How to Listen to Music (1)

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I love listening to music. As a schoolboy I used to often go into the music library at the end of the school day and just sit sampling the huge classical CD collection. I also have strong childhood memories of listening to music late at night, in a bid to try and sleep, but also in delight at the various kinds music I was getting to know: the soundtrack to Jurassic Park; REM’s Out of Time and Automatic for the People; Holst, Stravinsky, and Smetana; a recording of Nigel Kennedy playing violin concertos by Bruch and Mendelssohn; American classics; music from The Mission; Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima; Telemann’s Tafelmusik. And now, in midlife, connecting to all kinds of music is still a very important part of my life. But how do you listen well?

I used to love trying to teach undergraduates how to listen to music. A favourite teaching technique is still to just listen to a piece of music with a student, and then discuss it afterwards, freestyle. The conversation can go in many different directions, from more technical aspects of the music to more experiential, personal reactions.

I’ve enjoyed trying to develop the below list of questions to help us listen well. They are based around three dimensions of listening that strike me as reflecting comprehensively why music hits us as it does (lovers of theologian John Frame may recognize an influence here…). First, there is the music itself. What am I hearing as I listen to this particular piece? This is the most obvious part of listening and takes in all the musical details I am hearing. Second, another dimension of the listening experience that is harder to access but nevertheless important is how this music impacts my life. This piece is placed in my life and connects to it in various ways, perhaps evoking different people, places, and memories from my past and present. It may remind me of other music that I love. It may be connected in some way to hopes about my future or may be relevant in other ways to my day that are affecting how I hear. Third, is the area of my emotions and feelings. This is surely the most exciting part of listening and may be the initial motivator behind my choosing this particular music at this particular moment. How does the music make me feel? Have I chosen to listen to it because of some emotional need at this moment? What do I enjoy about the emotions it gives me? Equally important, what makes me feel uncomfortable about this piece, and why? My answers to these questions are always richer if I ask a further question – what is it objectively in the music that explains these reactions I’m having?

Pulling apart the practice of listening like this may seem overkill, as trying to analyse phenomenal experiences tends to diminish or destroy them. And it is not always easy to separate these three areas. They overlap, and questions from one dimension are involved in the answers found in the other two dimensions. The questions are a sample, and not exhaustive. You may spot from how they are worded that I listen to a lot of classical music, but they will work for any musical style. I may use them for future posts to document some of my personal listening. You could try taking these questions to the next music you hear and see if you gain a richer experience from it.

  1. Listening to the music is in itself – why this piece?
  • What am I hearing? Do I like it? Why?
  • Is it a song, with words and music? Which am I listening to first?
  • Colour? Orchestration? Instruments? How to describe what I’m hearing?
  • What instruments or voices can I hear? How many?
  • What kind of piece or song? Genre? Movement? When written? Band?
  • Structure? Verses and chorus? Repetition?
  • Who wrote it? What do I know about them, why and when they wrote it?
  • Which bits of the music am I drawn to? What in the music draws me at those moments?
  • If it’s a song, are there words that I love? How do the words relate to the music?
  • What’s the rhythm I can hear? Time signature? Fast/slow?

2. Listening to how the music relates to my wider life and context – why this piece today?

  • Does this music relate to my situation today?
  • Are there words that link to my life in a wider way?
  • How does it connect me to the rest of my life? Relationships? Places? Work? Does it bring back any specific memories?
  • Does it evoke hope of a particular future or situation for me? Are there words that resonate with my life?
  • Why have I chosen this piece today? What has happened today to make me choose this piece?
  • Does listening cast me back, project me forward, or keep me in the present?
  • Does it remind me of other similar music I know and love, or that want to know?

3. Listening for how the music affects me – why this piece today, how I am at this moment?

  • How does the music make me feel?
  • Why am I listening to this today? Is it meeting a specific emotional need?
  • Why does the music make me feel as it does? What objective qualities of the music or words make me feel as I do?
  • Are there specific moments of the music that I love more than others? Why?
  • How does this music leave me feeling?

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