What are those instruments playing? Learning how to listen

It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but I love to listen to music.  You could safely assume that all musicians love to listen to music, but you might not know that it can be a really challenging thing to do.   It’s a skill you can practice and improve upon.  My ability to listen to music has improved over my study of music and continues to improve.  It’s not that my hearing has gotten better (it has probably gotten worse), but my brain’s ability to decipher sound has.

This is me, Jordan Gatenby, your Orlando Director of Lessons In Your Home.

The first time I starting listening to music, I mean really listening, was when I was 11 years old.  I remember this because I had finished my first year of guitar lessons and my passion for the Beatles was in full force.  This was the band that made me beg my parent to get me an electric guitar, amp and lessons.  With the beginnings of my understanding of how the instrument works under my belt, I was fascinated that the Beatles could do so much with two guitars, a bass guitar and drums.  Long after my parents thought I went to bed, I pulled out my walk-man and headphones and tried to isolated the individual instruments and hear what each musician was doing rather then a wall of sound.  Separating the two guitars wasn’t terribly hard but I could not hear the bass.  I knew it was played one note at a time and was very low in pitch but I could not hear it.  I played Rubber Soul and Hard Day’s Night over and over trying to get a sonic glimpse of that elusive instrument.  I even watched their live performances hoping that seeing the notes being plucked would guide my ear to rest on the frequency I was seeking.
I still remember the summer day in July, while lying on my bed with my trusty walk-man when the bass revealed itself to me.  I was listening to “Your Mother Should Know,” from the Magical Mystery Tour album when that thumpy and round tone appeared in my ear.  It was its own melody, hiding in plain sight for more then a year.  I quickly popped my favorite tunes into the walk-man, closed my eyes and listened for the newly discovered space, and, like a magic eye image, the hidden sound was there.  Song after song the bass appeared across the board; it was like discovering something new about an old friend.
After more listening, I tried to isolate other sounds like the kick drum, even more elusive then the bass and occupying similar frequencies.  I tried to hear where the two instruments played together in lockstep and where they separated AND what effect did that have on the song?  This became my favorite game… peeling off individual instruments from a piece of music like stringed cheese and isolating them.  THEN, try to put them back together and hear that wall of sound we all hear when we begin to critically listen.
These days, I still challenge myself to hear new things in my favorite songs and there are still new sounds to discover after 20 years!  I listen for things like the scratching of the pick against the wound brass of guitar strings or the ping of the drumstick tapping the ride cymbal.  I suspect and hope I will still be hearing new things in years to come.
What am I trying to say?  I have spent countless hours playing scales in my bedroom and learning new ways to play the same chords.  I have learned a ton from every method book I’ve owed, teachers I’ve known and students I’ve taught.  But I believe I have learned just as much from listening.  I would challenge all music students to learn from listening in addition to their weekly lessons.  Challenge your ears to listen for specific things – to zoom in on details you didn’t know were there.  It will make you a better musician and player… not to mention it’s a renewable resource that reignites your love and admiration of the power of music.

2 thoughts on “What are those instruments playing? Learning how to listen

  1. I am always amazed when you break down a song what each part is doing. I also like slowing down a track which is easy to do with some cool apps no available. Wish they were available when I was a kid.

  2. I agree and I think active listening is SO helpful for students to learn how to play with others in small groups and big ensembles. To know what other people are playing and how your part fits into theirs is the difference between a musician who can and can’t play well with others!

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