Listening Lesson: 'The Unanswered Question'


Age Range: Elementary, Middle School

Learning Objective: Students will learn about musical questions and answers, and listen to “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives.

1. In music, we use the word phrase to describe a series of notes that communicates a musical idea.

2. Look at the notation for a familiar song below:

Wikimedia Commons

Can you guess how many musical phrases are in this music? Did you guess six?

Here's the first phrase:

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star - phrase one
Wikimedia Commons

And the second:

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star - phrase two
Wikimedia Commons

Can you figure out the rest from there?

3. Sometimes musical phrases work in pairs. The first phrase asks a musical question, which is followed by a second phrase that sounds like an answer.

Think about how a speaking voice changes when the speaker asks a question. The speaker's voice usually goes up at the end of a question- it sounds a little unfinished. And- when someone answers, the end of the sentence sounds a little more final. Look again at the first two phrases from Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sing each phrase. Which sounds more like a question? Which sounds more final at the end, like an answer?

4. Sometimes composers use overlapping phrases, especially when two or more instruments play together. Sometimes instruments echo each other's phrases. Watch and listen to part of the Sonata No. 5 for cello and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven. See if you can hear question phrases, answer phrases, and echoes.

5. Sometimes, there are questions that don't have easy answers. Write down a list or say out loud some questions you can think of that might not have an easy answer.

The composer Charles Ives wrote a piece called “The Unanswered Question.”

• In this piece, string instruments play softly throughout.
• Every once in a while, a solo trumpet plays a phrase. Notice that the trumpet's phrase always sounds like a question, never an answer.
• After each musical question from the trumpet, we hear a group of woodwind instruments try to give a satisfying answer, but the answer phrase never seems to sound quite final.
• In the meantime, the string sound shimmers continuously in the background.

Look at the listening map below to help guide your listening. A picture of a flute represents all the woodwind instruments you will hear.

• Raise one hand every time you hear the trumpet ask a question.
• Raise your other hand every time you hear the woodwinds try to answer.

The video for the piece is below the listening map. All timings are approximate.

Ives map
Ives listening map
Katie Condon/MPR

Related Lesson Plans

Logo YourClassical Class Notes

YourClassical is a public media organization and your support makes it possible.

Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.

©2023 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved.
Facebook icon
YouTube icon
Instagram icon