Monday, January 9, 2012

How Do You Listen?

I had a bit of a conversation the other day that got me to thinking about the way we listen to music. (I say a "bit" of a conversation because it was Twitter and you may have noticed that I am far too verbose to have a truly satisfying conversation in 140 characters or less at a time.) Anyway, it started differently but the part that started my synapses firing was a distinction between passive listeners and active listeners. I had never really thought of it like that and, more importantly, I had never considered that the actual artists might think of it like that.

In the aforementioned conversation I was oddly honored to be classified as an active listener.  But when I think about it, I guess it really is true.  Much to the chagrin of my husband (or anyone else who tries to eat a meal or have a conversation with me where music is playing...even quietly), it is very rarely ever just background noise to me.  More than once I have blurted out, "Oh, I love this song!" and then commenced to singing whatever was playing at a time when my husband didn't even realize there was music on.  I never miss it, it always gets my attention. 

But just having music grab my attention isn't enough.  When I listen to something, I like to really get inside it.  I've said before, music can be a tangible thing, a place where you can go and wander around and I like to do that as often as possible.  There are so many layers to it, you are not doing it justice if you don't at least try to hear them all.  For me, the first thing is the vocal.  The vocal has to be something I want to listen to, it has to have an effect on me in some way.  If there is no sincerity, or if it's just plain bad, then it doesn't matter what the music is doing behind it, I won't keep listening.  Then comes the lyrics - this is what I'll have to change if I ever want to really appreciate Bob Dylan, I have to put the lyrics before the vocal.  Anyway, the lyrics are second in order of what draws me to a song, but first in line of things that keep me.  I love the shit out of lyrics.  I like a clever turn of phrase, or a double meaning, or an unexpected surprise.  I know the words to an absolutely absurd number of songs and that's only because I pay attention to them so much that they just sink in.  It can't be helped.

Then there is the music itself.  It can be as simple as an acoustic guitar that feels like it's being played with your heart strings to an elaborate orchestral arrangement.  The music has a big job - it has to support the vocal, but not overpower it.  It builds the structure around the lyrics, it protects them, supports them, gives them a place to hang out and relax.  I love the way the drums and pianos interact and how the guitar just blankets them and pulls it all together.  The jingle of a tambourine in the beat hooks me every single time.  The emotion of a song is really just as wrapped up in the music as it is in the lyrics and the vocal. 

Honestly, it blows me away that not everyone hears music this way.  I suppose it is the difference between hearing it and listening to it.  I wan to know what's going on inside there and I want to take it in and let it do what it does.  I'm not saying that you can't enjoy music without having a religious experience every time you listen to something, I don't mean that at all, because I surely don't.  I listen to music all day long at work and it is forced to be in the background because, you know, I'm at work.  But really, I don't think you're giving the music (or the artists, for that matter) the respect it deserves if you just let it go in one ear and out the other all the time.  Sometimes you need to just sit down with a song or better yet, an entire record, and just eat it up and digest it.  Let it change you.  Being affected is not a bad thing.  If you don't ever take the time to really feel it, you're the one who is missing out.


  1. The hubby and I have had this conversation so many times it's not funny. He and I are both very active listeners. We don't just hear the music we feel it and live it. It becomes a part of us. We have often said that we don't get how someone can say they love music and be a passive listener. We know people like this and it boggles my mind.

    Laura (sameinanylingo @ Twitter)

    1. I don't understand it either. My husband has always been of the "in one ear, out the other" variety, but he's never claimed to be the kind of music fan that I am. I'm working on him though, I think he's starting to see the light. :-)