What am I listening to?


  • To hear: To perceive, or have the sensation of, sound. (OED)
  • To listen: To hear attentively; to give ear to; to pay attention to. (OED)

What am I Listening to? is a course that aims to develop the active art of listening rather than the apparently passive act of hearing. Over fifteen sessions, you will: learn how to identify musical cues; explore the role of our expectations in the way we listen; and begin to hone your powers of aural discrimination.

Each session focuses on a particular aspect of music, considering a single work or several linked works. Specialist presenters describe the nuts and bolts of the pieces – underlying structure, musical devices such a melody, harmony, rhythm, metre, imitation, repetition, development and word-setting – all of which combine to produce particular responses in us as we listen.

Where appropriate, sessions include live performance as well as recorded excerpts. The course is supported by extensive online materials. Occasional optional excursions are organised outside the published programme.  Read on for course details.


Session One (now to take place on 3 May 2017)
Wednesday 5 October 2016, 10.15-12.30
The musical impulse
This opening lecture explores the fundamental reasons that we listen to music, from its role in human evolution to the brain mechanisms that govern sound perception and emotional response. We consider possible musical universals that guide how humans worldwide create and experience patterns of sound, and explore the range and extent of music’s effects on our emotions, both in moments of personal significance and its capacity to move entire populations. Professor Aaron Williamon closes his lecture with an analysis of research into music’s impact on health and wellbeing, with the very latest findings suggesting a direct link between music and biological systems that regulate mental health and immune function.

Session Two
Wednesday 12 October 2016, 10.15-12.30, 49 Queen’s Gate Terrace, SW7 5PN
Consonance and Dissonance: Monteverdi’s Fifth book of madrigals
What do we mean when we talk about ‘consonant’ and ‘dissonant’ progressions in music? And are these absolutes, or conditioned only by what our ears have become used to? Katy Hamilton traces the emergence of musical writing in multiple parts, and the growing desire to express emotion and poetic meaning by transferring the rules of spoken rhetoric to musical forms. The greatest early pioneer of expressive vocal writing and dramatic content was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643): we consider his books of madrigals, and the extent to which he bent the contemporary rules of consonance and dissonance to suit expressive ends.

Session Three
Wednesday 19 October 2016, 10.15-12.30
Keys and harmony: Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier (48 Preludes and Fugues)
In the late sixth century BC, the philosopher Pythagoras is said to have discovered the basic principles of acoustics and intervals by listening to hammers of different weights striking consonant and dissonant intervals. As the centuries passed, musicians developed a wide variety of tuning systems based on the ‘purity’ of certain intervals over others… but it was only from the seventeenth century that the idea emerged of making all intervals equal, as they are on the modern piano. Using J.S. Bach’s Das wohltemperirte Klavier, Katy Hamilton explore ideas of temperament, tuning, and the harmonic relationships created through all tones being equal.

Session Four
Wednesday 2 November 2016, 10.15-12.30
Symphonic structure: Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor
In this session Karl Lutchmayer investigates what makes this symphony so immediately arresting, examining its ‘classical’ structure, melodic ideas, keys, harmonic relationships, instrumentation, and of course the influence of the famous Mannheim ‘school’. This was the second of Mozart’s last three symphonies, all composed in just two months in the summer of 1788. Did Mozart even conceive them as a musical triptych? Karl examines the evidence, considering how effectively Mozart both meets and surprises the listener’s expectations, then and now – and how those expectations come to be embedded in us in the first place.

Session Five
Wednesday 9 November 2016, 10.15-12.30
Chamber music: Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet in D minor
Quartet no.14 was written in 1824, when Schubert was depressed, ill and deeply impoverished. The second movement uses the melody of his 1817 song, ‘Death and the Maiden’ from where the quartet gets it names. Karl Lutchmayer examines how Schubert uses his characteristic musical invention and melodic ingenuity, constructing this work by repeating and extending tunes rather than relying on the more subliminal approach of logical harmonic progressions as an underpinning structural element. Despite occasional rays of melodic sunshine, death casts a shadow over each of the movements, echoing the composer’s own growing sense of desolation.

