Practicing music is often thought of as a purely physical thing. We imagine the masters slaving over their instruments for endless hours to develop a level of technical skill and precision that allows them to play like they do. With so much focus on technique, it’s easy to forget that our ultimate limitation is what we can hear. All the music that we make begins in our minds ear before we ever express it on our instrument. Listening teaches us what is possible to play and expands our mind’s ear.
When we start to think of listening as part of our practice, a few things change. Suddenly we’re spending a lot more time practicing than we thought we were and we don't need our instrument to practice. But it also demands that we think about listening in a new way. While we should never abandon our casual music listening habits, we need to train ourselves to listen to music in a more focused way so we can learn more from what we’re hearing. By learning to do this, any time we’re listening to music -- in the car, at a party, or in a waiting room -- becomes an opportunity to develop as a musician.
"...the answer to all your questions is in your living room. Your CD or record collection contains the history, theory and practice of Jazz [and modern music]."
Below I have outlined a method for close listening that touches on multiple strategies in a step-by-step guide. Learning to listen in this way applies directly to many other musical skills from transcription to ensemble performance.
After you've listened to your songs, listen to as many different kinds of music as possible from a variety of genres, countries, and cultures. With every new type of music you hear, you expand the possibilities of what you can play. Don’t limit yourself to the music you think you like. Though there are only 12 notes in the western musical tradition, more types of music have been written using them than you could ever imagine, much less listen to in a lifetime. And the Western musical tradition is only one of many. In the age of the internet and limitless free music there is no excuse for being musically closed-minded.
There are some especially important genre’s that every musician should be aware of. Jazz is a genre that has remained on the cutting edge of Western music since it was invented. I guarantee you there is an era or sub-genre of Jazz that you will enjoy – find it! (Try Mahavishnu, Robert Glasper, or Donald Byrd). Hip Hop, Reggae, and Afro-Cuban music are also very important influences on North American music. To really widen your perspective, listen to Gamelan, Indian classical, or Tuvan throat singing.
Since I first published this article, I've posted some genre and instrument-specific playlists here on the blog. If you're looking for a place to get started with your listening look no further! Here are some links to the relevant posts:
Harmonica: Essential, Kid-Friendly Listening for Beginners
Twelve Bar Blues: A Tutorial and Playlist
Eric is a musician, audio engineer, educator, and radio nerd based in Seattle, WA.