My first foray into reproduced music was as a listener. I enjoy listening to different types of music, and like most people I did not have much musical training as a child. I dabbled briefly with the saxophone and piano. While in college I was introduced to the joys of fine audio reproduction in the home, and it was a staggering difference from the middle fidelity reproduction that I had grown up with as a child listening to the radio and/or mass-market stereo systems.
Once I had a job that paid the bills and provided me with discretionary income, I began to feed that hobby by purchasing additional equipment, such as better compact disc players, better amplification devices, loudspeakers, and cables. In that quest there was always something baffling to me, and one of these points was that my friends could always hear “better” than I could hear. They were always pointing out subtle note changes, or tonal balances, that were not immediately obvious to me. Eventually, frustrated with not being able to discern these subtleties, I marked it down as poor hearing and blamed my genetics.
This same idea permeates audio communities, wherein people assert that some people have “golden ears” and others do not. They state that some people are just better at hearing than others, and that is just the way that it is with no recourse. The fact is that some people do hear better than other people, but that is not the end of the story. I can happily report that your ears (or perhaps your brain) can be trained to hear more in the music, and it is surprisingly easy to change.
The fastest way to learn to listen is to be surrounded by music, and the more varied the music the better off you will become at listening. Your ears are incredibly sensitive instruments, and your brain can quickly adapt and store new information. By exposing yourself to more music, your brain will collect and categorize these new sounds. You will effectively build a library of sounds in your head that you can use at later dates.
I bought myself an inexpensive mandolin and started practicing every day. These daily practices sensitized myself to how that instrument sounded. When I first started, I could not tell if the instrument was in tune or not. But after about a year of intense practice, I could tell if it was in tune and could get closer to the proper tuning simply by playing and listening myself to my tone. For me, this was a huge achievement that I never thought I could perform. But it happens, slowly, and gradually, every single day that you familiarize yourself with the sound. I’ve since started playing acoustic bass, and although it sounds completely different, I picked up its sound much faster. Once you open that door to better hearing, your brain quickly adapts to new sounds.
It is important that one become immersed in the sound to pick up the benefits. For example, I spent twenty years casually listening to music and my listening skills frankly stunk. As a result I could not hear very well at all. Once I started investing more time and effort into “deeper” listening sessions, I began to pick up more nuances of sounds. This requires a concentrated effort to actually listen to the music as opposed to having music playing peripherally in the background.
When I want to listen attentively, I will find myself a comfortable chair, turn on some music, turn off the television, computer, and other background distractions, and try to follow the musical passages as they occur. If you are playing, just let your brain work with the music. If I am listening to a favorite song, sometimes I close my eyes and let the music “wash” over me. The key is to provide as much undivided attention to the music as you can without being distracted by other sounds, images, or other stimuli.
Anyone who has spent some listening with a concentrated focus can tell you that there are many ways to listen. For instance, one can listen for certain tones, or music passages, or the cohesive sound of many instruments at once. One can listen for spatial cues, or other non-tonal characteristics. And one can listen for sheer musical enjoyment. The latter is of supreme importance. It is important to listen for enjoyment so that this becomes a pleasurable exercise. When trying to train your ears, do not stress them out! There is nothing to be gained by not enjoying music – if anything you will listen less attentively and less often. Find music you enjoy, and immerse yourself in it. Even if it is a musical score on a television program, it can still be enjoyable, and the ultimate goal is to listen well so that you can enjoy the music and not just be listening to the sounds.
To demonstrate how important it is to listen attentively let me provide the following personal experience. I play in a band, and as I stated earlier, I play the acoustic bass. As a bass player, I am responsible for following the drum rhythms and for setting up the rhythm guitars and the soloists to achieve a better sound. If done properly, that requires a lot of effort on many different tasks. One of these is to listen to yourself and make sure that you are playing in rhythm and in time to the other players. As such, while I am exposed to listening to guitars constantly, I still cannot easily distinguish the major guitar chords from each other. For example, after five years, I cannot always tell a “G” from a “A” on a guitar. But I do know these differences on the bass. The ability to distinguish these chords on my bass from a guitar comes down to attentive listening.
Because I practice bass, and listen to make sure that I get a good tone and solid rhythm, I have to pay attention. While it is important that I play in time with guitars, it is not absolutely necessary to listen to them, and I pay less attention to the sound of the guitar. As I get better at playing bass, I find myself listening less to myself and more attentively to sound and flow of the rest of the band. This is exactly how this type of training occurs -- gradually and with great repetition.
The good news is that once you start this type of training, it reinforces itself and can become second nature. More familiarity with your instrument leads to more familiarity with other instruments, other sounds, and other music. Second, because one cannot turn off one’s hearing, the benefits quickly spill over into all other areas of life. Being able to listen attentively is a great skill that can help you in many ways. It can also help you understand better how music is composed, how musical structures are used, and therefore how to use these skills in recording your own music.
If you like making music, good listening is a key skill. Give yourself the best opportunity to increase your musical satisfaction by becoming a better listener.