Session Six
Wednesday 16 November 2016, 10.15-12.30
Orchestral manoeuvres: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique
Every now and again composers come up a work which changes music for ever. Berlioz’s 1830 Symphonie fantastique is one. A ‘programme’ symphony, it is based in part on Thomas de Quincey’s autobiographical ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’. The five movements take us from passionate dream to a ballroom, via a pastoral idyll to the scaffold and finally a witches’ Sabbath. This rich material is brought vividly to musical life by a 90-piece orchestra – bigger than any before – and Berlioz’s extraordinary ear for instrumental colour. As Leonard Bernstein remarked: “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral”. . Karl Lutchmayer examines the impact of this extraordinary work.

Session Seven
Wednesday 23 November 2016, 10.15-12.30
The shock of the new: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
The uproar which accompanied the first performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps at its Paris premiere in 1913 has become legendary. But Stravinsky’s response to his hysterical audience is less often recorded. “I have never again been that angry”, he recalled. “The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance.” What was it about Le Sacre that so polarised listeners, musicians and critics alike? Katy Hamilton considers how Stravinsky came to create this extraordinary soundworld, and its place in the development of ballet from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.


Session Nine 

25 January 2017, 10.15-12.30
What does a conductor actually do?
Why is it that conductors exert such a fascination on audiences? From Mahler’s legendary tenures in Vienna and New York to Simon Rattle’s accession to the position of Music Director at the LSO, we are obsessed by the one person on stage who makes no sound, yes seems to control everything. The term ‘Maestro Myth’ has been well chosen, for the conductor has a status that is somehow greater than reality and yet dubious at the same time. As a member of the LPO for 10 years, Simon Channing has played for many eminent conductors including Haitink, Tennstedt, Rattle, Mehta, Jansons, Muti, Maazel and Masur. In this talk he seeks to uncover just what constitutes greatness in this most elusive of professions.

Session Ten
1 February 2017, 10.15-12.30
All together now! Operatic ensembles:
From the sinuous, passionate duet of Poppea and Nero to the massed choruses of the crowd at Escamillo’s bullfight and the mob who seek out Peter Grimes, it is difficult to underestimate the power of voices united on the opera stage. Love, anger, intricate scheming, musical deception and universal rejoicing – the expressive and dramatic potential is exponentially increased when singers have the opportunity to do the one thing that straight theatre cannot accommodate: multiple characters speaking together. Beginning with Monteverdi and tracing examples through the works of Mozart, Verdi, Britten, Adams and others, Katy Hamilton explores the myriad ways in which composers have used the operatic ensemble.

Session Eleven
8 February 2017, 10.15-12.30        
A sense of place: Programme music (1)
As Louis Armstrong once observed, ‘All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.’ The origins of national musical styles are so often tied – consciously or not – to the places in which they evolved, from songs and dances which mark the cycle of the year, to depictions of the landscape itself. It is the life of the ‘folk’ in these regions, and their reliance upon the land, which has shaped their musical language. Guided by Katy Hamilton, we discover some of the most vivid and personal examples of the musical landscape: the passion and poise of Spain, the sweeping vistas of Finland and the leaping excitement of the American Rodeo… not to mention the quiet, majestic beauty of Britain.

Session Twelve
1 March 2017, 10.15-12.30
Nature’s music: Programme music (2)
It may be simple to recognise birdsong in music – consider Olivier Messiaen’s characterful Catalogue des oiseaux – but how does music convey the serenity of a pastoral scene or the brutality of a storm? Why does Debussy’s La mer sound like the sea? And how does Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave so effortlessly transport us to the Hebridean island of Staffa? We are conditioned by what we already have heard and know – an ambulance siren for instance – but how do composers formulate their ideas into evocative sound? In this session Karl Lutchmayer tackles the fascinating area of musical allusion, treading the line between straightforward imitation and essential abstraction.

