For reasons outlined in Good Aural: Part 1, most people don’t listen very closely, or don’t understand the musicianship at work behind what they’re hearing. As a musician, it’s useful to develop an above-average ear so that you can pick out the nuances in all those great recordings that fellow musicians have left behind for you to learn from.
I’ve also found it useful to make more nuanced distinctions than “I like this” or “This sucks.” The more vague and judgmental the statement, the less thought required–and by extension, the less likely you are to glean something important from the experience. A great musician can walk away from any listening experience one notch better than before, even if that just means they’ve clarified their feelings about something they don’t like.
“…Part of the way we learn music is the same way we learn to speak a language; by osmosis…by being exposed to the sounds until they become a part of us, until they seep in, little by little.” –Ted Greene, in his introduction to Jazz Guitar Single-Note Soloing.
Simple Ways to Improve Your Listening
- Listen Consciously.
- Listen Repeatedly.
- Listen in Detail.
- Listen for Yourself.
- Overcome Distractions.
- Suspend Judgment.
To listen consciously simply means giving the task your full attention. Before pressing play, make sure you’re settled in and that you’ve resolved to listen to the recording without distraction. It’s likely that you’ll want to listen to just a single track at a time to begin with; even in a three-minute song there can be a lot to take in. I recommend using a good pair of headphones (Shure SRH440s for me at the moment).
To listen repeatedly is the soul of music appreciation. Each time you hear a piece again, you hear it more completely than the time before. I’ve listened to my favorite jazz recordings, classical compositions, and Marvin Gaye songs dozens of times apiece. I’ve sought out new versions, interpretations by different performers, I’ve notated solos, I’ve listened again and again and again. The more you can grasp of whatever piece of music you consider a masterpiece, the more likely you are to assimilate everything that it has to offer you.
To listen in detail involves zeroing in on one particular element of the music at a time. This could mean studying the way that the bass and drums interact on your favorite song, for example. It could mean listening to the full length of Vivaldi’s Spring Concerto, ignoring everything except the harpsichord. It could mean listening to the different ways Marvin Gaye articulates the word “Baby” on “Sexual Healing.” You can bend your ear to whatever parts of the music intrigue you. This is a great way to begin consciously taking apart your favorite recording and discovering what makes them tick.
To listen for yourself is a long and difficult process of confounding your own preconceptions and socially conditioned ideas of what you do and do not like.
Are you going to listen according to what your friends say, or are you going to strike out and form your own opinions? Are you going to regurgitate somebody else’s presumption as your own, or are you going to experience music for yourself? Are you just another mindless echo, or are you a thinking, autonomous human being?
This is a psychologically complex topic, but here are two ways to keep yourself free of outside noise: first, be conscious of the effects of social pressure (why would any pleasure be a “guilty” pleasure?) and second, never, ever adopt an opinion on something that you haven’t actually heard.
Distractions can intrude from one’s environment or originate in the mind. A certain amount of this is inevitable, but do your best to set the right tone, both in your environment and within yourself: turn off your cell phone. Shut the door. Set daily concerns aside. Consider a period of quiet sitting, a few listening exercises, or other warm-ups.
Suspend Judgment. Just because a rapper doesn’t pen complete, grammatically neat sentences doesn’t mean he’s ignorant and has nothing to offer you. Just because the trumpet solo on a particular jazz track lacked luster doesn’t mean that the trumpet player himself sucks—maybe on the night that piece was recorded he had a migraine. Just because you didn’t like one work by a classical composer doesn’t mean you won’t like others by that same composer—you might even like the same composition in another context, performed by a different ensemble.
Listening itself is a skill, and a valuable one for any performer or composer. This is especially true for improvisers such as jazz musicians, who rely almost solely on their ears to tell them what’s going on at a given moment in time. Listening diversely, in detail, and with nuanced opinion will help you develop your own tastes—and allow you to expand upon the elements of others’ work that turn you on.
Edited on April 20, 2010. Thank you, Dave Douglas.