WHAT is Active Listening?
Music forms a kind of background to many of the activities that we undertake in our lives. Some of us listen to music while we study, some listen to it while we drive, some while we eat, some as we socialise. There is nothing wrong with enjoying music as part of doing another activity, but there is something to be said for what can be gained from listening to music AS an activity. By this I mean listening to music without looking at or doing anything else, with the music taking up all of your attention. In the past, this used to be the only way in which to observe music – before music could be recorded, the only way to experience it was in a concert hall or to make it yourself, and early gramophones required operation by hand, which suggests that you wouldn’t do it for the sake of background music. Even live music performed by popular artists often comes with an enormous visual aspect, including lights, dancers, pyrotechnics, costumes, etcetera. The shift of music’s role to “background music” isn’t a problem per se – film music, for instance, is meant to be background music. There is much that can be gained, however, from bringing music back into the foreground and listening to it, instead of just “hearing” it.
WHY should we Actively Listen?
More goes into a piece of music than just a melody or a chord progression. Sure, these are important parts of the song, but to judge a song based on only those factors is an incomplete assessment of what is contained in a recording. The song as written by the composer may contain more than these things already – even more can be achieved in the studio with the aid of the engineer. Orchestral works and songs with large bands will often have a number of things going on at any given time, even if many of those things are not fulfilling key roles in the ensemble.
It has been suggested that the decline in active music listening is part of the cause of the decline in general music literacy. Whether or not this is true, it can certainly be argued that many people don’t really understand what they are listening to – they just accept it as part of the world they live in, as part of the soundscape in their workplace, shops or car. Could they listen to the same music if they were alone in a room with a media player playing those songs and nothing else to entertain them? Does that music have the capacity to satisfy them in the same way when taken out of the distractive contexts in which it is normally heard?
Another suggested reason for the decline in active listening is the decrease in the popularity of instrumental music. Music that has no lyrics does not provide an easy way to relate to the song – there is no message or sentiment to easily engage with by listening to the words. Instrumental music is not necessarily any less emotive than music with lyrics, but the music has to be actively listened to in order to best engage with the emotions in the work.
There is much that can be gained, however, from bringing music back into the foreground and listening to it, instead of just “hearing” it.
HOW do we Actively Listen?
The most important part of active listening is for the music to be the primary target of your focus. Don’t try to actively listen while doing anything else – don’t read, don’t play a game, don’t check your phone – the music has to have all of your focus. Watching the video clip for a song can also be highly distracting, unless the video clip only features footage of the artist playing the song. If it helps to close your eyes, by all means do so.
There are a number of things that you can keep an ear out for when you are giving a song your full attention. A few of these will be discussed separately below. If you’re interested in addressing all of these aspects of the song, you will more than likely have to listen to the song more than once, focusing on different elements each time. Taking notes can be helpful, but it isn’t always entirely necessary.
It is worth keeping in mind that looking for every little thing mentioned here could be overly exhaustive. Music, like any art form in this post-modern era, ultimately means different things to different people and affects different people in different ways. The things that I find particularly interesting about a song might not be of any interest to you, and things that you find interesting may not occur to your neighbour, your co-workers, or the guy you walked past on the street the other day. All art is to some degree subjective, and music is no exception.
What sections are in the song? Does it follow a standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus form? Does it have many wildly varying sections? Do these sections repeat? Does the placement of each part in the song contribute in some way to the overall message or aesthetic of the song?
Are each of the verses different in any ways? Are they the same music with different lyrics? Is there a build up through the song – are later verses louder or more intense than earlier ones? Do some sections that have the same lyrics sound different? Why do they sound different? What instruments are playing differently, how does the playing differ, and what effect does it have on the sound?
Which instrument is playing the melody? The vocals will usually be taking the main melody, but that is not always the case. Is there more than one melody happening at the same time? Do these melodies interact in a way that sounds interesting? Is the melody a smooth melody where each note is close in pitch to the note before it, or is it jagged and angular, with big jumps between notes?
Is the melody repetitive? Do the repetitions vary from each other? Is the melody in the last chorus different to previous ones?
Is there a distinct bass line? A distinct bass line can not always be heard, especially if the bass is following the part played by the guitar. If there is a distinct bass line, what makes it distinct? Is it melodic? Is it sparse (only playing a couple of times a bar) or is it continuous/walking?
Does the song have an obvious chord progression? Is it the same few chords for the entire song? Is the chord sequence in the verse the same as in the chorus?
Is there any dissonance in the harmony of the song? Does it sound happy or sad, bright or dark?
Is the entire song consonant, or does it include notes or chords that sound jarring or unresolved? Is there ever a feeling of the song trying to lead somewhere harmonically, but the resolution being delayed?
Are there drums? Are they acoustic drums, or have they been synthesised? Is the same beat played for the whole song, or does it change for different parts of the structure? Which cymbals are used (hi-hat, crash, ride, splash, china, etc) and how does using these particular cymbals affect the texture of the song?
Some things that can add to a recording of a song are not musical, or are at least unexplainable in musical terms. These can include sound effects (whether related to the lyrics or not), sounds from non-musical sources, or simply ways in which frequencies interact that defy explanation. Have you ever had part of a song make you think that your phone was ringing when it wasn’t, but there was no “ringing phone” sound in the song? You have subconsciously trained your ear to alert you where you hear your phone ringing, and the sounds in the song have interacted in a way that have excited those frequencies in your hearing. This particular reaction is just an example, of course. You could take this part as far as linking things that the song reminds you of – places, people, events. If it’s part of your reaction to the music, then it’s important to acknowledge.
This is another point that is often neglected when considering the merits of a piece of music. The context can be considered at a macro level – which country it was composed/recorded in, what century/decade/year, what events were happening in the world, etc, or it can be considered at a more micro level – which album was it on, and how it reflects the overall aesthetic of that album, or how it differs from it. There is something to be said for listening to an entire album from start to finish – each song is its own creative unit, but the album can also be considered a creative unit of its own. Concept albums are an especially good example of this.
The goal of active listening isn’t to turn your music listening into study sessions. There is no reason not to continue listening to music the way that you always have. The next time you hear a song you like, however, take a moment to really listen. The reason you like it might not be the reason that you thought you did, or there may be more to the song that will make you like it even more. You might hear something that you’d never heard before, and will always notice in the future. However you look at it, actively listening to music will definitely help you to get more out of your day-to-day listening.
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