Session Thirteen
8 March 2017, 10.15-12.30            
What am I watching? Music for film
Film music has always been an essential ingredient in a gripping movie: sweeping strings, heroic brass, epic fanfares and lush tunes. Although it is often cherished in its own right, film music, at the point of inception, is not autonomous but must serve and further the filmic narrative. When writing film music, composers enter into a collaborative creative process at the service of moment-to-moment storytelling. Using a range of examples from film, television and advertising, Vasco Hexel explores the process of film music composition and illustrates film composers’ creative strategies in finding inspiration and channelling their ideas to the desired effect.        

Session fourteen
15 March 2017, 10.15-12.30 
Recording with Rattle: Beethoven’s complete symphonies
An introduction to the CD recordings made in the Musikverein, Vienna, in May 2002, of the complete Beethoven Symphonies, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle.  The recording producer, Stephen Johns, discusses the processes and challenges of making a complete set of recordings, live and in studio sessions.  From the long-term planning of the project, technically and musically, through the day-to-day recording over three weeks, and the post-production techniques that create the final master, the talk covers all aspects of modern record-making. Musical examples and excerpts from the symphonies, particularly no. 5,  highlight both the music-making of the artists, and the decisions and processes of the recording team.   

Session Fifteen
22 March 2017,10.15-12.30          
We know that music helps us to cope with sadness and loss so it is no surprise that saying goodbye is a common theme in all music. In this session, Karl Lutchmayer looks at a range of musical farewells beginning with the tender restraint of JS Bach’s poignant Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, the only surviving example of programmatic music from this giant of the musical Baroque. Our musical journey continues through the liturgical Requiem of Mozart and Verdi’s dramatic concert version; Beethoven’s piano sonata Les Adieux; Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs; Messiaen’s 1941 Quatuor pour la fin du temps written in a concentration camp; Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen’s folk-inspired Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrick’s Funeral March; ending with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s short piano piece Farewell to Stromness, a simple, dignified objection to proposed uranium mining in his beloved Orkneys.


Session Eight  (originally scheduled for 18 January 2017)
Wednesday 3 May 2017, 10.15-12.30
Understanding musical quality
Quality judgments form a routine part of musical listening. Concertgoers, critics, teachers and performers are often called upon to assess the performances they hear. Arguably, in fact, it is impossible to listen to music completely dispassionately, making no such judgments at all. In this lecture, Aaron Williamon examines the properties of music evaluations among both ‘regular’ listeners and those critics and adjudicators who assess performances professionally. We examine the biases that, rightly or wrongly, cloud objective judgement and consider new approaches to music education that are beginning to give aspiring professional musicians greater control over how their performances are perceived and reviewed.


What am I Listening to? consists of 15 sessions on Wednesday mornings, 10.15-12.30, between 8 October 2016 and 22 March 2017. The spring term sessions take place at Christ Church Kensington, Victoria Road, London W8 5RQ  http://www.christchurchkensington.com/new-to-cck/where-to-find-us/

Whole course  £515         Autumn term only £285        Spring term only £310

Telephone bookings: 07872 505922
Email bookings: mail@musictalks.org.uk
Credit card: 020 7591 4314 (10.00-16.00 Mon-Fri; £1.95 fee)
Cheque: payable to Music Talks
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Places on Enjoying Music are non-transferable and refunds will be made only if the course is cancelled.Very occasionally it may be necessary to make changes to the published programme.

Your subscription helps musicians!   Music Talks benefits the work of the Vernon Ellis Foundation, Music for Youth and helps support a scholarship for an outstanding student at the Royal College of Music. In 2015-16 the recipient of the Music Talks Award was gifted violinist Dorothea Schupelius.