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How We Listen to Music

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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.

Black Hearts Club. Deadheads. Beliebers. Jazz Hepcats. Classical Music Junkies. BTS ARMY. BeyHive. Kittenz. Arianators. Little Monsters. Mendes Army.

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:

Active Listening

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.

Passive Listening

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

Tip 01
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.

Tip 02
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.

Tip 03
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.

Tip 04
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.

Tip 05
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.

Tip 06
Listen objectively

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.

Tip 07
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.

But –

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
  • R&B in 2021 is not the same as R&B in the heyday of 1960s Motown: Kallitechnis compared to The Supremes
  • Listen just beyond the range of your current genre
  • Listen in the dark
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”