Speak Now: A Habit of Hearing

Helping society to cultivate a habit of hearing may be the timeliest goal a company of composers might undertake together today. I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds (their beliefs, opinions, and convictions). Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or at least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving.

Written By

John Wykoff

Ed. Note: American composers have sometimes played a significant role during U.S. presidential inaugurations and, upon a few occasions, there have even been new musical compositions created expressly for these events. Leonard Bernstein composed a minute-long fanfare for JFK’s inaugural. (Bernstein’s frequent orchestrator Sid Ramin created the arrangement for winds and percussion that was performed during the ceremony.) More recently, John Williams composed Air and Simple Gifts for Barack Obama’s first swearing-in which was performed, albeit to a synced soundtrack, by an all-star quartet of clarinetist Anthony McGill, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela Montero.

There have been even greater controversies surrounding inauguration music. Though not commissioned specifically for Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural ceremony, Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was scheduled to be performed during the official inaugural concert. But it was cancelled only days before in response to testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives by Illinois Republican Congressman Fred Busbey in which he claimed that Copland had a “long record of questionable affiliations.” (In May 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy demanded Copland appear before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; Copland would not be completely exonerated until November 1955, at which point the State Department declared there was “insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution.” Since then, Copland’s music was featured in inaugural ceremonies for Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.)

In October 2016, a bipartisan Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies commissioned 34-year-old Tennessee-based composer John Wykoff to compose music for the 58th presidential inauguration on January 21, 2017. Wykoff collaborated with Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne to create a four-minute unaccompanied choral composition titled Now We Belong, which received its world premiere outdoors during the inauguration in a performance by the Missouri State University Chorale.

The next day, the Missouri State University Chorale performed the work again, indoors, which was a much more conducive setting for recording.

The homepage of Wykoff’s website features a short statement regarding this commission: “I am honored to compose music for this important national ceremony. Some have asked, and I don’t hesitate to say, that my involvement is not intended to communicate any political views or endorsements.” After hearing his composition and reading his statement, we contacted Wykoff and asked him to share his thoughts on how he sees his role as an artist and citizen in this complex time.


Composers can nourish a listening culture. Indeed, helping society to cultivate a habit of hearing may be the timeliest goal a company of composers might undertake together today. Ours is an age of loudness and of speech. It is a day of talking, telling, saying, shouting. But who is listening? Who leads with the ear? When there is so much ado over the number of messengers and the volume of their voices, but not the content of their message, is that not a tacit admission that no one, in fact, has heard what they said? Has our society lost its hearing? With that, I think, composers can help.

To start, I suggest a hard concession. I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds. (When I say “minds,” I really mean people’s beliefs, opinions, and convictions.) I do not, please notice, suggest that anyone stop trying to change minds altogether, only that they stop using music to do it. Argument, not art, is the best tool for proving opinions. Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving. True, habits of thought and perception may lead to and flow from the convictions of the mind. But they also may be surprisingly at odds with them, as when someone honestly believes that no race is better than another, but has tacit habits of prejudicial suspicion. It is with mental habits, not mental convictions, that art is most effective for change.

Similarly, I suggest that composers resist the metaphor of artist-as-prophet. The prophetic role of an artist has been discussed directly and indirectly for a long time. There is some good reason for it. Artists, like prophets, sometimes point to an unrealized future. And artists, like prophets, sometimes hold a mirror to society. Yet there must be the possibility of embarrassment when the prophetic mantle is assumed rather than bestowed. Reluctance, not self-anointing, is the trademark of prophets. The metaphor is best left to music historians and culture critics to use. Most of us shouldn’t think of ourselves in a prophetic role.

Then what might be our role? Or what good can we do for society? I believe we can help society cultivate a habit of hearing. Composers are famous for their ability to listen deeply. By nature and by training, they hear beneath the surface and beyond the moment. More importantly, there is a predisposition—widespread among composers today—to approach new music receptively, to hear what other composers are doing, to lead with the ear. There are so many varieties of music, so many modes of creativity, that many composers have learned to suspend their own reactions to new music until they have been able to hear it on its own terms. That, it seems to me, is a composerly virtue—not that composers alone possess it, but that they possess it in spades. Nor is it somehow intrinsic to a composer. Predispositions are not intrinsic. They are habitual stances that can be formed.

There are two things composers may do to help others form an ears-first predisposition. The first and principal thing is to strive to create music that invites close listening, requires close listening, and rewards close listening. Music can’t help people learn to hear unless it first invites them to listen. It has to be winsome. If it is too confrontational on the surface, it may actually cultivate close-mindedness—the practice of stopping one’s ears.

Yet having attracted listeners, it does not help matters to require nothing of them. In order to cultivate listening, music should strengthen the ear, not pacify it. When music is merely pandering, when it doesn’t require close, attentive, repeated listening, then it doesn’t do anything to help form the habitual stance I’m writing about. Such music may not cause anyone to stop their ears, but it may still cultivate close-mindedness because it keeps the ear comatose.

Yet attracting listeners and awakening their ears is not enough. The music I’m prescribing should also reward the hard work of hearing with a payoff in proportion to what was required to hear it. I imagine that most composers know full well the temptation to construct a barrier of complexity that masks a lack of substance. This is a kind of musical dishonesty. It is like a bad work of philosophy which, lacking a definite conclusion, still asks the reader to follow a difficult train of thought that leads nowhere. To beckon people in to listen closely, to require them to work at hearing, and then to offer them nothing for their efforts is a sure way to teach them to distrust what is new or hard. They will justifiably take their ears elsewhere. But if their patience and trust are rewarded with something meaningful and valuable, they may seek additional brushes with music that challenges them. That is a good start to forming a habit of hearing.

There are surely many examples of music with the qualities I am describing. For instance, almost anything by Paul Lansky could serve as a model. Whether it is his iconic electronic works or his newer acoustic works, his music has a way of beckoning you in, requiring much of you, and rewarding your efforts. His famous Idle Chatter is immediately fascinating. But it is also perplexing. You want to slow it down. You want to pick it apart. You want to discern how one element relates to another. You want to know what’s going on. You simply have to hear it again. And as you listen repeatedly, you may come to find that the piece only “makes sense” insofar as you choose to put on “sense-making” filters. You are forced to choose how you will listen to it, and forced to refresh your choice each time you listen again. The reward for your efforts is surely a measure of self-knowledge. You become more aware of your tacit filters­—the implicit ways you listen. You learn what you automatically listen for, and what you automatically ignore. By extension, it may cause you to consider the “sense-making” filters through which you experience life’s barrage. It may even lead you to wonder what there is out in the world that you automatically ignore. Such self-knowledge is a sensible reward.

Constantly creating new music with such qualities is foundational, but it isn’t the only thing we can do to encourage a habit of hearing. Composers can work alongside performers, educators, scholars, and critics to find better ways of inviting people into frequent, worthwhile encounters with challenging music. Together we can find more effective ways to guide inexperienced listeners, helping them learn how to suspend their reactions while they listen deeply. ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) is leading the way here. Through their educational and outreach efforts, they are helping young people all over the world learn how to engage music that, were it not for ICE’s winning manner, might be too strange for some people. It is undoubtedly a lofty goal, but if such efforts and similar ones were duplicated, and new worthy efforts devised, and if composers will provide a reliable stream of inviting, yet challenging and rewarding music of many varieties, is it not conceivable that many could learn, as a habitual stance, always to bring a listening ear to what is new? Is not conceivable that a whole society could be marked by a habit of hearing?

Probably you will have noticed that I have been using the word “hearing” equivocally. To “hear” strange music is not the same thing as to “hear” a strange opinion. For example, to “hear” a piece of music, in the sense that I mean, probably involves comprehending a musical element (a motive or a timbre, say) and relating it to other elements or other instances of the same element. But to “hear” a well-formed opinion probably involves comprehending one or more reasons, or at least motivations, and connecting them to some kind of a conclusion. The skills are different. I am aware of this, and I do not intend to fool anyone. I do not pretend that the skills for listening closely to new music will translate directly into skills for listening closely to a new opinion. However, even if the skills are not transferable, I suspect that the habit is. And it is only the habit that I am concerned with—the composerly virtue. And it is one, I think, in desperate need of cultivation.

John Wykoff

John Wykoff is assistant professor of music theory and composition at Lee University. He holds a Ph. D. from the City University of New York, and an M. A. from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He studied composition with David Del Tredici, Bruce Saylor, and Jeffrey Nichols and choral arranging with Alice Parker.  John writes for choir, piano, organ, orchestra, and a variety of chamber ensembles. His music has been premiered by groups such as ICE, MIVOS Quartet, and Enso String Quartet. He was given the Opus Award by the Missouri Choral Directors Association for Panis Angelicus for string quartet and choir. In collaboration with poet Michael Dennis Browne he wrote Now We Belong, a choral work about the nation’s immigrant identity, which was commissioned, ironically, for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.