Getting Started in Music
Human beings are a “musical species,” said neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. You probably already know that music can affect your thinking and behaviour, your very idea of “self.”
Here’s how to get started listening to, learning, and performing music.
How We Listen to Music
Listening to Music
Whether you’re a Deadhead, a Belieber, a jazz hepcat, or a classical music junkie, you may think you know everything there is to know about listening to music.
While it’s true that you don’t need musical training to listen to music, there are degrees of listening that can deepen your appreciation.
First, the difference between hearing and listening. Yup, they’re not the same process.
Can you hear me now? How about now?
Hearing is the actual physical process of perceiving a sound, like music. It’s passive. Sound reaches your ears, and voila, you hear (unless you are hearing impaired).
Are you even listening?
Listening is that function demanded by parents and teachers. It requires your attention. You probably know the difference between active and passive listening, but just in case:
Occurs when you actively try to attend to, understand, or interpret what you’re hearing. This means avoiding distractions, staying focused, and being present and curious.
Occurs when you are (duh) passive and unreceptive (e.g. listening to music in the subway and tuning out background noise)
It takes some practice to be a good listener, but if you master some basic skills, you’ll appreciate music even more (and just think about what better listening skills might do for your relationships!).
How to really tune in
Seven tips from composer Elliott Schwartz
Develop your sensitivity to music
Discover the music in everything from birdsong to sirens to the ice cream truck to trickling water to children playing to a hot trumpet solo to your fave indie singer-songwriter. All sounds have a music.
Develop a sense of time as it passes
Listen for duration, motion, the placement of events within a time frame. Music is about time, after all.
Develop a musical memory
As you listen to a piece, try to identify familiar patterns, relating new to old, and placing those patterns within time. There are so many “distant cousins” in music – classical informs modern; the blues inform rock and rap, etc.
Acquire a working music vocabulary
New verbiage is cool, especially words as powerful as fortissimo. Other cool musical words: lick, gigue (related to jig), sforzando, power chords, castrato, and on and on. You’ll be able to talk music with the best of them.
Hone your musical concentration
Especially as you listen to lengthy pieces. Composers and jazz improvisers, for example, plant musical signposts like repeated sections, melodies, and rhythms along the way to keep you on your listening toes.
An open mind can open the musical world, quite literally inviting you into new modes of music and new cultures and centuries. Focus on what’s there rather than what you wish or hope was there in the music.
Look stuff up
Experience and knowledge are powerful. Research the history and social context of the music you’re exploring, plus the life of the performer or composer. Heady stuff!
With all the interruptions in our lives from pinging phones and endless notifications, we sometimes just open Spotify and click play. Let the algorithms satisfy your tune tastes and go with the flow.
You don’t always need an algorithm to dictate what you listen to. You can also switch it up. Especially when you have your own incredible brain. And when listening to music intentionally and curating your own lists can be so satisfying and enriching.
How to Listen
& Listen to and across different genres – Listen more than once – Listen in motion – Listen to the rhythm – Listen to the tone
How to Listen
Listen to and across different genres
Listen more than once
- Take note of different elements each time: the scale, the bass line, the lyrics, the emotional impact, the solos, beginnings/endings
- Listen to different versions: Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, then Hidden Citizens’ futuristic version
- Be patient
Listen in motion
- Move your body – movement helps you pay closer attention
- Dancing will enhance what you hear (so does singing and/or walking with your tunes)
- Tap your feet, close your eyes, and groove
Listen to the rhythm
- Start with the percussion, the heartbeat of a piece
- Listen to different percussionists: Dame Evelyn Glennie, Neal Peart (Rush), Larnell Lewis (Snarky Puppy)
Listen to the tone
- Listen with all of your senses
- Explore music with shifts in tone: Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Billie Eilish’s vocals, Yma Sumac’s extraordinary tonal range
Listen to lyrics
- Lyrics can be profound, whimsical, poetic, nonsensical
- Memorizing lyrics is good for your brain and improving memory!
- Take note of the chorus, often the crux of a song
- Some lyrics can change the world: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (voted by Time as the most important song of the 20th century), H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” John Lennon’s “Imagine”