I often hear teachers imploring students to listen more. But how we should listen is the real question. Music manuals today stress the importance of listening for a well rounded education. By simply bearing witness to enough great music you should – by osmosis or Pavlovian style conditioning – develop a deep understanding of it. It seems to me that it just aint that simple. Pressing play, sitting back and passively experiencing a piece of music will teach you very little about the actual processes behind the making of it. Learning how to engage with music; understanding the how and why, is an essential part of any musical discovery mission.
Here’s a piece of music that many people would consider challenging:
I think of this piece by Ornette Coleman as akin to a Magic Eye illusion. What at first seems like an incongruous combination of unrelated patterns becomes, after time, a beautiful panorama of Yosemite Falls. The jigsaw which made so little sense moments before now looks – or sounds – totally cohesive. Listening in a discerning manner can help you make sense of challenging pieces such as these and open up whole new areas of artistic interest.
My journey into jazz demonstrates how learning to listen can change everything. Having always considered myself a rock or pop drummer, jazz seemed to me an exotic but highly unachievable realm; nevertheless I began over the course of many years to try my hand at becoming a ‘jazzer’. However many exercise books or Youtube tutorials I consumed, I was never able to escape the feeling that these players seemed to be talking a different language to me, or more specifically, I a different language to them. The thing lacking was authenticity. Having learnt to attune my ears to what constituted great, authentic drumming, I was well aware that when it came to jazz, I sucked.
Up until that point I wouldn’t have claimed to enjoy listening to jazz. However much I wanted to be able to play it, the listening experience was often a chore and whilst I could easily understand the charms of ‘So What’ or ‘Chameleon’, I felt lost when delving any deeper. Something like the video below seemed, whilst exciting and impressive, completely impenetrable:
Then one night at home came the key moment. After another bemused viewing of said video, I changed tack. I decided to watch the video again. and again. I started to listen. I started listening and I started asking questions:
Whats the structure of the tune?
Who composed it?
What’s the interplay between the musicians?
How long can I follow the structure without losing my place?
What year was it recorded?
Who are the personnel?
How old were they at the time?
How do they create such a frantic sound without it becoming a mess?
How can I learn to replicate it?
Gradually as I continued to dedicate more time to listening in this way I found two things happened. Firstly the sense of things being lost in translation evaporated. I wasn’t listening to Italian or French or Mandarin anymore. Or maybe I was, but now I too spoke the language. Understanding the motivation behind a particular musician’s phrase or compositional figure helped me to comprehend it much more deeply. With this deeper understanding also came the more visceral and unconscious feeling of pleasure, which leads me onto the second benefit: Enjoyment. The listening experience began to resemble those which I was having listening to Neil Young or The Beatles. A simple feeling deep down in the gut saying: I love this music.
For a long time I held the view that if you had to analyse something too deeply it wasn’t worth analysing in the first place. What i’ve now begun to grasp is that if on first listen you find something challenging, do your homework, delve a little deeper, and you may just discover whole new levels of understanding and enjoyment you didn’t think possible.