Listening Guide 2: Love & Longing

DVOŘÁK  Serenade for Winds, Cello and Bass in D minor, Op. 44
performed by Camerata Pacifica

BACH  Concerto No. 1 in D minor for Clavier and String Orchestra, BWV 1052
performed by The Mariinsky String Orchestra featuring Polina Osetinskaya

GRIEG  Holberg Suite, Op. 40
performed by Camerata Nordica String Orchestra

Listening Guide #2

Multitudes of Melodies

Jonathan Borden, host

Music: the universal language. Or so it’s often called. I get the meaning behind that statement, and could write at length on its merits, but I’ll spare you that lecture. Instead, I want to focus on a unique feature of music that separates it from language. Instead of explaining what it is (what’s the fun in that?), I’d like for you to listen to two examples of conversations: one uses the english language, and the other uses music. 

First, a typical conversation between some robots:


Totally normal, right? Absolutely nothing alarming or noteworthy in that conversation.

Now a musical conversation, by Bach:

Think you figured it out? In a typical, language-based conversation, ideas are exchanged one after the other. Speakers have to take time to hear the other person speaking, or else risk creating the cacophony caused by two people speaking over each other. 

This is not the case in music! 

In the “musical conversation” example, you can see (and hopefully hear) how there are four distinct, color-coded “voices” exchanging musical ideas. These are like verbal ideas in a language-based conversation, except in music they can happen at the same time, or simultaneously. The ability for music to have multiple melodic ideas concurrently is called counterpoint.

Don’t be afraid of counterpoint. If you’ve ever taken a music theory class, the term counterpoint probably conjures images of 17th century treatises on music, annoying homework, and… wigs, or something, I don’t know. Everyone in the 17th century either wore wigs or had dope hair.

*Ahem* anyway, counterpoint is synonymous with a bunch of old rules that dictate which notes could fit together and a bunch of other stuff that you don’t need to know about. The rules aren’t important – what’s important is that counterpoint is that unique feature of music that doesn’t quite have an equivalent in spoken language. I believe that one of the greatest joys of listening to music (not just classical!) is appreciating moments of beautiful counterpoint. 

Counterpoint isn’t a feature always employed by composers in music. Rather, counterpoint is balanced by unison, or moments where all musical instruments or voices play or sing the same musical idea. Ask yourself: what effect does it have on the listener when an entire orchestra plays the same phrase? 

For this week’s concert, I want you to listen for moments of both unison and counterpoint. The music is much more complex than what it seems on the surface: if you listen closely, you’ll often hear a musical voice different from the one that initially grabbed your attention. This is especially true of the Bach piano concerto on the program. Happy listening!

Discussion Questions:

  • Which of the three pieces do you feel used the most counterpoint, and which the most unison? 
  • Can you think of examples of unison/counterpoint in areas outside of music? Maybe sports, or dance?
  • Counterpoint isn’t unique to classical music – it’s a feature of all music. Share a song from this century that you really enjoy and describe some of the different musical voices within it, or favorite moments of unison in the song.