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What are you listening to when it comes to music?

What music did you listen to today? Was it one of your favorite songs, albums or compilations? Was it something you listen to often? Once you’ve got that figured out, ask yourself a few more questions. Beyond practicing your instrument, writing your music and managing the business side of things, how are you nurturing your ears and your inspirations? Just as you needed books in school to provide you with a vocabulary that would allow you to write, you need to listen to music in the same way. It’s about connecting with what you like but also listening to where it comes from.

In some ways it’s like vitamins—musical supplements. While you might prefer big band jazz, it can be educational to listen to other styles, like pop, country and Latin, to name a few. Even crooners like Frank Sinatra listened to and even covered artists like the Beatles. It’s about understanding what inspires you, but also about being a student of music, which means listening to as much as you can, even the stuff you don’t like.

While you might not enjoy this style or that genre, it can be beneficial to consume it, just like your vegetables when you were a kid. They didn’t taste that good, but they were brain food and they helped you grow big and strong—you know the old hype. In the same way, listening to something you don’t particularly enjoy is brain food. It can give you a better understanding of its successful elements as well as clarity in why you don’t like it. Personal knowledge along these lines will make you a stronger musician, writer and communicator when you’re asking someone to play something a certain way or even describing it yourself.

It’s easier than ever to listen to more than ever.

With Youtube, Itunes and countless artist websites, it’s easier than ever before to listen to and find music. From samples to full albums, there’s a pretty good chance it’s on the internet or possible to get a hold of. Researching music is much easier as well. Since it’s literally at your fingertips, why not commit at least ten to fifteen minutes a day to finding, learning about and listening to both new and old music?

It’s true: everyone has their favorites, and I know there are times when I can put on an old album and just listen to it a few times in a row. In many ways that’s the joy of music. That can also be educational. Still—add the learning, the exploring and the searching to your day. Find out about the past. Figure out the influences of your favorite bands and check them out. Hell, find out the influences of their influences and dig back even further. You might be surprised at what you learn and also what you like. As they say, try it before you say you hate it. Some of you probably didn’t mind the cauliflower after all—once you finally ate it.

A fellow ranter’s thoughts

Scott Ross, one of my favorite engineers and owner of Elliott Bay Recording Company in Seattle, sums it up perfectly: “If you are going to be in the music industry you have to know some damn music history. You don’t have to like Elvis, but you better know who he is. If you are a drummer you better know who Gene Krupa is. If you are a bass player, you better know who Abe Laboriel is. If you are a trumpet player, you better know who Maynard Ferguson is. If you don‚Äôt know who these people are, how can you connect yourself with the history of your instrument to know where it came from yesterday and where you are bringing your sound, approach or ideas to today.

It’s crucial to know the past. There are many different opinions on what drummer was the most talented and who was the best bass player and so on and so forth. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not about learning who was the best, the most famous, the most this or that, or spending too much time absorbing an entire catalog of music, though you might find an artist or musician who inspires such a pursuit. The point is to become familiar with these artists and to have a basic understanding that allows you a broader view as a whole and will make you a better musician, listener and student of music.

Compare, contrast and explain

It’s interesting how many people out there claim they’re doing something that has never been done before. Maybe they talk about how they can’t be compared to anyone at all and they are totally original. I have talked to way too many artists who claim they sound like no one else, and once I turn them on to a track or an album from some band they never knew about, even they can hear the similarities. This can go for bands, artists and even individual musicians.

I remember about eighteen years back when drummers were going nuts over Carter Beauford. Now don’t get me wrong, the guy burns, but there was all this hype from drummers claiming he was reinventing the drums and doing things that had never been done before. I’m not taking anything away from Carter. He’s a bad ass drummer, but if you study drums you can hear the influence of Tony Williams and Buddy Rich ring very clearly. Papa Joe Jones is another influence you can hear in his playing. When I checked out Carter for the first time and read some of his interviews, I was not surprised to find him state that those were three of his biggest influences.

