‘What can you hear?’

As simple a task as this can be it’s often well over-looked in music education, I posed three questions to groups of music students, keen on seeing what they could offer instead of this being a taught activity. These were

  1. Any sound is made of basic elements, what are these?
  2. What can you hear in a piece of music or song?
  3. What is Music for?

I’ve included their answers here, perhaps take a moment to think of your own responses first before moving on.


  1. Basic elements of sound as attributed to Daniel Levitin’s book ‘This is Your Brain on Music’ an enlightening account of how we engage with our auditory experience are:







Spatial location


The groups identified several of these and usually got all of the musical type ones correct and offered others that may not be attributed to a singular sound. The least known elements were; spatial location, contour and timbre, from here I was able to utilise some micro-activities to develop an understanding of each element, for example measuring our heartbeats to comprehend bpm for tempo then having the students approximate the speed of certain styles of music and pieces that were played back to them.

  1. What could be heard in a piece of music/song had many overlapping elements and correlations to the first question; the beat represented rhythm, melody or the tune was likened to a combination of notes or frequencies. So as in Levitin’s analysis, when these singular elements combine we have actual music rather than just sound, so a rhythm combined with loudness will have accentuated beats which gives us meter, a feel for the groove, how we know if it’s a waltz or a march or a house track.


Groups also identified many non-musical or sound based elements to what they hear in songs with ideas such as feeling and emotion being prominent. A lot of this information can be transmitted within the harmony of a piece as well as the delivery of the performer and this still holds a lot of relevance to the modern music student.


  1. ‘What is music for’ is a great question to ask anyone, we all enjoy the experience of being surrounded by sound, the right music bring us immense pleasure, everyone has that song which can make the hairs stand up on the back of their neck or make them need to run around and dance or break down and cry. To be able to influence or our emotional state so severely I believe that nothing else is as intense as that of music. Just to engage in this discussion with aspiring musicians is enjoyable as its always a passionate and relevant one. What do you think, what does music mean to you, what is it for, how does it fit within our society? Answering these may go some way to helping you realize your ambitions as a musician or educator. Feel free to share your thoughts here.


2 thoughts on “‘What can you hear?’

  1. Storytelling, emotional expression, resistance to oppression, making sense of our experience in the world. Music like all arts, give an opportunity to share the human experience. Sharing a song is communal, it creates culture. It also lives at the centre of anything FUN!!!

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