Active Listening to Feed a Career
You’re an artist. You spend hours writing, recording, and promoting. But how much do you actively listen to music? Yeah, weird question. But it’s those basic ones that get you thinking. Over the past few years, I’ve benefitted from asking myself this, and I’d like to share a few ideas in hopes of directly improving your own music.
The Music Library
When I was a tenager, I read a memorable quote: You are what you listen to. Want to play Blues? Listen to Blues. Need a jazzy flair? Spin some Blue Note records. I’ve always liked this idea. Around the same time in life, one of my music teachers told me that my music library should be as extensive as my bookshelf.
But, it was one Easter Sunday that I’ll always remember as a turning point. My family was visiting for the holiday, and my mother remarked with surprise “You’re a musician…why don’t you have a stereo set up?” In a huff (as I often get when she’s right), I responded that my laptop speakers fit the bill just fine…and in retrospect, I think I had a limited rotation of fifty songs on Spotify that was my primary playlist. I had always had a wide range of tastes, but I was relatively passive in my listening and curation of the music available to me.
I’m glad to say I’ve fixed that in my own way. Just a few years later, my living room is home to two home-built floor to ceiling shelves housing my vinyl collection, a reel-to-reel tape player, and a vintage stereo receiver gifted by my uncle. My listening habits have dramatically improved, and from the fun of “crate digging” (hunting for new vinyl) to the new influences in my songwriting and production, the benefits of active listening have made a marked difference in my career. (And, I’ve since apologized for being grouchy to my mom.) My guitar students have had to put up with my obsession for collecting music, but in the meantime, kids get to hear The Beatles and BB King in addition to the modern hits. But the music library only goes so far. One need to listen.
What makes the Motown sound? How does Uptown Funk pay tribute to everything groovy? Why do the Doobie Brothers sound so white? The microphone picking up just a hint of the room noise and how it opens at the beginning of the Kind of Blue album…did Jeff Buckley like that? Did he copy that in Hallelujah? (I love using that in my recordings.)
Questions like this not only improve our ear, but can have direct and dramatic effect on our songwriting and production. By the way, active listening can take place anywhere, but if you haven’t lately, sit quietly with some headphones (and no smartphone or book) and listen to an album.
Where to Start
Well, duh, you like music. You’re a musician. Try this one for size, though. For the next week, use three words to tailor your listening experience for results in your artistry: Depth, Breadth, and Application.
Listen and determine why you enjoy a piece of music (or, also importantly, why you don’t.) What mics do you think they’re using? How does the arrangement support the vocalist? Would it sound better with a woman or man singing it? Those chords the piano player is comping – why are they choosing those notes, and do you voice your own like that? Can you play that lick the guitarist is using?
When listening, ask yourself questions about:
- Production – how did they capture this sound?
- Writing – how did they invent this sound?
- Performance – how did they play this sound?
- Historical Context – what did this sound mean at the time (and now?)
- Application – how can I get this sound?
Just as a balanced diet is important for a healthy lifestyle, so too is a varied listening diet important for musical growth. Besides, there’s a whole world out there – why wouldn’t you find something outside of your preferred genre to bring back “home?” I’ve had success mixing cliches from one style into a radically different genre. The licks themselves weren’t terribly fresh, but the context was, much like wearing sneakers with a tuxedo. Listen to everything!
If you are near a radio often, program the presets for a range of styles. My car radio has settings for Classic Rock, Jazz, Bluegrass, Classical, Latin, Pop, and Modern Rock. (I need to add country and rap, I know!)
An idea: Listen to at least five different genres a day, preferably wide-ranging. Make sure one of those styles is an “eat your vegetables” genre, something with a high level of musicianship such as classical or jazz. (I also like to throw in some “dessert” of bubblegum pop, and a “vintage wine” of Sinatra or big band, personally.) Ask yourself: what does each style teach you?
Next time you sit down to write, produce, play, or compose…see if you can add one element of something that you’ve heard during your recent active listening. For you singer-songwriters listening to jazz, try substituting some 7th chords in your usual strumming. Jazz guitarists: try some distortion that you heard in that industrial metal. Vocalists: try downloading an app on your phone that lets you create sounds other than your voice. The point is: transfer what you’ve heard to your art, and use the lessons to get outside of your routine.
Of course you like music. Of course you listen closely. However, one can always listen closer. One can always find something new, and bring it back to their art. And, one can always buy one more record. (Oh man, trust me on that one. It’s getting to be a problem!) I encourage you to listen just a bit closer to your favorites, and go out of your way to find some new songs. I think you’ll be surprised at the results! And, one more thing: you don’t have to buy a fancy stereo, or own a turntable, or even listen to music. The birds, the wind, and your friend’s story will all provide inspiration. Listen closely. Closer. Closer. And rock on!