some thoughts on "musical listening"

one of the most important aspects of listening like a musician, or what we might (rightly or wrongly) call "musical listening", is the ability to move particular attributes of a performance into and out of focus. this is an extremely useful skill, and some of my most rewarding musical experiences have come as a result of my ability to do so. for instance, there are moments that i might want to single out a specific instrument to hear how and what it contributes to the song. i may then want to step back to listen once again to the whole of the composition to hear how it fits. making the conscious decision move between these perspectives is an integral part of musical listening, since it allows the listener to hear a performance in new ways.

i'll always remember sitting in my car with a friend of mine after we'd both finished an evening of teaching drums. we were listening to some new music (it was the title track off josh rouse's album 1972), and he pointed me toward a shaker part that was used in the second verse. at first listen, it was barely audible. it was low in the mix and panned to the right stereo channel. but once i heard it, the entire song changed. it became something new. in this very straightforward shaker part, i felt as though i'd encountered the very purpose of the song. i just "got it". it was an experience i'll never forget.

as someone with an interest in not only musical sound but all sound, i can't help but wonder what would happen if we listened to the soundscape in a similar way? what if we turned the idea of musical listening on everyday life? what if we shifted our focus and listened to the many sounds that surround us in the same way that a musician might engage with individual attributes of a musical performance?

the reason for doing so is not to hear the soundscape as music per se, though this is definitely a central tenet of soundscape studies. composer and educator R. Murray Schafer was adamant that, by thinking about the soundscape as a composition, we could once again bring it back to a state of balance and harmony. i'm far more skeptical about the idea of "acoustic balance" than he was, but i agree that thinking about the soundscape with the ears of a musician is a great way of learning more about the sounds that surround us.

in fact, it was through this very approach that i developed my research in the city of havana, cuba. without realizing it at the time, the listening i did while i lived in the city was very much a form of "musical listening". i zoomed into and out of particular sounds with the intent of squeezing as much information out of them as i possibly could. like listening to a song, i didn't want to miss a thing. of course, listening with this level of attention is exhausting, and it's physically and mentally impossible to do at all times. but there were definitely moments when i listened to every sound as though it were the last i'd ever hear. and by doing that, i was able to unpack the meaning of everyday sounds in ways that most people wouldn't think twice about.

the last thing i'll say about listening like a musician, or "musical listening", is that it doesn't require musical ability, per se. it just requires patience, curiosity, and the willingness to engage the soundscape, even though it's often far less enjoyable than a musical composition.