Local legend Murray Horwitz (host of WAMU) and jazz pianist Aaron Diehl are teaming up to perform the second show in a series called "How Do We Listen," presented by Washington Performing Arts which explains the building blocks of music -- rhythm, melody and harmony for novices and professionals. 

The second program on melody will be happening on Jan. 31 with the final show happening on Mar. 8 at the McEvoy Auditorium at the National Portrait Gallery. In two separate Q&A's, they talk about their collaboration, the vibrancy of the DC music scene and what they hope audiences will take away from the show. These Q&A's have been lightly edited for clarity and grammar. 

Aaron Diehl 

Aaron resized

Could you describe what this event is about and why they should come out?

We have 3 parts to this: We did the first part in October and the last part is in March. It’s conversations in music and Murray Horwitz and I have teamed up to discuss what makes ‘music music,’ and what makes great music. We hone in on the fundamentals of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. The first was on rhythm, the second on Jan. 31st is melody and the third is harmony. We call it the ‘building blocks’ of music and how those elements are important individually and collectively and how they serve each other.

What will make “melody” interesting? Why should people come out and hear it?  

Anyone who has heard a song can appreciate a melody and it does not have to be specific to a particular genre. The fact that melody is always around us, we have musical déjà vu and we may have not heard it before but it seems familiar.  We can’t get it out of our ears, over the course of time, many different people use and re-use a different tune. That’s fascinating to people and related to musicians and connoisseurs and amateurs alike.

How has reception to your show been so far?

The last show we did rhythm, I was sick, I had the flu. I was giving this presentation while coughing and taking breaks in between. But it was well-received. I’m excited about this particular discussion because I speculate I’m not going to be sick. It’s just a fun subject matter compared to the others. Rhythm is fun and harmony is more abstract but most can relate to the idea of a great tune.

What is your biggest hope that these events will turn into for audiences?

I hope audiences will come away with a finer appreciation for music in general. Murray and I have discussed possibly doing more of these series. Washington Performing Arts has been gracious enough to program this. Murray and I have been discussing that and that’s certainly a possibility in the future. In terms of listeners, right now, sort of the challenges that the performing arts have already faced, it’s my hope that people who are not music aficionados will check out what we are doing and have a different perspective on music and how music is constructed and take something with them that they can apply to their daily lives.

Murray Horwitz 


Can you give examples where rhythm is now bigger than melody or harmony?

In general, I’m not saying anything is better or worse, in general, hip-hop is much more rhythmically sophisticated. Generally, it emphasizes rhythm much more than it emphasizes than melody and harmony. Hip-hop has been the dominant form for the last 20 years at least. It’s grown and matured and has gotten richer in a lot of ways, so you will hear somebody. But in the golden age of American popular songwriting with Jerome Kern and Duke Ellington, melody and harmony had a much more prominent role than in hip hop and rock and roll. When rock and roll took hold in the ‘50’s, a lot of the classic songwriters said there was no melody or harmony. But compared to hip-hop, rock and roll had much more melody and harmony than those genres.

What do you think the future of music will consist of?

To my observations and to my experience, people of all races and backgrounds now have much more greater conversancy from all backgrounds with country music, hip hop, blues, jazz and bluegrass. They feel they have a handshake relationship with all these different genres, that bodes well for the future of music. If people’s ears are that big, the possibilities are very intriguing.

What are the biggest thing that people have taken away from these shows?

We sold more tickets on the second one than the first. What we hope is that people will listen a little harder and a little closer. The more you bring from it, the more you take away from it. If people have a richer understanding of what goes into actually making the music and how they actually listen, they will make more out of it. There are people who do not realize they are listening to harmony, music and melody when they are hearing it. When we tease those out and show a little bit of what is going on, in our first concert, we played Bach, Philip Glass, Jerome Kern, the blues. When people understand what those elements are, I think what they take away is a little bit of a keener ear and brain.

Do you think that’s essential these days more than ever?

It will certainly help a lot. If people understand there are all these elements and they can work together in a variety of ways, then that will help with human progress if you will. It will make for more engaged listening and if any of this were in the arts, especially the performing arts, it has to confront the question of what are we doing this for? How much are we actually doing? We all want to make the world a better place. We want to improve life, and the role of the arts will make you a better person.

 What makes the DC music scene different than others?

I just saw a documentary in progress called “Anacostia Delta” about the guitar players. It centers on Danny Gaston and Roy Buchanan. One of the points the movie makes is that Washington has been this great crossroads for all kinds of music: blues and all kinds of African music.This is one of the best bluegrass places in the country. All kinds of folk music, there are foreign communities here. If you see a SE dance troupe, they have local musicians. There are all these local influences any day of the week and that’s really made for a DC sound that tends to be funkier, more blues-based, a lot of country in it, a lot of jazz. It has been a very rich, fertile musical ground and continues to be. There are neighborhood things that happen like the couple of new music spaces at the Strathmore, Westminster Presybyterian Church that has a blues night every Monday and a jazz night. Washington is ground zero for choral music, there are great choruses here. It is a very rich musical landscape.

What do you hope your legacy be?

I try to think of the lasting value of everything I do. I think we have to be very modest about what we do, but my hope is that more than one or two, we can really enrich the lives and the listening of some of the people who come so when they come out, they listen with new ears.