Roger W. Smith, “On Listening to Music”


Once a visitor to our home, a man I didn’t know who was discussing music with my father, asked my father, a professional musician, “does he play too?” referring to me.

My father answered, “No, he doesn’t. But he listens.

My father had a way with words. When he said “listens,” he did it in such a way as to emphasize it.

I felt at the time that my father might have been making a backhanded compliment. I didn’t take it all that well.

It was long ago, but I have since thought about my father’s remark anew. I think he meant it as a compliment and was showing appreciation for me.

I do have an extensive acquaintance with classical music, as my father implied.

I have been thinking about listening as it relates to performance.

I find that I have a good ear and a very good musical memory. I always seem to be able to recall music from long ago, exactly, note for note, and so on (not just the notes, but the timbre, pitch, orchestral coloration, rhythm, tone, harmony, dynamics, and other effects).

For example, if I hear a hit by Elvis Presley from the Fifties, I seem to recall every quaver in his voice, every trill, everything.

One might say, so what, it’s not complex music. But the point is that, regardless of the format, I seem to remember exactly, kind of like the musical equivalent of having a photographic memory.

Perhaps many other people have the same ability.

In the case of classical music, I seem to remember exactly performances I heard long ago on LP’s. If I hear a new performance, I am very aware of slight differences. Usually, I prefer the older performance, seem to want to hear the piece performed just the way it was when I first heard and grew to love it.

To take one example of a piece I’ve recently listed to after a long time: the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus.” Our Sunday school boys choir performed this beautiful hymn in the North Congregational church in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1957.

I tried to find a good choral version on It’s amazing how bad some of them are.

I found a version of the hymn by the York College Concert Choir. It was one of the few good ones. Still, I would have preferred if they had sung it at just a little bit faster pace and slightly livelier tempo.

I remember just how “Fairest Lord Jesus” sounded when our boys choir sang it in 1957. We sang it at a little bit faster tempo, which is not to say too fast, and with a bit more verve.

The slightest variation in performance can bother me and almost ruin the listening experience for me.

Once I find a performance of some beloved piece that I really like, I usually don’t want to hear a different one, although sometimes (rarely) I will welcome a different interpretation, in cases, say, where a piece or composition is performed in a new arrangement or a transcription.

An example might be a set of CD’s I purchased a few years ago in which all nine Beethoven symphonies are performed in piano transcriptions by Franz Liszt. The experience was like hearing the symphonies anew, every note.

I appreciate in retrospect what my father said about my listening ability and don’t regret too much that I never became proficient as a musician.


— Roger W. Smith

     January 2016




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