Saturday, April 7, 2012

How to (Really) Listen to Music

So you're a music fanatic and you can't get enough music? You're in good company...neither can we! The great thing about music is you don't have to have any training or an advanced level of expertise to enjoy listening to it. Like any art though, knowing how to approach it can make your experience that much better. I really encourage my students to not just hear music, but really listen to it with an educated ear. Some people call this music appreciation; let's be clear, it's completely different from being a music critic or, as I like to call it, being way too posh for you're own good. Critically listening to music does require an educated or well-cultivated ear, but it completely takes away from the experience. 

And beware! As you delve into your musical training more and more, it's way too easy to become too posh for your own good! You'll learn a great deal and might get tempted to start listening to other people's performances with a critical ear like other professional/non-professional music critics. These people (really) listen to music and take it all in, but they're usually listening for the flaws in a song. They expect to walk away unsatisfied. Guess what? They usually experience exactly that: unsatisfying performances riddled with flaws. They end up missing out on what music really can offer.

Remember: listening to music with an overly critical ear can and probably will rob you of the uninhibited joy that comes from being swept into a song. Listening with a keen ear will help train your musical senses and help you absorb a song even better. I believe in teaching my students how to both appreciate music and really listen to it so they can take in as much of a song as possible. I tell them to go to concerts, symphonies, jazz series and other musical events to get tons of exposure. To get the most out of the experience, I give them a short list of how to (really) listen to music and make the experience even better.

1. Identify the genre you're listening to. What do you know about the time period? Jazz from the roaring 20's has a whole different flavor from today's jazzy tunes, because culture and history get time stamped onto our music. What do you know about the composer? Realizing Mozart was just five when he started writing symphonies adds an interesting story to what you're hearing. Compositions are like letters or diary entries. When you know that Beethoven wrote his last symphony without being able to hear a single note, while living in solitude due to his deafness, it creates a sense of intrigue that he chose the triumph of joy despite his circumstances, thus dedicating his final symphonic work to joy itself and all that is good in life. This helps you relate to music.

2. Listen for patterns, repetition, and variation. Apply the musical technique you know. Do you recognize phrases, intervals, any particular theory that's applied to the song? Let this come together like a giant musical patchwork quilt. It will help you see music, not just hear it.

3. Listen for color, texture, balance and rhythm. What is the tone like? Bright, happy, sad? Is the melody smooth, layered with harmony, abrupt, using staccatos? How does the composer balance out contrasting phrases? Is the rhythm controlled, syncopated, even? This helps you feel music. 

4. Ask yourself how the piece makes you feel. What mental pictures does it create in your mind? Let music take you to a deeper place. Self-awareness is crucial to truly appreciate all the many layers of a song. Let yourself realize how it speaks to you. Even though a song is played with the same notes, it will sound a little different to each individual person listening. The personal message won't be the same to you as it is to me. (Really) listening to music is a completely individualistic process, and that's just one of the many things that makes music wonderful. This helps you connect to music, and that's what it's all about. Don't walk away from a musical experience unmoved or unchanged as a musician. Music has the potential to teach us and show us wonderful things if we only (really) listen.

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