ain't baroque! :||
Don't Fix It

Listening tests: a forbidden love

Raise your hand if you secretly kinda like listening tests!

No? Just me then?

Oh, come on. It’s like a game! A GAME THAT REQUIRES YOU TO STUDY, hence the “secretly kinda,” but all the same. (This is probably unnecessary, but just in case you don’t know: a listening test is when your professor or what have you gives you a set of pieces to which you must listen, and then for the test he plays a series of very short clips that you must duly identify. The specifics of how many clips and how long they are vary, but my music history professor Dr. Parcell always gave us ten ten-second long clips out of anywhere from eleven the first semester to… I think we topped out at twenty-four.)

My music history teacher had each select of pieces for the semester’s listening test on separate CDs, and I used to slap the whole thing on my iPod and work out to it. This was a good, but not fool-proof, way to study. Take, for example, the very first semester of History of Western Music Part I, which covered Gregorian chants. Okay, seriously now, have you ever tried to differentiate between sections of a high mass with only a ten-second clip? Well, given my audience, maybe you have, so you know: it’s HARD.

There were usually a couple gimmes on a given test: the spoken dialogue from The Beggar’s Opera was a dead giveaway, EIIIIIIINN!!! from Carl Maria von Weber’s The Freeshooter cannot be misheard, I know Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring like the back of my pagan-ritual-hand (left). But some of them were harder, like when we had several different piano sonatas at once. I like piano sonatas, sure, but if the professor decides to pluck a nondescript bit five minutes into the piece it can be a rough one. I once got a clip right only because it sounded minor-y and another girl in my class had mentioned just before the test that a certain piano concerto in a major key had a minor-y sound at one point.

Of course, there are Don’t Panic secrets when you hear a clip and have NO FREAKING CLUE what it is. Narrow it down, Parcell always said. Write down all the pieces you’ve been studying and then go through them. What are you hearing? A string quartet? Well, how many are on your list? If you’re lucky, just the one. If not — well, is it major or minor? Does it sound like one of the composers in question? Alternatively you can try bursting into tears and making your paper too soggy to grade, but I [brag]never got more than one wrong on a given listening test, so hah![/brag]

Whaddya say, Ain’t Barrocos? (I decided I like that one best.) Did/do you share my triumphant fun in the personal little game show that is a listening test? (Ooooh, someone should make a listening test game show!) Or are they the bane of your existence? What’s the roughest clip you’ve ever heard, or given? And what are your tricks for figuring it out when you just don’t know?


About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


10 thoughts on “Listening tests: a forbidden love

  1. http://www.catchitquiz.com/CIQPB.html

    I love this thing!! It’s so satisfying to get them right. 🙂

    Posted by Pamela | May 11, 2011, 8:58 am
  2. There WAS a Listening Test game show! It was in the UK in the 70s (but the clip below looks much later) but I’m sure it started here in the US before that.

    There was a vague verbal clue and then the two contestants bid as to how many notes they’d need to be able to recognize the tune – a maximum of seven but sometimes down to 1 note!
    A: “I’ll name that tune in four”
    B: “I’ll name that tune in three”
    A: “I’ll name that tune in two”
    B: “Nope. Go ahead”
    If A could name the tune within 10 seconds of hearing the [two] notes, they win the point. If not, if B names the tune correctly, they get the point.

    Why do I remember this so vividly?!
    It was fun.

    Posted by Stephen P Brown | May 11, 2011, 9:05 am
    • And it was all classical music, not pop? Man, I was born in the wrong era!

      Posted by Jenn | May 11, 2011, 9:52 am
      • Actually, it varied. In those days there wasn’t quite such a distinction – classical was popular and some popular was classical! Nowadays we like to pigeon-hole EVERYTHING into it’s own little box. So sad.

        Posted by Stephen P Brown | May 11, 2011, 10:44 am
    • Name That Tune! I used to watch that when I was a kid, at my Grandma’s house after school, right around 1989/90. It was on back-to-back with Press Your Luck. (I can’t believe I still remember this stuff. First graders are so impressionable.)

      Posted by Eric | May 15, 2011, 8:28 pm
  3. Actually, it varied. In those days there wasn’t quite such a distinction – classical was popular and some popular was classical! Nowadays we like to pigeon-hole EVERYTHING into it’s own little box. So sad.

    Posted by Stephen P Brown | May 11, 2011, 10:44 am
  4. I will never forget my twentieth century music class drop the needle final exam. Shostakovich, Bartok, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Berg, Prokofiev, Webern, Schoenberg. etc. were all there. I got one answer wrong. I got the composer all right, but distinguishing among the works of Copland is a trap within a trap. Yeah. I could figure out which string quartet of Bartok I was hearing, but which of Copland’s popular pieces, nope.

    Posted by Sheri | May 12, 2011, 8:06 am
  5. Yeah, sure, listening tests aren’t so bad–not for your typical survey classes at least (except when your professor plays the German version of Haydn’s Creation, even though he assigned you the English version).

    But for music history majors, well, eventually you reach Bach Seminar. And you spend a month studying [i]just[/i] the Cantatas. And 40 of them are on your listening list. And your listening exam is in two parts: the usual drop the needle bit, and then score identification. And sometimes the score excerpt you have to identify is a secondary oboe theme. Written in tenor cleff. In retrograde.

    Sometimes, nobody gets that one right. Sometimes, only Elizabeth does. And sometimes, Elizabeth has no friends.

    Posted by Eric | May 15, 2011, 8:44 pm
    • I think we need this Elizabeth person as a guest on the podcast.

      Posted by Jenn | May 16, 2011, 4:14 pm
      • Whatever. Last semester of senior year, I beat her on what our professor deemed “The Mother of All Listening Tests” — drop the needle on any piece ever in the history of music. Her undoing and my sweetest victory: Guillaume de Machaut, “Hoquetus David”.

        Posted by Eric | May 16, 2011, 5:25 pm

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