One really important part of becoming a good musician is listening to music. While this may seem very obvious, what many musicians don’t realize is that not all kinds of listening are equal. The better you develop your listening skills the more you will appreciate, understand and ultimately absorb musical ideas which can further your own playing ability as well as your musical creativity.
I think my listening skills were at their best when I was a teenager. I used to just sit in a room for hours, staring at the ceiling, listening to CDs or records or (gasp) FM radio. I wasn’t also browsing the internet (there was no such thing). I wasn’t looking at my phone (it was attached to the wall in my parent’s kitchen). I’m not trying to come off like some old grouch who thinks “those were the days”. But I am saying that I recognize how easy it is to become accustomed to browsing several different kinds of media simultaneously. It takes a little extra focus and commitment now to say, “OK. I’m just going to sit here and really listen to this album.”
What I used to do as a teenager (really getting deep into a song or album) is what I now have seen others refer to as ACTIVE LISTENING. Basically when you are actively listening, you devote your full attention to what you are hearing. Since you aren’t looking at any visual stimuli, you may naturally visualize what the lyrics are about, or maybe you visualize the artists playing their instruments. Particularly with instrumental music the music may evoke all sorts of day dreams straight from your own imagination.
The main thing is that when you are actively listening your mind remains actively engaged in the music 100%. You don’t start thinking about your bills, or that you need to reply to some email, or anything like that. I think this maybe the reason why I can never get back to height of my teenage listening skills. Adults simply face so many more mental distractions. I got worries now, man!
When I think about all the ways in which listening to music has changed over the last few decades, I wonder if today’s teenagers are having a more passive listening experience. For one thing there is more music. So much more music, and it is everywhere. When I was young good music was scarce. So much so that we referred to it as “underground” music. You had to dig it up. Then, even if you found it, you also had to buy it. So even when I was lucky enough to find a store that carried cool albums I could only afford maybe one new album every month. In those days it was you and 12 tracks for like 30 days. So even if they weren’t that good you’d actively listen to ALL of them many times over.
Contrast this with today’s listening environment. It is ceaseless avalanche of digitized musical masterpieces. In one way this is everything music lovers always wanted. But while the musical abundance is suddenly infinite, our time to listen and enjoy it is more scarce than ever. Naturally this results in a situation where we spend maybe 30 seconds skimming and browsing through an artists ENTIRE LIFE’s WORK, passively waiting for something to jump out and grab our attention. If nothing does, we declare this artist a dud. We then take 1 more second to form a lasting opinion about how we don’t like that artist and proceed to click on the next one. At this rate you can form such superficial opinions about the entire genres of music is a single afternoon. This is passive listening at its worst.
Even when it’s not quite that superficial, I have made it a point to try to spend time with albums or artists’ catalogues the way I used to when I was younger. There is no substitute for listening to a track dozens of times. It is very surprising what you might hear the 12th time that you didn’t hear the first 11 times.
Last thing I’ll say on this topic right now is that NONE of my all-time-favorite records jumped out and grabbed me when I first heard them. In fact the experience was quite the opposite. Almost all my favorite records were ones that I initially found to be confusing, disappointing, obnoxious, boring, or scary. Then as I got to know those records, I was forced to grow and understand them. It is very important to remember that some of there very best music out there is meant not to please you, but to change you. So either chose to go deep, or browse at your own risk.