Every year, I pick a week and ask all my private students about their listening habits. I also do this to all the drumline camp students I see in the summer. Then, every single time, I am horrified by their responses. “I don’t really listen to anything.” “I just listen to whatever is already on the radio.” “I can’t think of anything.” “I don’t know of any vibraphonists, marimbists, percussionists, drumset players, etc.”
Listening is the most important thing a musician does. To me, not listening is worse that not practicing. No one ever really believes they can become a better player without practicing, and the same holds true for listening. I often tell my students that if you had to write a novel, you would at least read one first. Naturally, if I had to play in a symphony, I’d probably want to hear one first.
So what is listening? I will start with what listening is not. Listening is not having music on while you vacuum the house. Listening is not having the radio on while doing homework. Listening is not hearing music over the loudspeakers in a store. Listening is not passive. Real listening is active.
That gets us to our next question. How do I improve my listening? How do I listen actively? First, we have to find something to listen to. This is unbelievably easy. If you are reading this, you have access to the internet. All you have to do is go to Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, Pandora, Rdio, Beats, iTunes, etc. (handy links have been provided to make this step even easier). Next, pick a song. It doesn’t matter what it is. Really. Anything will do. Now, listen to the song (I told you this is easy). While listening, start asking yourself questions. Here are some sample questions you could use (feel free to re-listen if this is difficult at first):
- What time signature is it in/how many beats per measure or other grouping?
- What instruments are present?
- How many different parts are being played?
- Who/what is playing the melody?
- What rhythm is being played by the drums? or guitar? or bass?
- How many different sections does the song have (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.)?
- What is the form of those sections?
That should be enough to get you started.
Now you can ask yourself the two most important questions. “Do I like this song?” and “Why?” Answering these questions will really make you focus in on different aspects of the music. Whether you answer yes or no to the first question, determining the answer to the second will still help you learn. Instead of just looking for music from the same style or genre, look for music with similar attributes to the ones you found pleasing. Make sure you are keeping a playlist of what you are listening to so you can find it again (this is very important). Once you find something you like, there is one more step. Share it. No matter how many algorithms Google comes up with to recommend things, other people still remain the best way to find cool tunes.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of listening strategies. It’s just a place to start. If you want to be a good musician, listening is imperative, and right now is a great time to start.