, and there is a pitch. In the song, she is an instrument.” Someone else agreed. “What struck me is the use of the voice as narration. Through the re-contextualization of all the elements, she really does become an instrument.”

Campion then displayed a sonogram of The Books as compared to the Mozart that captured the range of frequencies used. The track by The Book uses an incredible range of frequencies, while the aria remained in a smaller range. “There is no negative space,” Campion said of “Enjoy Your Worries.” “It really is a forest of action.” The panel noted that the song was clearly designed to be played through speakers, while Mozart obviously could not have been.

Then Campion showed us the sonogram of the last song by Rihanna. The sonogram image was almost entirely black! “It’s almost like noise,” Campion said. The symmetry of different parts also clearly showed signs of how engineered the pop song was.

One student stated that she didn’t see Rihanna as an artist. Campion expanded, “She is not a good singer, but she transforms herself with her behavior and presence,” comparing her to Madonna. “She is an artist. But not a singer. There is no Rihanna the singer. It’s all engineered.”

Smart noticed, however, that a comparison between these engineered pop songs and Mozart arias does exist! “There are clear formulas. It’s always a female singer with a male rapper, and he always comes in two-thirds of the way. In that way, it’s highly structuralized, just like Mozart.”

Who would have thought parallels could be drawn between such different pieces? Definitely an engaging conversation about rethinking the ways we listen to sound and music!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant