As technology advances, the vast amount of music available at the click of a finger seems to be expanding exponentially.
Up to the advent of recording, the only way to listen to music was to attend a performance or to play an instrument yourself. Physical copies of music were limited to published sheet music. Since then, recorded music has become more and more accessible with each new technology: records, tapes, CDs, mp3s, and cloud streaming services. This wealth of easy access to such a vast amount of material has positive and negative aspects. While it is increasingly effortless to find recordings from nearly any conceivable artist, era, style, or geographic location, listeners eventually face information overload.
With so much to choose from, where to begin? When teaching a guitar student for the first time one my first questions is always, “What is your favorite music?” This question is intentionally vague so that the student may respond with a musician, band, or even style. A surprising pattern that I’ve noticed, especially from young beginners, is the answer, “I don’t know. I don’t listen to music.” While youngsters may not be exposed to music at home, I think that this answer says a lot about the way our society as a whole listens to music. This is the age of shuffle listening. The era of DJs and devices.
You may have heard this before, but music is a language, and one of the best ways to quickly learn a language is through immersion learning is one of the best ways to quickly learn a language. Consider music theory the grammar of music and listening and playing as immersion. Imagine trying to learn Chinese from nothing but a novel written in Chinese. It would be impossible to decipher how to pronounce the characters. Learning from a book is not enough. On the other hand, if you moved to China you would learn the language rather quickly in order to survive. You would hear others speak (listening), try to copy the sounds (playing), then later learn the correct grammar and sentence structure (theory). Notice: the first step in this process is listening.
This post is adapted from an excerpt of the beginning guitar method book I am writing. This information was originally intended for the beginning guitarist but is applicable to any musician of any instrument at any level. As a musician evolves, skills like good listening habits might unfortunately go overlooked if not forgotten. I think it is a topic worthy of discussion and also serves as a reminder to more advanced musicians both amateur and professional. I hope this post might also help inspire fellow music teachers to discuss listening habits with their own students. A beginner who is exposed to good listening habits from the beginning will have a greater chance of progressing faster in all areas of music than those who are not.
Five ways to improve the way you listen to music
1) Listen intentionally
Much of the music we hear throughout each day is background music. Canned music is played in stores and restaurants. TV shows and movies use music for transitions and behind dialogue. We even sometimes listen to music absent-mindedly while doing something else like driving or cleaning. This exposure to background music teaches you to listen passively rather than actively and intentionally.
Try regularly blocking out a pre-scheduled chunk of time to sit down and do nothing but listen to music. Remove all distractions. Turn off your computer and TV and put your phone in another room. If listening to music from a device, put it in do not disturb mode to avoid distraction from notifications, text messages, emails, etc.
2) Listen in context
As I stated above, this is the age of shuffle listening. A playlist might be great for background music at a party but listening to a full album is vital to understanding a song’s greater function and context. Most artists craft albums of songs that fit well with each other in a specific order. A good album, like a good book, has an overlying arch and storyline. Beyond listening to an album in its entirety, try learning some of the history and details of a given recording. Who are the musicians in the band? Who wrote the songs? When was it recorded? Where was it recorded? Who is the producer? What other recordings have the artist/musicians/producers made? Where does this recording fit in the artist’s catalog chronologically? Asking yourself questions like these will teach you to more fully appreciate the context of the music you listen to. What else could you ask?
3) Listen analytically
It isn’t necessary to be a music theory wiz or have perfect pitch to listen to music analytically. Whatever your level, find aspects of a recording to latch on to. Maybe it is the harmony, the song form, or even the instrumentation. Try listening to a song on loop. If you wish, let the music play and listen passively on the first listen. On the second listen identify what specific aspects you can already hear. On the third listen, identify aspects that you aren’t sure about, like an unfamiliar chord progression, or an irregular meter or phrase length. A beginner who doesn’t know what these musical terms mean might be unsure of which instrument is playing a certain part. Keep listening repeatedly and try to decipher what you can at your current level. As you grow as a musician, revisiting music will reveal new aspects that you can and cannot hear. One of my favorite things about studying music is the fact that it is truly an endless pursuit. The depth of information is as deep as you are ready for and choose to go. A beginner may feel overwhelmed at first by this endless depth. Don’t be afraid of starting off in the shallow end. As your musicianship evolves you will soon grow tall enough to reach the deep end and later learn to dive deep into the murky depths of the endless sea of music.
4) Listen to a variety of styles
Try listening to music that you are not immediately drawn to or even music that you don’t like. If the music doesn’t grow on you, try to find particular aspects of the music that you are not attracted to. Considering these unattractive elements, is there anything about the music that you can still find enjoyable? Perhaps a rap song has a fat bass line or a country player’s rhythm and timing is spot on. The more music you are exposed to, whether you like it or not, the more you can draw from those elements by embracing what you like and avoiding what you don’t. Not sure what to start with? Here is a short list of styles to draw from: classic rock, jazz, country, hip-hop/rap, R&B, classical, opera, bluegrass, Motown, EDM, reggae… the list goes on and on. As you connect with new styles, research what influenced them. Welcome the plummet into the rabbit hole head first.
5) Listen to both new music and the classics
Discovering new music that you’ve never heard can be an exhilarating process. Each fresh listening experience has the potential to blow your mind. While seeking out new music don’t forget to listen to music that has stood the test of the time. There is a reason why the classics are the classics- whether it is the Beatles or Beethoven, Led Zeppelin or Liszt, Miles Davis or Metallica. Listening to classics for the first time has same mind-blowing potential as new music. It is new to you after all. When revisiting classics that you’ve heard many times you will gradually get to know them more fully and may even grow a deeper sense of appreciation for the music.
Listen, I have a confession. In the not so distant past, I too have been guilty bad listening habits. I usually listen to podcasts in the car and much of my listening at home is to learn music for gigs or to teach students. Sometimes it seems far too occasional that I am actively listening to music. I am currently trying to carve out time in my daily schedule to listen to music intentionally, in context, and analytically. I am revisiting some of my favorite albums and trying to listen to a diversity of styles and new music.
I challenge you to do the same. Put it on your calendar, avoid distractions, and dive in.
One last thought: Try vinyl.
If you don’t already have a record player, consider buying one. Even a small record collection will do. To me, there is something special about listening on vinyl. Physically hand-selecting an album from the shelf, taking the record out of its sleeve, putting it on the record player, placing the needle, listening to a side at a time, flipping the record. At times it feels almost ceremonial. As an added benefit, the analog sound is pleasing to ears accustomed to digital formats. The process of building a record collection is also a very different experience than our current reality of immediate access to any music at any time. A small record collection antithesis of information overload. With fewer choices, you will have the opportunity to learn each album more fully. You can then curate a collection of some of your favorite music. Listening to music on vinyl that you know well is an especially gratifying experience. Make a list of your all-time favorite recordings and plan to eventually buy them on vinyl. Brand new pressings of music new and old are becoming more accessible, and you may discover dirt cheap finds at second-hand music stores, book stores, thrift shops, garage sales, etc. Even if you aren’t ready to take the vinyl plunge consider doing so someday. And whatever you do, go listen to some music.