Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Listening to Music: 100 Times or More (Revised)

I'm reposting this article to let you know I was wrong. Time to own up to my original mistake. 

Over 7 years ago I wrote this article (June 07) and after working with thousands of additional dancers, I've figured out I was too conservative. When originally written I thought listening to a song 100 times was reasonable, but that was just before I installed iTunes and purchased my first iPod. 

In my teen years, I wore out many vinyl albums, requiring me to buy a second record to continue listening (long before CDs became the norm.) I had no idea how many times I listened; I just knew it was a lot, and way more than my 'normal' friends.

Once iTunes was installed, I found it counts how many times you listen to songs. What I've found surprised me. I've listened to some songs over 200 times (and more) in the first couple months, and I'm still finding new, interesting sounds in the background. In a few cases, I'm still trying to figure out a few words, or a bass line, or what the percussionist is playing during the intense part of the tune after many months of very intense listening. Sometimes I'll hear something new a year later.

In other words, I'm still learning, discovering and enjoying songs after hundreds of listenings. I don't listen to every song 100 times, but the raw numbers are far higher than I expected. Without software that tracks how many times I listened, I'd have stuck with recommending 100 times, thinking it was a big number.

So do the math; if the average song is 4 minutes, and you listen 4 times per day (twice morning, twice before bed), it will take you less than a month to hear a song 100 times. (A month allows a few days off for good behavior.) You can listen to one song 10 times some days, and parts of a tune 30-40 times during long commutes.

The interesting payoff is the more you hear in existing songs, the more you'll hear in new songs. As your ears continue to mature, you hear things in the background sooner. Find a few of your favorites, and make them part of your day for a few months. Let me know your thoughts.

I've made a few minor edits in the original article (below) but every time you see a "hundred times" reference, please double or triple it. You'll hear even more in the music.

Again: I admit it, my mistake! I should have started with 200 or 300 times, just to get everybody on the same page. Please forgive me.


Have you ever listened to one song or a set of tunes 10 times, 20, 30, 50 or 100 times? All within a few weeks or so?

Have you ever listed to the same song repeating for 30-60 minutes, then did it again a few times that same week? Only to repeat the exercise again over the next few weeks or months?

You should! Start doing it on your next drive! You will not believe the insights you'll get into music just by listing to a set of tunes over and over and over and over and over. You want the music flowing out of your pores, because so much is inside you it just has to come out or you will explode.

Every dancer should be listening to music when they're driving, jogging, working out or otherwise in a position to hear music while doing something else. Have music playing in your bathroom after showering, when doing your hair, make-up, and/or picking out your dancing clothes. There is magic in hearing the same tune(s) 100 times or more, focusing on different aspects of the music.

The goal is to find a few tunes you love, and play them to death, 50 or 100 times (or more). Then leave them for a few weeks and do it again. A few months later, do it again. Listen to different instruments, trying to hear each one by itself (something that takes practice, just like dance movements).

In my car, I have set my CD player or iPod to "repeat" one song over and over while driving 45 minutes to a club. Then on the way home I let it repeat the same tune again, for another 45 minutes. A couple of times per week I drive 20-45 minutes to get to specific clubs I like. I use that time to play tunes I like, trying to find new sounds I never heard before. Look for opportunities to use your iPod, CD, MP3 players or whatever to hear more music.

If I find a new song I really like, I often play it 20 to 50 times in the first two weeks I have it. Sometimes I'll listen to the same tune in my car during those club drives, singing along with different instruments. (Nobody is in the car, and the windows are up, otherwise I might set the local dogs howling.)

I might focus on the bass player or the piano, or pick out one percussionist, or focus on the horn section, trying to ignore all the other instruments. I may figure out how many horns are playing in a section (it varies at different points in the song), how many vocalists are singing, the combination of percussion instruments at different points and how it all fits together. (Edit: If there is a singer in English, I almost always try to figure out the lyrics without looking them up. A great way to improve your ears.)

Sometimes it's fine NOT to focus on anything specific during some of the listenings, instead letting it wash over your brain without worrying about the details. I let it play in the background while thinking about other things. The idea is to go back and forth between picking out specifics and occasionally just taking it all in as one complete work.

I also listen to the same music at different volume levels, varying between a whisper and roaring, and different points between. Your ears hear different things depending on the volume, so don't only listen at one level. (I am careful about overall volume levels being too loud. See my previous article on club music being too loud.)

Any music you like is fine. Great music has depth, and you'll hear different things as you listen over and over, especially when you return to a favorite tune two months from now. It's like seeing a great movie over and over. You pick up things you didn't notice the first few viewings. In the music you'll start hearing instruments in the background that were too subtle to hear in the first 25 listenings.

Going to Palm Springs one time to teach at the SalsaMambo Festival, I repeated one song for the complete trip (three hours with traffic). Admittedly, it wasn't "We Will Rock You", but the title tune from Havana Nights (Do You Only Wanna Dance - Julio Daviel Big Band Conducted by Cucco Pena). I love the way the tune flows, the trumpet solo, the way the different instruments combine to create interesting textures, the build-up to a climax, and the great finish. (Ah, the mind starts daydreaming...)

In time, your dancing will reflect a new-found intimacy with the music. In a few months you'll be hearing music with a completely new set of ears, and your dancing will grow as well without your directly trying.

