Posts tagged listening
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.


on listening pedagogy, take 1

we don't often pay it much attention, but listening is an important way that we relate to the world around us. not only does it physically orient us in both time and space, but it's also how we come to learn new ideas—whether it's through conversation, watching the news, or tuning in to our favourite podcast.

how effective we are as listeners, however, is another question altogether. to listen with the intent of truly learning something is itself a learned skill. it takes time, willingness, and patience to make ourselves available to new ideas. and the only way we can do that is if, just for a moment, we commit to being silent. for some, that's easier said than done.


i try and teach the skill of listening as best i can in the context of the classroom. to do so, i use a number of techniques that push students to critically engage with and through their ears. one of which entails unpacking a dedicated form of listening that most of us are very familiar with: musical listening.

thinking musically is an effective way of getting students to critically assess their listening abilities. after all, music is something that most of us really enjoy, and is an important part of our daily routine. while we work, while in transit, when we're getting ready to leave the house in the morning, and before bed in the evening: these are only some of the many moments that music accompanies our everyday lives. as a result, many people tend to fancy themselves as good musical listeners.

but this is a question of quality, not quantity. so i ask, what music do we listen to and how do we listen to it? where do we find it? how do we come to know it? (which is entirely different than where and how we find it). or, do we come to know it at all? answering these questions takes some reflection, but our responses tell us something about our relationship to music, about the type of listeners we are, and about the time we put into cultivating listening as a skill.

oftentimes, the most rewarding musical experiences are the ones we don't understand at first. the ones that take some time and dedicated listening before we can say "i get it", or at least "i think i get it". where the music presents a challenge, almost as though it's pushing us to be better listeners before it can resonate with us. but we need to be up for that challenge.

sometimes, we reach these moments alone, after repeated listening to a particular song or album. the first time we hear it, we're not entirely sure what it is. but by the 10th, 15th, or even the 20th time through, finally it clicks. these are important moments that we can only arrive at by listening with patience.

at other times, we find these moments by listening with others, in a group setting or with a friend. some of the most memorable listening experiences i've had were with friends who pointed out something that i otherwise missed. and it completely changed how i listen to a particular song or artist. often, someone else's observations helps us make sense of it.

but based on my interactions with students, these types of listening experiences are more the exception than the rule. we tend to have an aversion to musical experiences that challenge our skill as listeners. but why? is it that we don't have time for them? do we not want to put in the energy? or are we so sure about our listening abilities that when a song doesn't immediately click we figure it must be the music and not us?

the problem is, when we don't engage music with curiosity and patience, we miss the opportunity to learn something new. we miss the opportunity to allow new ideas to resonate within us, even if (or, particularly because) those ideas weren't communicated through words per se. it's knowledge in the truest sense of the word, and it's acquired through sonic experience. it's reason enough to listen to music we otherwise wouldn't have time for, and to re-listen to the music we're already familiar with.

these ideas, by the way, apply not only to musical sounds but to all sounds. but that, i'll save for another post.