As you read the site faithfully, day after day, week after week, no doubt the unfo
rtunate majority of you languor impotently in the infinite blackness of your own allegorical musical caves, with nigh but the shadows cast from the glow of your monitor to signal the form of anything substantive.
You wonder, tearing out your hair, how can I attain such understanding? Such knowledge? Such unerring insight? In short, you can’t.
However, that doesn’t excuse my obligation to at least try to pull you from the fetid bog of Top 40 pop music, and so I’ve prepared a few tips for developing your own brand of close listening.
Develop a first-listen ritual. The impression that you get from an album the first time you listen to it, for obvious reasons, heavily affects the probability of future listens, and hence the depth you can plumb it. More challenging albums are likely to be eschewed in favor of traditional radio fodder based off of helter skelter track skipping and
attention gaps, and let’s face it, if that’s what you want, there are better ways to spend your time.
So the idea, then is to have an organized and consistent way of listening to an album that allows the album to, so to speak, “make its case,” while being certain you experience it in a cohesive manner. Only after a thorough initial listen (though there are exceptions) can you adequately determine whether or not you’re willing to spend more time exploring it.
For example, I personally listen to an album exactly as it was laid by the engineers, starting with the first and ending with the last. I feel that this gives me the most accurate impression intended by the artists, and has the added benefit of being simple and automatic.
Contrarily, my brother begins by listening to the song that initially attracted him the most to the album as a means to “remember” why he was interested at all. From that point he listens to the remainder of the album, and then goes back to listen to the early songs he missed. This is useful in that you immediately begin with a good impression, and it’s not necessarily complicated either.
Pay attention. I’m not kidding. At first you may think that oh, he’s just being obscenely pretentious, but consider: we listen to music while we work, while we eat, while driving, even sleeping. I know that when I’m driving, the music that I’m listening to is a distant tertiary priority as I attempt to navigate amid the SUVs and minivans barreling down the highway, feeling a bit like Simba during that all too tragic stampede.
The reality is that enjoying music has ceased to become a meaningful primary activity. So make sure you’re really willing to listen to the music if you want to get something out of it. Whether that’s lying in your bed listening to headphones (but awake!) or sitting on your floor blaring it over the sound system, pay attention.
Read lyrics, if available. This is very helpful for two major reasons. The first is as an addendum to the previous point; reading along with the lyrics in your liner notes or from a website is a convenient means of focusing your attention on the task at hand.
Secondly, lyrics are half of the music in songs that feature them (for those that don’t, you’re on your own). Well written and placed lyrics can change the entire face of a song, or vice versa. For many of us, lyrics were the first way we engaged with music on a level deeper than the surface. Sadly, however, for many this is the extent of their close listening–something that we at MT are hopefully remedying.
Develop a listening heuristic. This one may be less obvious, especially to those who, depressingly, have no idea what a heuristic is. To define the term plainly, it’s halfway between a guess and a rigid formula, and that’s about where you have to be if you want to be a close listener–mostly because that paradoxic gray area is where music happens. As you move deeper and deeper into the heart of the song, album, or whatever, you’ll need to have a plan to make sense of it all but always stay flexible. This flexibility is what separates this step from the first-listen rituals but what makes this step virtually endless.
A macroscopic example is of a listening heuristic is the way I tend to approach difficult albums. For example, Radiohead’s Kid A. Those of you who read the review will know that I absolutely treasure this disc, but it was not immediately the case. On my first-listen, there were perhaps two (2) songs that I could definitively say that I liked. The rest, put bluntly, was just too weird–I had never heard anything like it. So what I’d do is start the album from the beginning, listen to what I could before I became bored or overwhelmed, and skip to the first track that I liked. After listening to that track, I would then let the album continue as far as I could, as before, and then skip to the next. And so on. Little by little, as my brain processed the alien sounds, I found chunks of songs that I liked. And whole songs. And, after much effort, I had mentally excavated one of the best albums I’d ever heard.
But imagine if I’d stopped at the first challenging listen?
Another example of a heuristic I use is during my approach to individual tracks, one I call “isolate and integrate,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. As I’m listening to a piece of music, after I’ve grasped the overall gist of the song, I focus in turn on each individual instrument or section in no particular order: the guitars, drums, synthesizers, maybe there are violins, the bassline. And after I’ve followed that section for a while, I again return my focus to the whole sound, with a new appreciation and awareness for an individual instrument’s contribution to the arrangement, thus deepening my experience and understanding of the song.
So will these pieces of advice help you to become an expert musical analyst? Probably not, but then again I’ve been wrong before (only once, but who even remembers 1969?) Of one thing I am certain, though:
It can’t hurt to try.