What do you hear? Cells in your ear are impacted by waves and register their shape and size-frequencies and amplitude-and almost everyone can hear those. Can you hear more? Listening is a skill; it can be improved upon. For our purposes, “hearing” encompases the physiological process of converting soundwaves into the signals sent to your brain AND what your mind does with those signals, which can also be thought of as “listening.” Let’s just stick with the words “hear” and “hearing,” though, for simplicity’s sake.
I’m a musician so I’m better at this than most. Having spent countless hours studying music from around the world, I’ve gotten pretty good at hearing more than just the notes. I realize this comes across a bit pretentious but this is an important skill to have when you write about music. I’ll post again later with some ways to work on listening skills but right now I want to share some examples to think about. There’s more to it than what’s below, of course, but what’s important now is to start thinking more about what you hear.
Led Zeppelin-Houses of the Holy. Great album; what’s wrong with it? Not rhetorical; there is something wrong with this album. Any guesses? The correct answer is too much guitar. Though rock is a guitar centric genre, it throws the music out of balance (balance is as important in music as it is in anything else). It’s subtle but this lack of balance is what tips you off the HotH is a transition album (that is, Zep was transitioning to a different sound); transition albums are always unbalanced in some way.
MGMT-Oracular Spectacular. This one’s a bit trickier. The thing to hear is that it’s a good album but could easily have sucked. The songwriting is good but just barely and although it’s fine instrumentally, the musicianship ain’t great. This is how I knew before they came out with a follow-up that they had done way too much E and would never produce anything good again (serendipity was behind the first album’s success).
Now I want you to think about a recording that made you have empathy with the artist. Few recordings achieve this but they exist. An artist can make you empathize with them through a recording if they care. They have to care a lot because they’re expressing themselves so indirectly but it can be done. Try to identify a piece of music that does this.
Thanks for reading.