Listening Intentionally: A Higher Level of Music Study

Topics: Creativity, Guitar, OBB/Personal, Skills

What is your favorite song?  I’m sure by now you’ve listened to it a thousand hundred times.  You know every word by heart, every chord change like the back of your hand, and every drum beat and transition is etched into your brain with razor-like precision.  It may have even influenced a decision that you had to make in your life, expressed the exact feelings you were having when you first heard it, or (like many songs for me) helps pick you back up when you feel down.  I want to talk about how you can become a student of  the music that’s had a positive impact on your life, and use said knowledge to write your own awesome material.  Your own personal, self-taught music appreciation class if you will.

So what is “listening intentionally” and why should we do it in the first place?  Isn’t it just good enough to listen to music for its quintessential awesomeness?  Well, yeah it is, but we’re not normal.  We want more.  Listening intentionally means that you’re looking beyond what most people see, trying to understand the meaning behind the song, and the reason that you like it so much.  If you love a song, wouldn’t it make sense to write another song just like that one?  Okay, not exactly like it since that’s illegal, completely unoriginal, and just plain bourgeois.  But you can use the knowledge you gained from that song (and hopefully many others) to write something at the same awesomeness level, or awesomer.

Becoming a virtuoso musician entails doing some things that other people might find strange.  It means pushing the limits (that is, your own), and continually learning new things.  Most people don’t listen to the same song for a week straight, or practice that same song for hours on end.  Most people don’t ever set up their own personalized The Playlist, or build a prioritized list of songs they want to learn.  Not everyone sits down with a timer and practices vibrato for an hour.  Intentional listening is just another one of those “outside of the box” things you can do to really hone your skills and improve your ears.

Step L: Listen

Okay, enough soapboxing, lets see what it looks like to “Listen Intentionally”.  Let’s start out with your most favorite song (ever!), and listen to it for the next week straight.  A whole week.  Nothing else.  No cheating either.  You are now a disciplined individual.  You can do it.  Music from coffee shops, department stores, and elevators is acceptable since you can’t control them, but anything that’s under your power should repeat that song relentlessly.  Now some people might be thinking “If I listen to this song for a whole week, I’m going to hate it!”  To a certain extent this might be true, you probably won’t want to listen to it for a few months afterward; but honestly, if you can’t listen to a single song for a whole week straight, then maybe it’s not that great of a song in the first place.  Am I right, or am I right?  And, if this song really was forged in the fires or Mordor, I can assure you that you’ll be drawn back to it before too long.  My precioussssssss!!!

Step R: Research

When you start listening to your song, hop on the internet and do a few searches for the artist and song.  A good place to start is the artist’s official website, since they’ll have the most accurate lyrics and bio about the band.  If you don’t have the lyrics memorized yet, do it.  See if you can find the history of the band, and if possible, see if you can find some commentary about the song itself.  If the song is a popular one, you might be able to find some really specific facts about it.  When was it written?  Did the artist write the song him/herself, or is it a cover?  Ideally you want to find an interview or article where the artist talks specifically about the context and meaning behind the song.  This will give you better insight, and will ultimately lead to a higher appreciation of the song.

Step ILIBP: Intensively Listen Intentionally – Big Picture

After researching the song, begin the intensively listening intentional process.  Here are a few “big picture” things you want to pay attention to while listening:

  • How many instruments are there, and what are they?
  • What are the levels of the instruments?  Which are louder than the others?  Do any of them have a piercing quality, cutting through the other parts?
  • Which parts are rhythm, giving structure to the song, and which parts are melody?
  • Who is holding down the beat?  The drums usually do a good job of this, but that might not be the case in some songs.  I love Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment, and sometimes you can’t even tell what the heck Mike Portnoy (the drummer) is doing.
  • Pay special attention to who is NOT playing.  Silence is golden.  A well placed rest in a song will introduce contrast in a piece, accenting and building complexity in the places that DO have sound.
  • Which parts are complex, and which are simple?  Some of my favorite songs are just a singer playing solo with his guitar, but at the same time I’ll love a song that utilizes a full orchestra.
  • What is creating tension? When and what is releasing it?  Where is the climax?
  • Pay special attention to the opening and closing.  Does the song start high or low energy? Does it end with the same theme it starts with?

