Monday, May 10, 2010

Copland's 3 Planes of Listening

This week I am doing listening exercises with my students and I came across something I think is worth sharing.  The American composer Aaron Copland wrote a book in 1957 entitled, "What to Listen for in Music".  In this book, he describes what he calls the "Three Planes of Listening".  While there is no new information here, I have found it useful because it's so clear.  It helps my students focus and really hear more deeply than before.

The Three Planes of Listening:
1.  The Sensual Plane - It's not what it sounds like.  The sensual plane is the level where you're aware of the music, but you don't listen enough to really make a judgement about it.  It can even be background music.  When you notice instrumentation or the quality of the sound, that's the sensual plane.  Most people never listen to music outside of this plane.

2.  The Expressive Plane - In the expressive plane, you notice how the music makes you feel.  For example, you might notice that a minor key may make you feel down and a major key might make you feel up.  Also, fast music might make you feel nervous.  In this plane, you can visualize what the music might represent.  (Like a storm or a beautiful sunny day.)  Sometimes, I have my students draw or paint a visual representation of a piece of music that I play for them.  I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I was helping them to hear music in the expressive plane.

3.  The Sheerly Musical Plane - This is the plane at which most musicians, conductors, critics, music teachers, and judges listen to music.  In the purely musical plane, you can separate the music into elements such as tempo, pitch, dynamics, key signature, time signature, form, chord analysis, etc.  It contains all the jargon as well.

It helps me to be aware of these 3 planes.  When I listen to a student play, I usually am listening on the Sheerly Musical Plane while most parents listen on the Sensual Plane.  This explains some of the discrepancies in judgement that sometimes occur.  Also, sometimes it's helpful for me to just sit back and listen on the sensual plane just for the enjoyment of it. 

Next time you listen to any kind of music, try listening on the three levels and see if it changes the experience for you.  I'd love to hear what you think.


  1. thanks for sharing this. i think i may have read this a long time ago, but have since forgotten about it. it's a good reminder that there are many ways to enjoy music.

  2. Thanks for reading! I agree--- there are many ways to enjoy music. This is why I can enjoy silly pop-music, show tunes, AND deep serious music. Some people see this as a contradiction, but I don't. :-)

  3. Thanks i've read the book but o forgot about it..suddenly my former student post a question about this and good thing it's in the helps..

  4. thanks for sharing!

  5. Is there a place online to find the article that talks about this?

  6. Sorry, but I don't think so. I found the article in a magazine called "In Tune". You might check out their website and see if you can view or request old articles.

    If that doesn't work, you can always check out Copland's book, "What to Listen for in Music". Good luck!

  7. I am taking COMP I and was assigned to read "How We Listen" by Aaron Copland and I am reading it from the book Norton Reader 12th edition by Linda H. Peterson and John Brereton page 1121.
    Hope this helps, it is very interesting.
    On another note, thanks for sharing this because it actually helped me understand the article better as well as to finish my assignment.

  8. Thanks for sharing! I am a university student, and this really helped my understanding of the 3 planes!

  9. YES! This helped me gain a clearer understanding of Copeland's "How We Listen" for an assignment in my English class. Thank you!

  10. Much obliged you all that much to share these connections. Will look at this.. frankievallitickets

  11. I’m inspired with the surpassing and preachy listing that you furnish in such little timing. free wordpress themes

  12. Your blog provided us with valuable information to work with. Each & every tips of your post are awesome. Thanks a lot for sharing. Keep blogging..
    Mack Benton

  13. I disagree with the statement that most people only listen to music in the sensual plane. For example, movie music is typically designed for people to listen in the expressive plane to enhance the emotional impact of a scene. It's the third level that is out of reach for most people because it requires a knowledge of music theory.

    Regarding the planes of listening, I would like to know what aspect of music theory this falls under. Are there other theories of listening besides Copeland's?


  14. He said that complaints lodged by parents about the fee increase were addressed regularly. The Punjab Examination Commission has prepared a new policy related to the results of grades five and eight.

    8th class result pec 2018
    5th class result 2018 roll number wise
    8th class results 2018

  15. Hi...
    This is the type of information I’ve long been trying to find. The website layout is perfect, the content is rattling great.
    I found a similar website which provides awesome information on what is adware
    free anti adware.