Attentional Control Within More Complex Textures

Much of the music we interact with every day has multiple things going on at once. There might be any number of melodies and harmonizing lines, perhaps a chord progression, drums, and more.

For most people, when there’s more than one thing going on in music, the easiest part of the texture to focus on is either the melody or the highest layer of the texture (often, these are the same). Thus, most of the attentional challenges we face in music are from situations where it would be useful to focus on some element of the music that is not the melody.

Several factors can make it more difficult to follow non-melody lines. First, we may have a natural inclination to listen to the highest “voice.” Second, some parts of the texture—notably, bass lines—are more likely to leap around and therefore difficult to hear as a single melody. Third, other parts—notably, inner parts—may be less attention-grabbing because they do not have as many interesting movements, satisfying shapes, and more. Finally, most of us have sung or played plenty of melodies and thus have a certain amount of “feeling” for what kinds of things they will do, but the patterns and tendencies of inner voices and bass lines may be less familiar.

Fortunately, the same strategies we used above for simply paying close attention to single melodies can also help direct our attention around a texture. The activities presented here are intended to give you practice and scaffolding for the skill of listening to different parts of a texture.

Activity: Listening for certain voices in complex textures

Goal: Practice directing attention to different parts of complex textures

Instructions: Many songs have multiple parts, offering an opportunity to shift your attention to different parts of the “musical texture.” For each of the songs below, go to the designated time stamp, choose one of the listed parts, and “spotlight” it in your listening, following it through. Then repeat the section, following a different part. Optionally, repeat it again, shifting your attention back and forth at will between the parts.

Song Relevant Section(s) Parts
Chasin’ the Bird (Parker) beginning–0:20 or 2:02–2:22 or 2:33–end trumpet, saxophone
Invention No. 9, BWV 780 (Bach) entire track upper melody, lower melody (both piano)
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17, ii (C. Schumann) 0:57–1:24 or 3:13–3:54 violin, cello
First Suite in E-flat major, Op. 28, iii (Holst) 1:52–2:20 winds melody, brass melody
Paranoid Android (Radiohead) 3:36–5:39 wordless voice(s), “rain down” voice, high wordless voice at 4:37, “That’s it, sir” voice at 5:08
Great God Almighty (Gibbs) 0:40–0:56 or 1:15–1:30 melodic voices, responding voices
Mama Who Bore Me (Spring Awakening/Divisi) 0:30–0:40, 1:50–2:20, 2:40–end melody, “ah” countermelody; melody, guitar-like parts; chora melody, improvising voice




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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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