Step LSMV: The Live Show and Music Videos

Another dimension of music is the live show.  Since there isn’t an option for specialized recording equipment, backup vocals, full orchestras, or multiple takes, the live performance might feel “empty” when compared with the recording.  Groups with a higher budget will be able to include some of the other extraneous elements included in the recording, but not everyone has that luxury.  Although the sound quality might not be as good for live shows, another vital element comes into play: visuals.  Search on YouTube or the band’s website for live shows, and take note of the differences in sound, and the kind of stage presence they exude.  Watch the movies several times, taking note of each band member’s actions.  Notice if and when the members feed off each other.  Do they make eye contact often?  Do they talk to each other between songs?  Do they act like one amalgamated entity or are they engrossed in their own little world?

If you feel strange watching somebody like that, just accept the fact that you’re a creepy stalker, and famous people deal with creepers everyday.  You know they love it.

Music videos are yet another avenue that bands present themselves.  Unlike live shows, they have the opportunity to present refined visual and audio in the same package.  This is one of best ways for a band to present their image to the world, since it allows them to do it in a medium where they can cut out the errors.  Again, take notice of what’s being presented.

Step PP: Practice Profusely

If you haven’t started learning how to play the song, this is the time to do it.  For each instrument you know how to play, look up tabs, find the score, or figure out the parts yourself.  If it’s especially difficult, find the official score online or in a store and buy it.  I find that music videos are especially helpful when trying to figure out guitar parts because sometimes you just need to know the position on the neck before you can figure it out.  I’m writing another article on how to figure songs out, so I won’t go into great detail on this here, but the key point here is to examine the chord progression and understand the structure behind it.  This is key.  If you only have time to do one of these “steps”, do this one.  The chord progression defines the mood of the piece, and gives the driving force behind the song.  The most interesting and memorable melodies are built upon good chord progressions.

Step ILISP: Intensively Listening Intentionally – Small Picture

If you haven’t noticed yet, the order of these steps don’t really mean anything.  You don’t even have to do all of them, I’m not an LI dictator, but I’m just trying to fill your head with some ideas that could be helpful.

So moving on, you’ll now want to use those beautiful ears of yours to listen to each instrument specifically.  This can be deceptively easy since you’re listening to a finished product.  By now I’m sure you know what the raw sound “should” or “would” sound like with no tailoring.  Everybody knows what a real life, unrecorded, un”effected” acoustic guitar or grand piano sounds like.  So what you want to do is try to figure out the changes that were made, and follow the sound through the cables from beginning to end.  This can be extremely difficult for the inexperienced, and (if the artist is using some special kind of pedal or effector) it may be impossible.  But after you play your instrument for a while, and make a few experimentation trips to the local guitar store, you start to discover the kinds of sounds and effects that are typically used.

Do this listening exercise for each instrument, and look at what effects are being used.  Who is putting out a raw, undoctored sound?  Who is running their signal through a hundred million effector pedals?  Listen with open ears and an open mind.  The artist had an end result in mind, and used whatever s/he needed to get there.

Here’s an unofficial, and incomprehensive list of common effects you might try listening for.  A lot of these effects are mostly used for electric guitar, but you know how some people are.  They like to get … creative.  Search the web for samples of these effects if you aren’t familiar with them.

  • Reverb
  • Delay/Echo
  • Equalization
  • Compression
  • Distortion
  • Chorus
  • Flange
  • Wah-wah
  • Tremolo
  • Octavers and Pitch Shifters

Closing Words

Don’t stop at just one song.  Great quality and high quantity input begets great output.  I would know, I spent a year learning a second language.

Step NGUNS: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

One song for a whole week.  Straight!  You can do it!


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