This is one of those "secrets" that few believe because it's so simple. Dancers who enjoy music over and over start hearing things their friends don't hear, and they grow faster than their peers. Get it started today. Find your tune(s) and see how many times you can hear them over the next month, then repeat in a few months and start adding new tunes slowly.

You'll love the results and your dancing will improve even when you're not on the dance floor!
Success is sweet; but it usually has the scent of sweat about it.

Using Your Eyes to Hear the Music
Hearing But Not Listening: Part 1


  1. I have to disagree partly with this one - at least I think you went a bit overboard. Given the choice between listening to 10 songs 100 times each versus 100 songs 10 times each, I would definitely argue that latter is better. Same for 100 songs 100 times each versus 1000 songs 10 times each. With some songs you will probably end up listening to more than 10 times, but taking 10 years to get to 100 times wouldn’t be so bad. It's also better to listen to songs from many different periods - for Salsa/Mambo, start from the 40s all the way to the present rather than limiting oneself to a certain period whether it's 70's Fania golden age or Salsa Romantica or latest craze released today hitting the dance floor - presumably you'll talk about this in another post. I agree with the general premise that listening to a lot of music is very helpful.

  2. Excellent addition: You and I totally agree you should listen to music from different periods. (I wish I had said that!)

    I respect your opinion, but I do think you should have a set of tunes that you DO listen to over a hundred times, because there is some magic that happens as you get to the extremes, and it carries over to the newer music. Meaning, you get more from the songs you have only heard twice because of insights you learned after 85 or 105 listenings of another tune.

    It's like doing a new pattern. When I've done it 10 times, I may have the mechanics down but those patterns I've done a few hundred times, across a wide range of follows are the ones I can really finesse. I can easily change the ending or deal with my follow missing something because it's so comfortable for me.

    A song is so much more complicated I could easily listen to it 10 times just following 2 or 3 of the percussionists, and ignoring the piano, bass or vocalist. In some tunes it's worth listening to the introduction 20 times because one of the musicians is doing something interesting.

    That said, we are in total agreement that as long as you are serious about taking your drive, exercise or other non-dance time and really listen, you'll be way ahead.

    When in doubt, listen to a tune more rather than less, but in my mind more is actually more in this case. Pick your number; 20, 50, 100 but at least try a high number with three or four of your favorite tunes, over a month or two and let me know what you find after the experience. (I think you'll be positively surprised.)

    I appreciate your comments! And feel free to always call me on something when you see it from a different viewpoint. One size rarely fits all and I love hearing other interesting views.

  3. So, now we know how much you listen to your music, but can you tell us WHAT you're listening to? I only have a miniscule collection of salsa music. I'd love it if you'd publish a sort of "What I'm listening to this week / today / in my car right now / singing to in the shower" sidebar or something. There is such a vast variety of music available. Some of us don't even know where to start!

    If I had my life to live over...I'd dare to make more mistakes next time. -- Nadine Stair

  4. Sure, I'll pull together a list. But be warned, I'm all over the place. Since I've been a SERIOUS music listener since I've been a teenager, my tastes are all over the place. Some weeks I'm obsessing over my latest salsa favorite and other times I'm checking out something interesting from a jazz or hip-hop class.

    I learn things from a WIDE range of music, and some people would be as well served listening to their favorite R&B and/or commercial music BEFORE they work on denser salsa music.

    Salsa music tends to be very rich, and much more complicated than other music, and stepping back and learning from simplier music is often a better starting place.

    I'll put together a list and write a article to go along with it outlining some of the hightlights of the tune.

  5. I thought about this and I have an excellent song that everybody should hear. I'll write an article on it, then post it within the next couple days.

  6. I hope you don't mind my comments. I know this is from over two years ago, but it's new to me!

    I might agree with hyh when it comes to beginners. I think those who are just starting out may benefit more from listening to a wide variety of songs to understand the common rhythmical elements in each (i.e. being able to find the "1" and know when to put their feet down, etc.).

    But overall I absolutely agree with this post! I kind of do this already from time to time. I find a song that I just can't stop listening to. I'll play it over and over, and it just kind of seeps into me and I can't get enough. A couple of songs that I remember experiencing this with... Soledad (La 33) and La Muerte (El Gran Combo). I really do believe that letting the music get "into" you in this way is so valuable.

    You know what I also think is a good idea is picking a song/style that you don't like and see how your appreciation changes after 100 listens. Sometimes your dislike for a particular style comes from a lack of understanding or receptivity, so immersing yourself in it can open your eyes to it.

    Great article, Don!

  7. Joy: Comments are valid anytime. What's funny is I've had so many hundreds of students since this post and I believe it more now than when I wrote it.

    Now that my iTunes counts how many times I play something, I find some tunes get over 200 listenings in the first couple months. (More after that...)

    You have it right... some tunes become MUCH better after you've heard them a while. It does change with exposure.

    Working with students, I see a huge difference as they get past 50/75/100 listenings. It changes what they hear.

    And the most interesting things is after that many times on one tune, they organically start hearing things in other tunes MUCH earlier.

    Amazing what happens with repetition. (The mother of all learning!)

  8. Hey Don, did you write this other article about what music you listen to, or whatever it was you were going to write about? I'd love to also know what you listen to. I will pick a few songs and listen to them over 100 to 150times in the next month and write more then ;)


I love feedback. Your thoughts, feelings and comments are appreciated. Civil disagreements and other points of view are always welcomed!

Feel free to send me private mail if appropriate.

Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero