Enjoy Music More Through Active Listening

            Radio was my childhood's primary music medium. That wooden Zenith console tube receiver in our living room during my grade-school years frequently mixed music into our lives, along with babies crying, the sound of Mom's pressure cooker, and Tommy -- my chatty green and yellow parakeet who would land on the edge of my cereal bowl for a drink of milk. At any moment, any genre from pop to jazz to classical could be spicing up our ambience. We always had music going in our chaotic home.

            After growing up in such a musically-rich environment, I easily chose an elective course titled "Music Appreciation" in my Freshman college year to get a break from all the math, chemistry, and other technical matter. The instructor resembled Captain Kangaroo, the emcee of an early children's television series. He had that same look, with the bushy mustache, Navy blue sport coat with piping on the pockets, portly profile, and unkempt gray hair. I'll refer to him as "KC."

            This Musicologist would arrive in the classroom precisely 5 minutes late, and silently set up his portable phonograph on the desk while completely ignoring us students. With its stereo speakers detached, it looked like a tan, antique suitcase. When all was prepared, he would spin an LP record, unannounced. After a single cut, KC would stop the platter and turn to greet us and begin his lecture.

            What KC taught us in those classes was how to listen to music rather than simply hear it. The difference, he explained, lies in practicing a specific method to help understand the musical structures and to discern and savor the details and musical skills that define a given performance. He also helped us understand how social and cultural music is, by its very nature.

            KC occasionally twirled the ends of his mustache as he paced the room. He presented a survey of American musical history from it's roots in Africa, Ireland, and other origins, up until that mid-1960's era when I took his class. This new knowledge gave us some handles by which we could grasp our musical experience, both intellectually and emotionally. I soon realized I had never really listened to music and I didn't really know what it was all about, quite yet.

            That Music Appreciation course worked a spell in me as I moved from passive to active listening. I began to know and understand what I was hearing. Music came alive for me more than ever before. KC's course marked my entry into musical adulthood. With practice, my new listening skills evolved from awkward application of unfamiliar rules, to an unconscious and effortless perception. Ever afterwards, I experienced music at a far greater depth. I woke up to music in a whole new way and began to fully perceive the vibrant life of emotion it carries outward from gifted performers into our greater culture.

            This watershed learning experience ignited my Hi-Fi audio fascination. Though my future career unfolded technically, my life became permeated with music, the love of listening, and a succession of audio systems that grew smaller, yet sounded ever better, as the years passed.

            KC shared some key concepts and taught us how to use them to good advantage. He called this particular skill simply "active listening." As the music started, we were to engage our perception in a systematic way, attending to five defining musical attributes consciously, one at a time. It was a little like learning to spin plates on sticks like a Chinese juggler and to keep them all spinning. Once we had them all active, the idea was to keep them active for as long as we could. We would listen to the same selection until all plates spun for most of us throughout.

            With some practice, the perceptual juggling became like riding a bicycle -- automatic and unconscious. Then the intent of the composer and performers was being truly realized as the messages in the music crossed time and space to be heard yet again in a new audience. That magic of musical communication was performed with ease, clarity and accuracy that grew with each listening session that KC liberally commented.

            At first, active listening took effort but it was worthwhile because we became enhanced receivers of the gift that music bears. As my class grew in knowledge and skill, we also learned about a music that is uniquely American, a whole new set of genres that came about through the melting pot effect that shaped all else in our culture, including Jazz and Rock.

            This writing is meant to share ideas and skills that KC endowed us with. It's my tribute to his genius, sensibility, and generosity and to Musicology in general. It also celebrates the pure joy of music that each of us gains by learning to listen attentively and developing that "ride a bike" fluency in musical perception. With some pointers, you can achieve this readily if you're willing to practice it. Not all of us have performance talent but given functional­ hearing, we're all able to learn active listening. What would music be without a receptive audience to enjoy it?

Parts of Music

            An analogy to chemistry is helpful in understanding music listening. Most of the universe comprises pure elements, compounds of those atoms, and mixtures of compounds, according to basic chemistry. Elemental atoms join together into the molecules of compounds. Then compounds can be combined into mixtures, some of which are materials that make up everything around us. Elements and compounds can be recombined in new ways, leading to other compounds and to mixtures, and distinctly different, useful materials. So it goes with music. Simpler, little stuff combines and re-combines, creating bigger, more complex stuff.

            All music, no matter what style, or what culture it originates from, comprises the same set of "elemental particles," or musical attributes. These five elements interact in a given piece to create its characteristic signature, identity and personality. They are melody, tempo, rhythm, harmony, and timbres.

