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The Toronto Symphony Orchestra recently debuted their comprehensive listening guides. The guides – colorful charts with pill-shaped reductions of beloved symphonic themes – seek to aid both the musical novice and musical expert. The stated purpose of these guides is to help listeners understand the most basic elements of each composition and see the way those elements are realized by the composer. Each guide includes an outline of the various themes, instrumentation, key signatures, repeats, dynamics, compositional structure, and transitions.

Each divided into their respective movements, the symphonies fill four pages. A movement is then divided into its largest compositional elements: Introduction, Exposition, Development, Recapitulation, (and where necessary) Coda. Sections are further broken down into their themes, motives, transitions, and repeats. For the purpose of this review, I purchased and listened to both symphonies for which guides were available: Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. To avoid a lengthy summary, I have outlined the pros and cons of the listening guides as I see them. To be fair, I only included topics that were consistent between both guides, and the number of pros are equal to the number of cons.

The Pros:

#1 – the guides do a good job of outlining the form of each movement and highlighting major themes. When I finished listening along with the guide, my understanding of the composition was concrete and specific.

#2 – main themes and motives are color-coded so you can easily see where a theme returns later in the piece.

#3 – themes are paired with pictures representative of instrument families, so you know what instrument has the important stuff!

#4 – muted colors represent minor keys, while bright vibrant colors represent major keys. On the listening guide for the Beethoven, the major themes are not only color-coded yellow, they are symbolized with a ‘sun’ shape, signifying the change in mood.

The Cons:

#1 – the stated purpose of the guide is to engage visual types with a broad range of musical experience. I imagine it would be difficult for a musical novice to make heads or tails out of most of the terms applied to the guide without a modicum of music theory literacy.

#2 – the rhythmic representations are inconsistent from piece to piece. The legend that accompanies the listening guide gives no fixed structure to long vs. short dots. Understanding that this notation was not designed to be specific, it also lacks the consistency to be helpful.  Themes are easily confused with one another and only after playing a game of thematic whack-a-mole can the listener determine where the music is in relation to the page.

3# – the representations of each theme should come before instrumentation. This is a personal preference of mine, but I found myself looking for the theme before I was interested in knowing what instrument was playing it.

#4 – Dynamic markings are redundant. A listener can easily tell whether an instrument is playing soft or loud. These extra dynamic markings only serve to cloud an already busy visual palette.

In conclusion, I found both guides to be helpful in realizing the compositional structure of the piece. The Beethoven guide presented greater clarity than the Dvorak. This may be due to the organizational qualities of the piece itself. Nevertheless, the guides still appear to be in the ‘beta’ stages of development.  A larger sample of guides is necessary to determine their efficacy. As a teacher, I would recommend these guides for your more theory savvy students but refrain from giving them to the less experienced.