How to practice active listening?

You play music on your phone during your commute, workout, to put you to sleep etc. In other words, music tends to remain the background, rather than the main activity. In these cases, you’re in the passive listening mode. However, in order to make progress in learning music, you have to shift your focus fully to the music, and make it your task at hand. Being an intentional listener means putting music through an analysis lens that gives you lots of insights into how to play, write and produce music (or simply appreciate music better!). 

Should you listen to the music you hate?

As a leisure activity, music listener seeks for what they like. It seems obvious: If you don’t like a genre, why bother? However, that line of thinking limits you from developing your musicality. 

I’ve learned that the world of music is so vast that it’s ok to say It’s not my thing and I don’t care for it. Around the teenage years, I’ve pushed myself to expose to different kind of artistic experiences at large, and music specifically so I can cultivate a sense of fit and unfit. When I came to the US over 4 years ago, my repertoire expands enormously. Not just acknowledging, but being able to articulate different genres of music and the way they differ, some might be even really disturbing to my ears, feels like a stepping stone to me. I don’t actually know when the filtering process happens, aka when my ears finally decide that they like this but not that, but I rest assured that I couldn’t come remotely close to fully develop my musical language without early exposure to a variety of stuffs. 

When you have a chance, seek for discomfort!! 

I resist the urge to switch the first time I stumble onto some piece I don’t like. I try to fact check if that’s a significant piece for its genre, and see if there’s anything I can learn from it. Like or Hate is a very personal judgement, but extending the learning experiences has always been my goal. 

Below is my approach for active listening. I break it down into 2 parts: emotional and mechanical. Those two are not easy to separate, as they go hand in hand, but there’s a more technical level to the mechanical component of music listening, that I’ll explain further: 

1. Emotional

The primary encounter of you and music is emotion. That’s how you resonate to the melody, harmony, form and rhythm. 

  • How does it make you feel: sad, happy, nostalgic, euphoric? 

Start generic, but as you travel down the listening process, ask deeper questions regarding what kind of mood a song creates, what context of the song/the songwriter that gives it such meaning to you? If you have heard the song before, where was it: a holiday concert? A TV commercial? A military march? Is it the original song or is it a stylized rendition?  How does the energy of the song switches half way? (I like to call it “the edge” as some songs are able to move you from one emotional stage to another with much or little transition). 

  • What part explains your emotions: cheesy lyrics? tempo? key? chords? 
  • What do you like about that song?: Is that a solo? Is it a line? 
  • What you don’t like about that song? 

The common sense is simple: If I like it, it’s good. If I don’t like it, it’s bad. However, answering the questions above help me look past my taste, to a point where I’m comfortable saying: It’s not my thing, I don’t “get” it, but I’m able to define my emotional response to a certain part of the song. 

To do: Go look for different version of the same song, played in different keys, switched up from Minor to Major, in different genre. What do you notice? Did you expect a certain emotional response, but then the different version throws you totally of curve? What is the specific thing that doesn’t “go well” (or, as expected)? 

Check out Musicmasher: The website crawls Spotify, Soundcloud, Youtube and Bandcamp to suggests results to you. 

2. Mechanical

Time to ‘decode’ a song on a tactical basis:

  • What is the chord progression? If you would replace some notes, what would it be?  
  • What scale, mode is the song in? 

I often resort to jazz/blues for reference, since those genres offer prosperous musical expression through rhythm and chord progressions. 

Put on your engineering hat/producer hat and start paying attention to the physical details of the music: frequency, dynamics, timber, texture. 

  • How many instruments can you recognize? Any instrument that stands out? Any that is overpowered? 
  • How does the music moves? Does some instrument sound further or closer? For some genre, or a clearer mix, you might find it easier to distinguish different frequency. The point is not to find a defined answer, but to get you used to picking up nuances in a song. 
  • Is the mix compressed, or open and dynamic? Did you notice any sound effect, any loop? 
  • Does the song feel bright, rich, or dry? What would you change in the frequency? 

Check out my article (in Vietnamese) on 7 elements of music.

How to enrich your music repertoire?

  • Attend a local concert. 

It might suck. I get it. But what’s the worst outcome of it? Maybe you waste 1hr of you doing something else. Maybe you’re out with friends that you haven’t seen in a long time and it’s a let down. But in the scheme of thing, 1hr is too cheap of a price to pay to challenge your concept of Like/Dislike. To help you minimize that risk, SofarSounds curates 3 artists, playing 4 songs each, in different genres of music in an evening. The location is indie, intimate, but you won’t discover about it until a few hours before the show (but you do know which neighborhood it is). The artist lineup is also left to your surprise. Even if you don’t like the music, you still can walk away knowing that you had a good show.

  • Use Spotiy/Pandora/Youtube suggestion 

I’m personally a fan of Spotify. Their Discovery features allow you to listen to music of adjacent genre, or artist. You can pick music depending on your mood. The Friend Activity bar helps me try the music that my friend is listening, that I might not otherwise listen. 

  • Ask a music junkie/music teacher/people on the internet

I wouldn’t recommend much ranting to “people on the internet”, but in case you feel like, I’ve answered a bunch of music questions on Quora.

Check out my article on:

Let me know in the comment, what new genre have you explored lately? What delighted/displeased you about it?

P.S: The photo is from Salesforce Tower, 61st floor, the tallest building in San Francisco! It has 360 view of the city, pretty neat!

In the meantime, I’m working on a few more articles about listening in a specific genre of music. Sign up to be noticed when it’s published!

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