Music in the Moment

Music in the Moment

Music in the Moment

Music in the Moment


What is required for a listener to understand a piece of music? Does aural understanding depend upon reflective awareness of musical architecture or large-scale musical structure? Jerrold Levinson thinks not. In contrast to what is commonly assumed, Levinson argues that basic understanding of music only requires properly grounded, present-focused attention, and that virtually everything in the comprehension of extended pieces of music that suggests explicit architectonic awareness can be explained without positing conscious grasp of relationships across broad spans.

Levinson rejects the notion that keeping music's large-scale form before the mind is somehow essential to fundamental understanding of it. As evidence, he describes in detail the experience of listening to a wide range of music. He defends, with some qualifications, the views of nineteenth-century musician and psychologist Edmund Gurney, author of The Power of Sound, who argued that musical comprehension requires only attention to the evolution of music from moment to moment.

Music theory standardly misapprehends the experience and mindset of most who know and love classical music, concludes Levinson. His book is a defense of the passionate and attentive, though architectonically unconcerned, music listener.


No doubt some people never heard much in music before they acquired conscious insight into its large-scale form. And surely there are others who, having acquired analytical dispositions and descriptive technical resources in the course of their musical education, found their fundamental listening transformed to a truly significant degree. But I am not one of them, and I suspect that such listeners are not the norm among those who can rightly claim both to know and to love the bulk of what constitutes the broad repertoire of classical music. It is an implicit aim of this book to defend such listeners--ones who, though untutored, are experienced, attentive, and passionate.

The primary and explicit aim of this book, however, is to combat the notion, often only implicit in the writing of many music commentators and theoreticians, that keeping music's form--in particular, large-scale structural relationships, or spatialized representations of a musical composition's shape--before the mind is somehow central to, even essential for, basic musical understanding. What I maintain instead is that much in the aural comprehension of extended pieces of music that seems to implicate explicit architectonic awareness can be explained by appeal to tacit, unconscious correlation of present passages or bits with earlier ones, rather than explicit, conscious grasp of relationships of a broad-span sort.

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