By learning about the past as well as musicians you’ve never heard of, you’ll be able to compare, contrast and explain where you’re coming from, what you sound like and what you’re looking for when connecting with other musicians. The same information can help you develop your promotional materials. I know everyone wants to be original, but we all take from other places. If you can pinpoint influences or specify that you sound a little like this or that artist, it can potentially draw a new fan to you. If you have an array of artists, the mix might inspire someone to check you out who might otherwise not have.

On the harsher and briefer side of it, if you truly think you are recreating the freaking wheel, you don’t know history. It was probably done thirty-some years ago. Maybe not with the same effects, but, no, you didn’t invent it. Same goes for the lack of ability to compare yourself to anyone else. If you can’t, you don’t know your music history or you listen to a very limited amount of music.

It’s not that there aren’t innovators, people who are creating new things, but a completely new thing really hasn’t been done in a very long time, and since there are only so many beats in a bar, so many notes in a scale and so many alterations of a chord, there is a pretty decent chance that, while it may not be exact, you are in the ballpark of someone who came before you. I can already see the emails coming in to blast me for that paragraph, but so be it. I think its true.


Find out all you can about as much music as you can. Use the internet, use your friend’s collections. Try listening to something old or new everyday. Give it your attention and see what you love or hate about it. It doesn’t mean you have to own their entire catalog. It doesn’t mean you have to spend hours upon hours studying them, but get familiar with as much as you can. It will broaden your horizons and help you in more ways than you know. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it, just expand your horizon, your vocabulary and your ears. You might even enjoy it and find all sorts of things you never knew were out there to inspire you.

© 2009 Loren Weisman

Watch out for Loren Weisman’s “Realistic Music Careers 101 Seminar” coming to a city near you and Loren’s book ‚The Artist’s Guide to Success in the Music Business‚ coming in 2010.

Reader Comments (5)

Loved this post. Totally agree with it, and I pride myself on knowing my references (within reason, I get that I am no expert) yet on reading this post I had no idea who Gene Krupa or Abe L. were. Turns out they were jazzers, a world I confess to know next to nothing about. Got some homework to do, for sure.


November 9 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Shattuck

Great Post! I remember 5-10 years ago hearing a promo for a band playing on the in-store TV at Wal-Mart talking about a band whose influences were wildly diverse - Rock, Pop, and Hip-Hop. Wow. That's diversity these days?

If one of my music students tells me they don't like a genre of music, I tell them to name 5 artists that are in that genre, 5 reasons that they don't like the genre as a whole (not an individual song) and 1 thing that they do like. Too many times we fall into the habit of dismissing an entire style when we know nothing about it! Usually by the time they complete the assignment, they've gained a new appreciation for the style and found several new artists they like. From there, they start incorporating new influences into their own playing style, and become better musicians for it!

November 9 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Thank you for putting these thoughts in words!
I dont have the music database to know if a beat was used 30years ago or not, but I do agree with most of what you said.
Thank You

November 10 | Registered CommenterEugine Kang

As an ex professional music transcriber, i can say critical listening taught me a lot about 'patterns of influence' and not to be bound by genre or more preciously style. Having eclectic tastes in music ,and working out how they did it so to speak (no need to write it all out in tedious notation just play it), does create a broader palette of musical influence to call on and a better understanding of the mechanisms at work. Finally i can say that in all the music i have transcribed i have found 'patterns of influence' and that does include the Dave Mathews band!

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterDon Kazek

yeah, i agree. I think this is a pitfall of many people i know that are into music... People are often far too content to "stick to what they know". I try so hard to get people and even bandmates excited about new music i've found out about and thats exciting me also but they're often dismissive or too lazy to check something (even if i've copied it for them) out unless they've heard about it from I suppose more mainstream sources. I recently went to a little local music festival filled with a wealth of varied unsigned but operational and great bands and a friend dismissed it "I probably wont like any of it" when asked and recommended what to see. It's always the kind of people who say "they dont make them like they used to" or "i wish i was there at that gig before that band got popular" and yet they don't take the oppertunity or even check out the peers and contrubuting factors to other artists they like.
so yeah, it's a constant source of frustration for me.

November 13 | Unregistered Commenteralto

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