The Symphony of Listening: Decoding Copland's "How We Listen"

Categories: MusicPhilosophy

In Aaron Copland's seminal essay, "How We Listen," he embarks on a profound exploration of the multifaceted process of engaging with music. Copland discerns three distinctive planes within this process: the sensuous plane, the expressive plane, and the sheerly musical plane (1074). This essay delves into Copland's insightful classification, employing analogy and meticulous examples to illuminate the nuanced aspects of our interaction with music.

Categorizing the Listening Process

On the sensuous plane, individuals immerse themselves in music for pure entertainment. This manifests in scenarios such as turning on the radio while engaged in other activities, allowing the music to serve as a backdrop to daily life (1074).

Copland delves into the intricacies of sound manipulation by composers, emphasizing that aesthetically pleasing music does not inherently equate to greatness (1075). Placing the sensuous plane at the forefront of his analysis is a deliberate choice, resonating with the familiarity most people have with this dimension of musical engagement.

The expressive plane, according to Copland, introduces the elusive notion of meaning in music.

Get quality help now
checked Verified writer

Proficient in: Music

star star star star 4.7 (348)

“ Amazing as always, gave her a week to finish a big assignment and came through way ahead of time. ”

avatar avatar avatar
+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

This meaning, however, remains abstract and often resists verbal articulation, demanding profound contemplation (1076). Copland challenges readers to embrace the abstract nature of musical meaning, delving into the philosophical realm of our emotional responses to music.

The sheerly musical plane, the third dimension in Copland's classification, delves into the technical aspects of music. Here, the focus lies on the manipulation of notes, encompassing elements such as note length, pitch, harmony, and tone color. This intellectual approach enhances musical appreciation by providing a scientific understanding of a composition's structure (1077).

Get to Know The Price Estimate For Your Paper
Number of pages
Email Invalid email

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

"You must agree to out terms of services and privacy policy"
Write my paper

You won’t be charged yet!

Copland masterfully utilizes the analogy of a theoretical play to illustrate the interrelationship between these three planes, offering a holistic perspective on the listening process. The deliberate placement of the sensuous, expressive, and sheerly musical planes in sequence contributes to a comprehensive understanding of the entirety of the listening experience.

Answering and Addressing Problems

Copland strategically employs the three planes to structure his essay, ensuring clarity for the reader. Initiating with the sensuous plane, he highlights potential issues arising from its abuse, particularly when individuals use music solely as an escape from reality. Copland cautions against allowing the allure of sound to overshadow the broader dimensions of musical appreciation:

Yes, the sound appeal of music is a potent and primitive force, but you must not allow it to usurp a disproportionate share of your interest. The sensuous plane is an important one in music, a very important one, but it does not constitute the whole story. (1075)

This serves as a call for understanding the sensuous plane while acknowledging its place within the broader context of the listening process.

Transitioning to the expressive plane, Copland challenges the notion that music must have a concrete meaning. He contends that the essence of music often eludes verbal explanation, urging individuals to embrace a more abstract and emotional connection with the art form.

Finally, on the sheerly musical plane, Copland addresses potential pitfalls for both professional musicians and the general audience. Musicians, he notes, may become overly focused on technical aspects, risking a detachment from the deeper emotional elements of their performance (1077). On the audience side, Copland advocates for a deeper understanding of musical structure to enhance the overall enjoyment of the art form.

Striking the Harmonious Balance

Examining Copland's perspective on the ideal listener is crucial to comprehending his overarching philosophy. According to Copland:

In a sense, the ideal listener is both inside and outside the music at the same moment, judging it and enjoying it, wishing it would go one way and watching it go another—almost like the composer at the moment he composes it; because in order to write his music, the composer must also be inside and outside his music, carried away by it and yet coldly critical of it. (1078)

Clearly, Copland envisions the ideal listener as one capable of seamlessly integrating judgment and enjoyment, mirroring the dual role of a composer in the creative process.


Aaron Copland's "How We Listen" offers a comprehensive exploration of the listening process, meticulously divided into the sensuous, expressive, and sheerly musical planes. Through categorization, analogy, and addressing potential problems, Copland guides readers toward a clearer understanding of how they engage with music. The success of his essay lies in the meticulous organization and presentation of these planes, creating a roadmap for a more profound appreciation of the art of listening.

Updated: Jan 10, 2024

Similar topics:

Essay on Theory
Cite this page

The Symphony of Listening: Decoding Copland's "How We Listen". (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

The Symphony of Listening: Decoding Copland's "How We Listen" essay
Live chat  with support 24/7

👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!

Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.

get help with your assignment