HOW TO LISTEN
Oh, you know how to listen do you? With your ears, right?
Truly listening to music requires more than just your (assumably) natural gift to hear sound. Actually listening to music is to experience it physically and emotionally, as well as sonically. A huge part of listening to music is with your mind.
Have you ever been mid-conversation with someone, and started to drift off into your own world? You hear what they are saying, you nod your head and make noises in the appropriate places, but in your mind you are thinking about what’s for dinner, what’s happening at work, or that assignment that’s due.
We’ve all done it. The same thing happens when you simply hear music with your ears, rather than listening to it with your mind.
As a musician you need to learn to listen to music in order to identify the individual and collective elements that make music worth listening to.
How can you know what a guitar sounds like or how a song is made, if you can’t recognise these aspects when you hear them?
This is why learning to listen is so important.
So let’s go over a few ideas that will get you truly listening:
The first thing you need to do in order to truly listen is dedicate time to listening. I don’t mean while you are doing something else (although we will discuss how this can work later), to begin with you need to spend time just listening to music, giving it all your attention.
Spend as much time as you can afford each day only listening to music, but for this example let's say you can allocate 30 minutes per day. Awesome.
A Place to Listen
Next, you need a place to listen. Somewhere comfortable like a good chair, couch or bed is usually nice. Personally I prefer to listen somewhere where I won’t get too comfortable, like a dining room table or sitting on the floor; not being able to fully relax keeps me focused on the music.
Most importantly, wherever you choose should be quiet and free of distraction for the amount of time you have allocated.
So you’ve got the time and the place, but how are you listening to your music? Smartphone speakers? Shame on you.
How does an album stand a chance when all you can hear are distorted vocals from a speaker designed to make high-pitched beeps? I’m surprised you like music at all!
Your playback method is important. The better quality headphones or stereo you can afford the higher sound quality you will experience, so go a few steps above entry level if you can. If all you have are the headphones that came with your device, or the stereo your mum got you for Christmas when you were 12, then so be it. It’s still better than a smartphone speaker.
At the very least you need some personal headphones or a stereo that won’t bother other people. Not only do you want to keep your family, flatmates and neighbours on good terms, you don’t want any excuse to feel self-conscious about what you are listening to.
Remember we are aiming for personal enjoyment at the moment, it’s no use avoiding something because you’re embarrassed to be heard listening to it.
So here you are perched uncomfortably in your washing basket in the laundry, headphones and smartphone at the ready, the first artist on your ‘to listen’ list lined up. Push play and start to listen.
What happens first? Is there a melody? A drum-beat? Vocals?
Start trying to identify the individual instruments that make up the song.
- See if you can feel the rhythm, nod your head to it, can you hear drums?
- Could they be electronic sounds or is a live drummer playing an acoustic drum kit?
- Focus on the low frequency sounds; the bass. Do you think it’s a synthesizer or a bass guitar? Maybe it sounds like a keyboard or an organ?
- What about guitar? Can you tell if there’s an electric or acoustic guitar playing? How many guitars can you hear?
- Concentrate on the singer if there is one. How do they use their voice to convey meaning and emphasise the lyrics?
- What are the lyrics? Can you hum the melody?
Something that helps me study these individual elements is trying to picture the band playing their instruments, or a singer singing the lyrics. I picture a band performing on a stage in my mind and move my focus visually between band members as I focus on each instrument.
A great way to learn this technique is by watching music videos where the artist is performing. As you see the musicians playing, try to match their movements and instruments with the sounds you are hearing.
Now for the most important element of listening. Feeling.
How does the music make you feel?
Really think about this.
- Are you excited?
- Has your heart rate increased?
- Do you want to cry or party?
- Do you want to nod your head or hold it in your hands?
Identifying how music makes you feel will help you make music that encourages people to feel as you intend, so you can convey meaning in your songs.
Listening can be difficult so don’t be discouraged if you find it hard at first, or if you can’t tell what any of the individual elements are. This will come with time and experience.
As you get better at listening you will be able to spend more time listening while doing other tasks. Advanced listeners can study and enjoy music while doing other activities like cleaning, cooking, exercising, or commuting, but nothing can compare to dedicated listening as I’ve described. Listening to music while I’m writing this requires me to push it to the back of my mind, which makes for a much less involved experience.
That’s quite enough information for now so I’ll just leave you with one more thought:
This type of dedicated listening is immersive and most effective when listening in album form. Don’t switch from artist to artist too quickly. By immersing yourself in an album you will appreciate the artist’s sentiment, arrangement and instrumentation as intended; as a complete work of art. You can’t get the whole picture by looking at just one tenth of the painting!