Good music makers are also good music listeners. Some people intuitively soak up information and internalize it naturally, while others struggle to decipher it and analyze its components. But, no matter where you lie on the spectrum of gifted/struggling analysis, it never hurts to be a better listener.
I grew up hearing about “active reading”–asking yourself questions as you read, challenging assumptions, validating/refuting claims with your own knowledge/experience, looking up words/topics with which you are unfamiliar, etc. But I rarely heard about active listening until I encountered “vertical time” music in college–most notably the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, and a vast host of others. Their music puts your mind into a trance of stasis, where musical events either happen so slowly, so softly, so repetitively, or so sparsely that one loses a connection between events, and time seems to pass very slowly. Events line up with one another more on a plane of time rather than a line. These pieces give the listener time and mental resources to ask oneself questions, and to have an active mind in the (mostly) inactive music. This is where active listening can be learned the easiest, as this music begs for it.
Active listening is extremely useful in all music, but I get better at it best through music that throws me into a trance–minimalism, long and slow tones, and music with ample silence. Let’s get started with this foray into active listening with any piece of music to which you might be keen on listening at this moment. Please note that active listening is a personal experience, so many of you will have different experiences and different needs during listening.
Component A: Observing
Investigate the basic components of the piece of music to which you are listening. Pull out melodies, harmonies, rhythms, motives, texture, orchestration, color, the way the composer uses the instruments/voices, and the apparent form of the piece, etc. (all parameters as applicable to the piece, some may not present themselves).
Investigate further: a storyline, progression of the last paragraph’s components, the general mood of the piece, the other salient characteristics of the piece, the defining marks of it.
Component B: Questions
In your head, ask yourself basic questions such as:
Where is this line leading?
Where is the form heading?
What harmonic palette is this piece using?
What are the basic materials of this piece?
How is color used?
What common devices are present (eg. cadences, traditional vs. nontraditional instruments, quotation, common rhythmic figures, technology)?
…Then progress to more in-depth questions:
Am I being manipulated by the music? How is this making me feel?
Is there a definable goal of this piece?
What makes sense to me? What doesn’t make sense? Why does or doesn’t it make sense?
What is trying to be conveyed?
What are the performers doing–is there emotion involved, technical prowess, a certain philosophy ascertainable from their performance?
…And continue to more global questions:
What do I enjoy or not enjoy about this piece? Why is this so?
Is there an agenda behind the music? (DSCH used for this question.)
Where does this music fit, in both its immediate context, and the overall scheme of music today?
How “relevant” is this music and performance?
What is usual, and what is unusual about this piece and performance?
What are similar musics I have encountered? Am I interested enough by this piece to seek out similar musics that I haven’t encountered?
How would I concisely explain this music to a fellow musician? To a non-musician?
Component C: Follow-up
Find some reading, a review, another recording/performance, a video on YouTube, etc. of the work you observed and compare through the same process. Jot down notes of music like this to which you might like to listen in the future, and any opinions and conclusions you have made from your work about the piece and about your personal appreciation of the piece.
Active listening shouldn’t be a boring activity that you do begrudgingly and work on like a project. Make it your own, and follow what interests you the most, so that it is a fun exercise in getting more of what you want out of the music you love or music of which you haven’t heard much. Mix and match components A-C and their subparts, and let it be a fluid, intuitive set of observations and queries into music in order to get more from it. Don’t make it harder than it is; it may be unusual at first but gets intuitive fast.
Questions? Comments? I appreciate any and all thoughts.
Thanks for reading,