Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hearing But Not Listening: Part 2

This is Part 2 of the “Hearing But Not Listening” articles. If you missed Part 1, click here to read the first article in the series.

In Part 1, I outlined the lyrics as an excellent starting point for tuning your ears and becoming a stronger listener. After 30 years of serious listening, I still work on getting the correct lyrics on tunes I enjoy. Some songs are a serious challenge and some are pretty easy, but it’s always a fun thing to do.

You’ll find interesting parts in a wide variety of music, and while I love salsa music, a wide variety of music is great for growing your ability to listen selectively. Voices are easier than most instruments, but some songs have very complex vocal parts, and they are excellent for ear training and focused listening.

The more advanced level of listening to voices includes picking out the words from fast moving sequences and/or background parts. Many tunes have subtle background voices, with 3 or more people singing phrases in harmony. Some tunes have layers of voices, singing different words and creating great depth in the vocals, similar to the instrumentalists playing different parts.

One of the jazz instructors at Millennium uses the Jennifer Lopez tune below during the conditioning phase of his class, and I heard it 20 times before I purchased a copy. The background vocals and layers of words create a very interesting effect, and it takes some effort to figure out the words for all the background parts. I still have a couple words I can’t get, but I’m darned close.

Jennifer Lopez – Gotta Be There


Most people will NOT hear all the details, there are simply too many. They hear the overall mix and the feel, but this version requires hearing the tune over and over to sort through all the parts. For the few that want to challenge their ears and can already hear background parts, check out this tune. (Side note: the YouTube video is for reference. The quality of YouTube videos is all over the place, mostly “just okay” or poor quality. Download this song and play it on something with quality speakers or ear buds to hear all the parts.)

Check out the fast moving phrases around the 49 second mark (“I really didn’t mean it…”) , and I love the layered vocals at around 1:07. Notice there are background vocals interwoven with the primary vocals in the “If you’re in Houston…” section. See if you can get all the words on top, and within all the layers. I love this arrangement.

Again, the depth of these parts is just not obvious via the low quality YouTube example. I can hear most of the parts because my speakers are good AND I’ve heard the tune on an excellent quality system. Spend the buck and get a good copy if you are serious about learning.

For those with more advanced ears who are focused on the instruments, download the Anita Baker song (Rhythm of Love, from Part 1 of this article), and play it on a great sound system. Notice the bass player doesn’t even start until the intro ends (the keyboard/marimba player does play some lower notes, but no bass player).

After the bass player starts, the piano player doubles the bass groove in many parts of the tune, providing an interesting feel that is unique. For the non-musicians, it’s unusual for the piano player to double so much of the bass line, and unless you have both good speakers and experienced ears, it’s tough to hear both instruments are playing the same notes. It creates a unique sound, so it’s obvious to people with more experienced ears, but it’s not something the casual listener will notice.

For us percussion fans with more advanced ears, check out the bongo player. He smokes the intro, drops out for a while, then makes himself known again around 3:27, and builds from there until the end, playing some really tasty stuff. I love his groove, and he’s easy to hear in the final outtro (the fadeout toward the end), he is also playing some interesting parts while the tune is cooking. That’s outside the scope of this article, but if you have the ears already, you’ll enjoy the rhythm section on this tune. Go back to Part 1 of this article to get the YouTube version, but if you are serious about tuning your ears, I’ll repeat myself and say get quality downloads of the songs.

The more you practice without dancing, the easier it is on the dance floor, where there are a hundred distractions, including flashing lights, energetic people, inconsistent sound systems and a partner who is loving your moves. If you can’t hear the parts yet in a controlled environment, the dance floor has too much happening to learn there.

Let me know what you think of these examples.
Nothing can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has just discovered
an old idea and thinks it is his own.
--Sidney J. Harris

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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero