Rock Around the Croc: How to Listen to a Symphony

The title is wrong, of course. There’s no one right way to listen to a symphony. More importantly, the symphonies change so much over the decades and centuries that it’s hard to even think about a “symphony” as just one thing. It’s like saying “here’s how to listen to rock n’ roll,” and ignoring the fact that Elvis Pressley and KISS both play rock n’ roll. With that in mind, I picked the earliest guy, the “father of the symphony,” Josef Haydn, as the focus for today’s post. The easiest way to understand what’s going on is to recognize that Haydn took pre-existing, Baroque-era forms, combined them into this new form called the symphony, that form was refined throughout the Classical era by composer such as Mozart and Beethoven, and then Beethoven so thoroughly transformed the symphony that he effectively ended the Classical era and ushered in the Romantic. So I start with Haydn, recognizing that he established the pattern that later composers would fiddle with and make their own.

Symphony No. 6 in D major, nicknamed “Le Matin,” was written in 1761, the first after he joined the Esterhazy court in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The symphony is in four movements. Although I spent the past few weeks describing the four forms used in composing symphonies (theme and variations, minuet and trio, rondo and sonata), you see different designations in a symphonic program, primarily titles that describe the tempos. So with Haydn’s No. 6, the movements are described as:

  1. Adagio-Allegro (0:00)
  2. Adagio-Andante-Adagio (6:06)
  3. Minuet and Trio (12:58)
  4. Finale: Allegro (17:06)

Adagio means slow, allegro means a brisk, lively tempo, and andante means moderately slow. So before you listen to a single note, you should have a guide that tells you how the flow of energy will move through the piece.

The best way to understand anything is to break it down into its component pieces. If you really want to get a feel for something like a symphony, you need to listen carefully to each of the four movements, recognizing that each movement can be further broken down. Even though the whole symphony is only twenty-two minutes, that is still far too much information to hold in your brain without considering the component parts.

Notice how the first movement starts so quiet and simple. The first theme is a barely-whispered handful of notes in the strings that builds in volume and orchestration until it rests at 0:45. Every commentary I’ve read says this is where the symphony gets its nickname, “the morning,” as it suggests the rising of the sun, even if the rest of the piece makes no further attempt at symbolic meaning. This is the “adagio” part of the movement, and all the rest of it will be the allegro. You will definitely notice the difference.

At 0:46 we’re into the sonata proper, as the flute introduces the principal theme – a chirpy little melody that will get fuller as more instruments start to double it or echo it. This process continues until the 1:39 mark, at which point we decide that if it was worth listening to once, it’s worth listening to again, so we repeat the process from the introduction of the theme (but not the introductory material). That carries us through to the 4:06 mark by the end of the repeat. Next up is a development section that further explores the theme and features several of the instruments playing brief solos on that theme, until we recapitulate and conclude the movement at 5:40.

The more I listen to that movement, the more things I hear in there that I like. As I said before, Haydn was brand new to his job at the Esterhazy court, so he wanted to make a good impression on the boss. But he also wanted to make nice with the musicians on staff, so he wrote the piece in order to spread around the good bits. So there’s this little five note trill that first shows up at 1:23 that jumps from one instrument to another, like chirping birds copying each other on different branches of the same tree. I also love the lower-voiced instruments that play a steady eighth note rhythm. It’s easy to ignore those voices until you listen and realize how much variety there is to them, how they propel the action forward but then getting more complicated in their own right.

Movement II is designated as adagio-andante-adagio, so we can expect a piece in three sections that move slowly, pick up in the middle, and return to slow. In this case, the two adagio sections are pretty short bookends (the first adagio runs 6:06 to 7:25), and the real meat of the piece is the andante that begins at 7:25. The andante consists almost entirely of traded solos, between the violin and the tutti [i.e. the rest of the orchestra], or between the violin and the cello. These solos are like conversations between the different voices, sometimes copying each other and sometimes contrasting, but always speaking the same language of the movement as a whole. The movement ends with a return to the adagio, starting at 11:49, and winding up at 12:41. In the course of that last minute, the orchestra only plays nine measures of music, which tells you something about just how slow and delicate this conclusion is. I especially love that in this final section, all three violin voices play nothing faster than a half note, and all of the musical motion is in the lower voices. Beautiful.

The third movement is a minuet and trio, which you may remember evolved from a Baroque-era dance (the minuet) that added a middle section in order to prolong the piece and introduce a new theme. The overall structure is Minuet (A-A’-B-B’), Trio (C-C’-D-D’), Minuet (A-B). These can be broken down even further. In the trio, strikingly enough, we start with dueling solos between the bass and the bassoon (C and C’). The D sections have long pieces of bassoon solo until they end with a reprise of the bass solos. All this before returning to the minuet for one last go. The whole movement is barely four minutes.

The final movement starts at 17:06, and is designated as allegro, so it will be as fast of a tempo as we’ve heard in the symphony. It is also much louder than the last two movements, because we are back up to the full orchestra, and we’re in for a wild ride. Listen as the solo material passes from the flute to the violin to the bass and back again. The connective tissue between these solos includes these wonderful passages of ascending lines that jump from higher to lower-register instruments. The piece ends with one final flute solo, and then the full orchestra for an eight bar conclusion.

That is, I think, more than I’ve ever written on one piece of music in this series. The point here is not to talk about a form in general, but to tie together much of what I’ve discussed in the past in one big bow, and to try to show how it all falls into place in a symphony. If you know how to listen for the structures (which, by the way, is much much easier if you can read music and you follow along in the score while you listen), you get a sense of why the composer is doing what he’s doing, and that’s when the little details can start to pop out at you. I have always loved listening to the really smart people break down what’s happening in music, but there’s no one who does that for every piece I want to understand, so it falls on me to learn how to do it on my own. That means work, and the more work I put into the music, the greater the reward I pull out of it. It also means devoting a lot of time to what you’re doing, because the more you practice something, the better you get at it, and appreciating music takes practice.

I want to end with two things. The first is my modern tie-in that I like to do. Here’s Symphony of Destruction, by Megadeth:

The second thing is an invitation. Pick a piece of music – it doesn’t have to be Classical, it can be anything, just make sure it’s something you like. Find a quiet place with a comfortable chair and access to good speakers. Make sure you have some free time. Turn on your piece of music and just listen to it. I think most of what people listen to is background noise – while we’re running, or driving, or doing chores. We turn it on and immediately tune it out of our conscious minds. Don’t do that. Listen to your music intentionally, listen to the different layers involved. Try to hear the details that the musician put in there to make the piece extraordinary. Think about where the music goes, and where it takes you. Then, please tell me in the comments which song you picked and tell me what you love about it.

Have a truly blessed day and be kind to someone who needs it.


  1. What is the proper attire to listen to a symphony?

  2. The announcement of Brady’s retirement from the NFL appears to be premature which is similar to Breyer’s retirement announcement from SCOTUS.

  3. Here’s the deal. If it comes out of the mouth of a corporate logo, it’s probably a lie until proven otherwise

  4. I made the mistake of signing up for the Western Journal. I don’t recall when, maybe 2 or 3 weeks ago. And I forget what I read that inspired me to think it would be a good idea.

    In the meantime, unrelated to that, I’ve been unsubscribing from a lot of emails from charities, retail companies, newsletters, etc. just to free up my inbox (which really means my time). Since yesterday I’ve been inundated with their stuff and have unsubscribed from Western Journal and at least a dozen of their satellite newsletters filled with clickbait articles.

  5. aaaaaannnnnnd another one … damn, that was a mistake!

  6. Biden’s Supreme Court pick?

    Tom Brady.

