Listening Guides: A Seven Part Inquiry


There is a recent article in Creative Review titled, “How The Toronto Symphony Orchestra uses graphic design to guide its audiences through its music”.

The subtitle is as follows: “The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s listening guides make use of symbols and morse code-like notation to aid the experience of live performance. We talked to their creator Hannah Chan-Hartley, about how she is helping the TSO to visualize its repertoire”.

Article here


“In 1954, the Book-of-the Month Club introduced ‘Music-Appreciation Records”, in which recordings of the standard repertoire were backed with spoken analysis and musical examples, ‘to help you understand music better and enjoy it more’. The free, no-obligation tryout record was Beethoven’s Fifth: ‘You have heard this great work countless times – what have you heard in it? And what may you have faled to hear?’ Notice the aim of the tw0-pronged sales pitch – inducing anxiety that one’s individual experience both requires recategorization (what have you heard?), and is still somehow lacking in comparison with majority opinion (what may you have failed to hear?)”.

-Matthew Guerrieri, The First Four Notes


Selections from the Creative Review Article:

“In developing the listening guides for Key, Chan-Hartley says she ‘wanted to remove some of the barriers to comprehension that more ‘traditional’ guides you see in print tend to have. For one, these traditional aids often have a lot of descriptive text, which you have to read through and then remember as you listen to the piece. I wanted my guide to be visual, and one that you can follow along with in ‘real time’ while listening.

Secondly, only people who can read musical notation would find the excerpts in the traditional guides useful, so I wanted a graphic way to represent what is being heard so anyone could understand.

And finally, I wanted the guide to be in a format through which you could visually grasp the overall structure of a symphonic movement or an entire symphony – by showing when the main musical themes are presented, developed, and recur, and thereby help to structure your listening”.


“While apparently urging recognition in order to help people to ‘enjoy’ music, the Music Appreciation Hour actually encourages enjoyment, not of the music itself, but of the awareness that one knows music”.

-Theodor Adorno


“This is brilliant work! I am a graphic designer and violinist, and it’s wonderful to see a design solution that involves both realms of artistic endeavor. It’s a beautiful way for those unfamiliar with musical notation, or those who learn more through visual aids as I do to feel the structure of a piece. Having a guide like this is a fantastic keepsake and way to process through the music even after the concert, especially because of the ephemeral nature of live performance”.

-Comment on Creative Review Article


Theodor Adorno proposed the idea of developing a relationship with music as being uniquely personal; that it, as Matthew Guerrieri explains, “is open-ended and individual, and thus far too inefficient for mass media, which relies on the mere illusion of an individual relationship. Recognition, though, is instant gratification”.


“I can say that for those who don’t go to the symphony often or those who do who sometimes come away from a piece a little baffled this is a great tool to use. Obviously the listener has the choice to not use it. Also there are listeners who want a bit more understanding because they are not a professional musician. I think this is a great tool to keep poor Joe Schmoe involved in the concert rather than to be bored and fall asleep drooling on his or her date because their brain has shut down”.

-Comment on Creative Review Article


“I started listening to music when I was four years old. I reacted emotionally and let my mind be bathed in the washes of sound and let the music transport me to faraway places. Later, after I’d become a conductor and could read a score, I still made time to experience music as a sound experience and let it touch my soul. While this expository approach may appeal to some, I wonder if it would keep them from going to that deeper, experiential place.

This movement to ‘understand’ the music has been with us for some time. As a retired professional musician, I have never gotten far from that spontaneous reaction to the sounds I’m hearing. I don’t need a diagram to show me what’s happening at any moment, or what’s coming up next. Nor would I want it (But for people who do, I’m sure this is wonderful)”.

-Comment on Creative Review Article


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