  • Melody -- this easiest-to-recognize attribute is the set of tones that occur in a signature sequence. If you want to identify "The Star Spangled Banner," you might hum a couple bars of the melody to illustrate it.
  • Tempo -- is the fundamental timing element of music. This "beat" is the basic rate at which a piece of music is played. This is often carried by percussion instruments. A dirge has a slow, unvaried, monotonous tempo and it's rhythm is quite regular.
  • Rhythm -- The tempo may vary in some regular way, such as having sequential emphasis on some of the notes or some of the beats may be skipped. Thus we distinguish a waltz from a lullaby or recognize syncopation in a jazz piece from other rhythms.
  • Harmony -- musical chords are units of harmony, the simultaneous playing of multiple compatible notes or interlaced melodies that may intuitively sound unified, mutually reinforcing, and aesthetically pleasing.
  • Timbre -- is the a characteristic tonality or "voice" that differs between the same notes played on one instrument versus another, say on an electric guitar as compared to a classical guitar or a lute. Timbres distinguish a clarinet from an oboe. Timbres can express various emotions or moods in voices and instruments alike. Vocal timbres made Sinatra sound like Sinatra.

            Defining these few essential attributes enables us to discover, describe, and distinguish different compositions or different performances of a given composition. Listening to well-known pieces, you can and pick out and describe these elements within them, one by one. You can break down any piece of music into these five elements that help define it.

            Music seems to be an innate ability in humans. Even infants learning to talk already know something about singing.  Every advanced culture evolves a body of music with the same five elements. Yet each tradition can sound quite different from most others. We can easily distinguish Nordic folk songs from Irish tunes or West African pop. What makes Chinese music sound "Chinese" is in these elements and their specific character and proportions.

            Music lives in our very bones yet it may need to be awakened. A music lover develops listening skill by analytically attending to each of these attributes. Listen to Melody, then Tempo and Rhythm, then Harmony, then Timbres, and also switch around between them randomly. Look for variation. Then you can add them together, one by one, until all five become conscious at once while you listen to anygiven composition. This is active, or analytic, listening.

            You can stop listening analytically any time it feels tedious and simply enjoy the music. But an interesting novelty soon becomes apparent. You begin to hear music more fully and enjoy your listening more, even when you're not working at it.

            After some practice, discerning the elements eventually becomes automatic and unconscious. Then, while listening, the trained brain discerns and enjoy the interplay of these elements as they unfold, without especially trying. Learn this listening skill, and you move forward significantly with music appreciation. Gaining this skill is an obvious advancement. It simply makes music listening a richer experience. To become skilled in active listening is to become a virtuoso listener.

Hi-Fi Audio Applications

            Active listening equips us with conceptual language to describe, distinguish and compare various pieces, or recordings, and also audio systems. The pace that one orchestra director uses for a given symphony may distinguish a particular recording from all others we might select as a favorite performance. We can describe the saxophone timbres that Stan Getz commanded and artfully applied to evoke moods in his performances and this can be a basis for a preference. We can distinguish what makes Balinese music sound so exotic to American ears.  We can express why we prefer one audio component, performer, or recording, as compared to another.

            Listening discernment empowers music lovers to also become audio lovers and to enhance quality of music reproduction in their spaces. Once you collect a given set of musical pieces that give your audio system a good workout, that set becomes a useful reference tool for comparing audio components. These days, you can carry that music around with you from one audio boutique to another as you shop by listening analytically.

            If you also attend enough live performances, you become skilled in recognizing the degree of convergence or divergence between live pieces and recorded versions played back through a given component or audio configuration. How much coloration is there compared to listening to the music as-performed? How would you describe the difference in terms of the Five Elements? How does one venue sound as compared to another? What furniture makes your system sound better? And so on.

Final Analysis

            For audio lovers, there's advantage in developing deep listening skills -- you can enjoy music reproduction more than ever before. Assuming good auditory health, once you have developed sufficient listening skills, you will no longer feel much need to seek others' opinions on components or recordings. You'll be equipped to handle such distinctions independently, and your  decisions about audio systems, components, and recordings can then be based on the authority of your own expert perceptions and tastes. You become freed from audio-babble and sales flim-flam because you'll know what sounds better as well as how, and even why.

            This is how professionals operate in the audio business. An ounce of informed, attentive listening is worth more than tons of egoistic, opinionated, rightness-addicted bickering in online forums. It's an open question, philosophically, whether any two people ever really hear music "the same," anyway. To become an audio lover as well as a music lover, application of analytic, active listening skill is the key.

            If the ideal of Hi-Fi audio is to hear music as it sounds in real life, the degree of match we can hear through a component, recording, or system becomes our audio quality benchmark. The final conclusion is this -- to become a true Hi-Fi aficionado, you must learn analytic listening. Without it, you're lost in a sea of music lacking any compass. You also lack sufficient confidence to adequately direct your audio system decisions so you're an easy mark.

            We naturally prefer audio gear and recordings that sound good to our trained ears when they meet our informed preferences. Cultivate your listening skill with care and awareness and music will reward your every effort. So will your music playback systems. And your audio budget will become be spent.

            To wind up this rough guide to music listening, I offer you deep insight into the matter from the world's first and only premier concert percussionist. In case you have not heard of her previously, Dame Evelyn Glennie is a Scottish noblewoman who lost most of her hearing by age 12. Her rise to unique expression is deeply inspiring and instructive to those who want to gain the most from music even without a physical limitation.