  7. Wakey wakey

  8. Headphone music is what some folks call it. A quiet dark room, a good set of headphones, and some well crafted songs.

  9. My email inbox is plagued by the poor decisions of some lady in middle America who has my last name and first initial. She signed up for job seeker websites and newsletters from other agencies/ websites that I have zero interest in. I have tried to figure out what her email address is (clearly she is distributing mine as a close typo), but nobody replies to the emails I send out telling them to stop being such a fuckup.

  10. Most of my inbox clutter is self inflicted. I wise up every year or so and purge them mercilessly and then get lulled into racking them up slowly over time.

  11. I went on a purge of my inbox and unsubscribed to a bunch of shit I never signed up for. Only unsubscribe from reputable sites. Mark the other ones junk or spam. The disreputable sites add your unsubscribe request to the lists they sell. If you aren’t careful you’ll get more email than when you began your purge.

  12. Good news: Mr. RFH cooked bacon for me.

    Bad news: He used my cake spatula, the one that actually has “Caution: Not Heat Resistant” on it and melted that sucker real good. I have real spatulas, forks, and tongs, but nope.

  13. How was the bacon?

  14. “What is the proper attire to listen to a symphony?”

    Preferably a giraffe costume, but if you don’t have one you can wear whatever.

  15. He cooked it perfectly, but I did inspect for melted plastic adhered to the slices.

  16. A melted spatula is replaceable. A man who will fry bacon for his woman is not.

  17. My wife has accused me of using the wrong tool or gadget or whatever on several occasions but never while cooking. 🙂


  19. At the top of that website, Pepe, is that a badger or a wolverine?

  20. dang it, can’t see it on the phone, but isn’t that a wolverine?

  21. 22 years ago tonight I met this awesome pretty Scottish chick at a Superbowl party.

  22. Tie game!!

  23. Wolverine.

  24. BREAKING NEWS: Joe Biden announces he will replace Tom Brady with a black woman.

  25. Ok, now you got me watching this game. Wow!

  26. haha nice chefs

  27. they aren’t wearing masks in the interview and not distancing

  28. Wow. That was nuts.

  29. I have to wonder if anyone is going to call out Mahones for his 20 yard/10 second dance before the field goal to tie it up.

  30. Hmmmm. Same ideological group that spent the past 25 years screening the polar ice caps are going to melt submerging them under the oceans just got hit with 2-1/2 feet of snow.
    Not sure who’s more posses off, Greta finding global warming is a hoax just like Cocos vaccines, or those that bought into her ideology. Either way I don’t care. It’s weather, it changes. Deal with it.

  31. they won’t, because they were trying to use clock

  32. It’s Whales, Hotspur. Lucky you didn’t get a severe bruising of the face over that mistake!

  33. My mistake, how are you whales doing tonight?

  34. 22 years ago tonight I met this awesome pretty Scottish chick at a Superbowl party.


  35. Oh wow, Howard Hessman (Dr. Johnny Fever) has passed at 81. RIP

  36. they were trying to use clock
    They could have won with a touchdown. I don’t know how many time outs they had left but a few run plays might have either gave them a TD or closer for a FG. He’s lucky a Chief recovered his fumble to give them a chance at evening the score to go to OT.

  37. The bengals did the same thing to the Chiefs earlier in the year. Took Mahomes off the field. You are right, they should have hammered McKinnon up the middle, but they didn’t want to give Burrow a chance.

  38. I went in to work today to try and catch up, made some progress but I’m resentful of my loss of weekend.

  39. 80% of the internet is saying ” Johnny who” at this moment. They were holed up in their dads testicles waiting for them to descend and become viable sperm back around 1979.


    (Imgur video with sound)

  41. Splashing pumpkins were great, far better than Tool. Linda McCartney just used them as an excuse to quit the tour when she learned she was terminal. I also think the band took it too seriously, leading to the break up. Tools for fools like tears for fears. 😉

  42. Political stupidity infects all. I just was watching a string of interesting vids about unheated greenhouses in cold climates. Last one I watched, the guy (who is in MA) was talking about how the fact that he was able to grow a fig in his front yard a couple years ago, is proof of new glowball warmening.

