Get the Most Out of Your Listening Experience

May 13, 2015

This blog has devoted a lot of time over the last year or so discussing the benefits that music has shown to have on the mind, the body, and the soul. While it is true that most of the benefits we’ve talked about are best obtained through an education in music (reading, playing, or making), many other benefits come from simply listening to music, and allowing yourself to be carried away by it. But how often do you actually listen to music? I’m not talking about playing something with a beat while you clean house, or when you play something soothing in the car during rush hour; I mean when was the last time you sat down, maybe with a cup of coffee or tea, put your feet up, and really listened to something?
If you’re like most adults here at the beginning of the 21st century, the answer might elude you for a while as you go back into those memory banks. The ebb and flow of modern life does a great job of keeping us active, keeping us connected, and keeping us plugged in, but to really benefit from the positive power of music you’ve got to unplug from the rest of the world, and take some time to allow music to light up the dark parts of your brain.
With so little free time available to most people, many have actually either lost, or never learned, the ability to really give themselves over to music, and truly listen. So as silly as it may seem, this week we’re going to talk about how to listen to music.

If you’re anything like me, and I assume most people, you’ve got your own personal list of favourites. You probably listen to artists from this select list fairly regularly, religiously even. Just for laughs, try sitting down and listening to something different. If you’re into rock, try an opera. If you prefer country, give rap a try. This is a time to sit, relax, and try something new. Let the music wash over you and really listen to it; the beat, the melody, the lyrics if there are any. Listening to a musical genre that is outside of your normal playlist may be a little uncomfortable at first, but this change can have interesting effects on the brain, promoting inspiration and creativity, all while giving different opportunities for learning. And even if you don’t feel these changes or effects, don’t give up! With the speed today’s world moves at, we often judge things around us way too quickly, especially things that are new and different to us. A good way to defeat this way of thinking with music is the “3 listens” approach. This technique is exactly what it sounds like: give a new genre or album 3 good listens. This might not make you change your opinion about every kind of music, but if you are open to the experience, it might give you a more positive opinion of a wider range of artists and styles.

Once you’ve made your genre selection, what exactly should you be doing while the music is playing? What should you be listening for? To answer the first question, ideally, you should be doing very little: relaxing, having a drink, enjoying the music. As for the second, the answer comes from Aaron Copland, who wrote a short book in 1939, titled What to Listen for in Music. Copland broke music down to four fundamental elements that you can listen for.

The first of Copland’s fundamental elements of music is rhythm and meter. Listen for the speed of the music. Does it move slowly? Is it fast? Or is it somewhere in the middle? Listen for the downbeat and see if you can identify the meter; for example, is the song easily divided into “one-two-three-four” or “one-two-three” over and over. Try to identify specific rhythms that repeat throughout, and listen for rhythms strung together in exciting ways, or layered on top of each other. Rhythm and meter are basic, but can be used in a huge variety of different ways depending on the genre, the writer, the artist, and even the recording.

The second fundamental element of music you’ll want to pay special attention to is the melody. This is the part of popular music people are most familiar with. The melody is almost always the vocal part in modern popular music, but it doesn’t have to be the lyrics. Regardless of which band member is responsible for the melody it can be critical for a song’s success or failure. And this success or failure isn’t just a matter of what the notes are, but where they go in relation to each other, and the other parts of the music. Melodies can have infinite variations, limited only by the artists’ own imagination and creativity, so it is arguably the most exciting element of music to listen to. Consider the number of notes in a certain passage. Listen for the range in pitches performed; are notes of similar pitches grouped together, or do they play all over the page? There are so many elements to listen for, you’ll no doubt have fun exploring both new and old favourites.

Copland’s third fundamental element of music that you’ll want to listen for is harmony. While rhythm and melody move across sheet music, you might think of harmonies as stacks of notes that appear vertically on the page. While you were focusing on the melody, did you hear a single instrument playing a single line of notes, or was the melody full of the voices of other instruments, weaving among and playing with other notes and pitches? Do all the instruments sound like they are playing similar notes, staying closely together, or are their sounds moving about more freely? Harmonies add layers and depth to music, and can be as varied and complex as any melody.

The fourth of Copland’s fundamental musical elements to listen for is probably the most subjective: colour and texture. What Copland was referring to is that each instrument has it’s own unique range of “colours” even while producing similar pitches. To better understand this consider the bright metallic sound of the flute compared to the mellow, warm tones of an acoustic guitar. Which instruments are chosen to represent each element of a piece can have an impact on the overall emotion the song conveys. Think about the piano: it has 88 different possible pitches and is usually a very melodic instrument. However, the piano can also be used rather percussively, completely changing its perceived attitude, and the colour and texture of the song itself.

Listening to music can be a much more dynamic and active exercise than most people allow it to be. The things we’ve discussed here are just a starting point, a diving board into the deep end of musical appreciation, if you will. The more you take the time to really listen to both new music and old favourites, the more you will discover and learn. Eventually you’ll be picking out individual instruments and listening to how they interact with the rest of the band. You’ll be noticing nuanced beats and bass lines. You’ll be enjoying your music more, and getting more out of each musical experience.