    Um. Not too far away from him, over forty years ago, some people I knew were growing hella figs in their back yard. Some years and some microclimates are like that. It ain’t no thing, and certainly no proof of anything happening globally.

  43. Another good game.

  44. Plenty of time.

    Deebo can win it.

  45. Rams D. Kudos.

  46. There’s an Epoch Times article on using probiotics to treat long covid, and that a poor gut microbiome may be a big risk factor for severe enough covid for hospitalization (though it tracks with high BMI and diabetes). I’d link it, but I think it’s subscribers only.

  47. Jesse Kelly said what I’ve been thinking. The Canadian truckers are fricking heros and it should have been Americans on day one of this bullshit.

  48. Comment by roamingfirehydrant on January 30, 2022 10:11 pm
    There’s an Epoch Times article on using probiotics to treat long covid, and that a poor gut microbiome may be a big risk factor for severe enough covid for hospitalization (though it tracks with high BMI and diabetes). I’d link it, but I think it’s subscribers only.


    Good health has been the biggest weapon all along. Healthy people have healthy gut biomes.

  49. Mare!

  50. Kimchi!

  51. Splashing pumpkins were great, far better than Tool. Linda McCartney just used them as an excuse to quit the tour when she learned she was terminal. I also think the band took it too seriously, leading to the break up. Tools for fools like tears for fears.

    I am triggered.

    I love the first two Smashing Pumpkins albums (which does not include 1979, for those not in the know).

    tears for fears also had two good albums.

    Tool ? 6 albums. 6 great albums.

  52. Sunday night is my Nova shift. To pay for her surgery.

  53. The weird thing about the “white dogs” … they don’t lay together. its really weird. They’re all spread out across the house. The puppies used to sleep together, but now they’re just everywhere. I don’t know if it is a GP thing?

  54. Individualistic dogs? Is that a breed trait? I don’t know. With all the coyotes that need killin’ in this locale, I wish we lived somewhere we could have GPs, but the nighttime barking and roaming would be just impossible here.

    One of the reasons I am pushing off the decision to get chooks is the ridiculous predator pressure. We have everything. Mink, rats, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, dogs, housecats, foxes, raptors, etcetera…how the Hell could I keep a birdie safe.

  55. oh, bears. We have bears now too.

  56. Car in, GPs live to protect. Bandit would sleep between us and the front door – always put herself between us and “danger”, no matter what part of the house we were in!

  57. Deputies escorted Robert’s procession.

  58. So it’s a Rams-Bengals SB. Nice!

    The playoff games have been thrilling, down to the last minute affairs which for the average shmo not invested in either of the teams playing is a good thing.

    I’m sure it’s still there but I’m not noticing the BLM crap by the players or featured by the broadcasters. I think it was an executive decision by the league that realized they were sinking fast and it was time to cut the crap before revenues decreased even further.

  59. Important update on our way to 50-50 covid hospitalizations in Iowa.

    We are now at 62% unvaccinated in the hospital for covid.

    Jay and I started this meta analysis about a month ago, perhaps a few weeks more. The hypothesis is that vaccination doesn’t protect you from getting The Chinaman Cold™ but it does keep you from getting a bad case.

    We’ve gone from 80% to 70% and now we’re approaching 60% of Iowa hospitalizations as unvaccinated. I’m sensing a trend here…

    Seems as though it’s just a matter of time. Perhaps just a week or so.

  60. Depressing. I don’t really believe it.
    This many people actually allowed themselves to be made into lab rats?

  61. The rub – MJ, is now they changed the metric. The vax doesn’t keep you from dying – but you still might be hospitalized. Moving goal posts.

    But we know people who have been vax’d are dying too. Elderly, underlying conditions. Which not surprisingly, are most of the people who die from it.

  62. I’m up, gimme a few.

  63. MMM 480

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