Monday, March 17, 2008

Hearing But Not Listening: Part 1

OK... I'll take one for the team:

Men often hear but we don't always listen. I think it may be an inborn skill, but my Y chromosome keeps me from being totally objective.

For the record, women are often guilty too, but men are the gold medal winners in the "in one ear, out the other" competitions. Most men have an uncanny ability to ignore female voices during ball games, video games, and sometimes across the dinner table. It's not all men's fault, we were born that way, and we trained long and hard to miss statements from women like "Pick up your socks," "How about we go shopping together," "Did you notice the grass is taller than the dogs?” or "Do I look fat in this?"
Most guys hear that something was said, but the blank look on our faces says we never picked up the details, especially if there are any video screens within viewing distance. If you ask the guys later, they will swear, "You never said that!"

It can wreak havoc in relationships, and in dancing, we want to move beyond simply hearing the music, toward actively listening to the music. This means being able to block out certain instruments and focus on others. While men occasionally have a head start in this type of listening, both men and women benefit from training their ears to pick out select sounds in music. Everybody can improve their listening skills, so where do you start?

Over the years of working with dancers to hear the music, I’ve found that decoding the lyrics (words) of tunes is an excellent starting point for ear training. Our ultimate goal is to go back and forth from listening to the complete mix of sounds, to focusing like a laser on a single instrument from the beginning to the end of the tune. Singers voices are among the easiest "instruments" to pick out, especially for non-musicians, as we are already familiar with that sound and the language.

Sure, you could simply Google a song and get the lyrics quickly. But it's tough to Google while dancing and it does nothing for your ears. The effort of actively listening to the tune, figuring out the words and writing them down gives you skills that pay off when you're dancing.

Look up lyrics on-line only after you master the skill of hearing them with your ears. The more tunes you work through yourself, the sharper your listening skills become and that provides raw materials to shape your dances.

Be sure to start simple; pick out some of your favorite commercial music that has a singer and write out the words to the song. Salsa is fine, but not required.

For most people, it’s tougher than it sounds. Getting the chorus (AKA “the hook”) is generally easy, but getting every word is often more challenging. While our goal is ultimately to hear all the instruments, figuring out the words to a tune requires the same skills as listening to the instrumentalists. However, it’s also much easier than hearing the individual instruments because we already know the language. Check out the introduction of this old Anita Baker tune and try the following exercises:
  • Figure out the exact words she uses until the she says “and love…” at around the 41 second mark. It’s a fairly clear rap and most people can figure out the words with a few listens.
  • WRITE THEM DOWN (How hard can that be; it’s less than 41 seconds, and she speaks slowly!)
  • Try to say it EXACTLY like she does. (This is the interesting/fun part.) She pushes some words, breaks up the syllables and stretches other words.
  • Play the introduction repeatedly and say it out loud until you are totally in sync with her phrasing and emphasis (I love how she says, “... stop! and find your own…”).
Anita Baker: 1992 – Rhythm of Love

Don’t be surprised if you have to listen and replay the intro 50 times or more to get it right. I spent hours getting it nearly perfect on that tune, and I still don't get it right all the time. The process is very valuable in terms of forcing yourself to really listen to both what she says and how she says it, but the real payoff comes later as it gives you the ability to selectively focus and actively listen to different sounds. Moving to the dance floor, your active listening skills pay off big-time as you advance, and you’ll never get too good at it. Remember that when a female voice says something we don't want to hear, just use the blank look you rehearsed for so long.
In part 2 of this article, I’ll provide some interesting ideas for people with more advanced ears. The Rhythm of Love is an interesting study for both novice ears and expert listeners.

I also like the Sting tune called “Fragile” as a learning tool. Someone has done a salsa cover of this tune, but so far I haven’t found it on YouTube so I'm including a couple of his versions (they are excellent).

See if you can get every word and you’ll find some sections require listening many times to verify you’re right. Again, the process of listening over and over is part of the ear training so don’t panic if you listen to one part 25 times. It goes that way sometimes.

If you can hear, understand and write out the words in most tunes consistently, you are ready for working on the instruments, and you’ll have a huge jump start over people who start with other sounds. Many people do succeed starting with other instruments, but I strongly believe in the “walk before you run” concept, and lyrics are a better starting point for most people.
Sting - Fragile

Another tip: Sometimes an alternate version of a tune can help you hear some things that were difficult in your first version. Many tunes have remixes available and/or the artists have a live version and a studio version. I’ve sometimes figured out lyrics from one version that were close to impossible on the other. If you get stuck on a word, try another version before cheating and using Google. Finding the lyrics on line does little to help your ear training, although it’s a great verification tool once you believe you have as many words as possible.

For fun, here is another version of the Sting tune.

Sting – Fragile (Alternate version)

Let me know how these exercises go; I suspect you’ll be amazed how much your ears improve with these concepts. In Part 2 of this article, I'll highlight some things more advanced listeners will find interesting.
Formula for success: under-promise and over-deliver.
-- Tom Peters

Hearing But Not Listening: Part 2


  1. With the Salsa version of Stings fragile, you mean 'que fragilidad' performed by Sanmera & Milagros Pinera?

  2. Sam,

    Hmmm... I'm not sure of the name or artist who did the cover version. Someone gave me a copy of the tune when I first started dancing, and I never knew the artist or name.

    Do you have a link? (I'll seach based on your info and see what I turn up...)

  3. Actually, I just found that version on-line, but the version I was referencing, has a male vocalist, and sounds like Sting at points IF you aren't on a decent sound system.

    That said, I like the version you referenced but I hadn't hear it before. Super Mario is using it for a demo dance: Fragile: Alt version 3

  4. For whatever it's worth, the first Salsa version of Fragile I heard was by an Italian artist Massimo Scalici and is titled Fragile.

    It can be found in Salsa.IT vol 2 compilation, which is out of print now. I've had it for nearly 2 years and believe it was released in 2005 or 2006.

    Willie Colon also covered it in (Fragilidad) in the album Honra Y Cultura (released 1991)

    Buena Vista Social Club also recorded Fragilidad with Spanish vocals done by Sting himself - see album Rhythms del Mundo: Cuba (released 2006).

  5. Cool. I found the Sting version in Spanish on YouTube. I couldn't find the others. The salsa version I have is NOT sung by Sting, but it is in English (strange).

    I'll see if I can post it for those who are native Spanish speakers.

  6. Massimo Scalici version is sung in English (hint: the title is in English).

    Not much percussion to speak of except for a prominent 3-2 Clave ...and some cowbells about halfway into the song... conga is hidden well in the background - really have to concentrate to find it

    It's almost certainly the track you have - it's the one I hear the most often (played by at least 4-5 DJs).

  7. At first I thought that had to be the version I have. Via Google I found this low quality MP3 here I could hear a sample.

    Fragile Sample In List Here

    IF that is the version (please verify if you can), that is not the version I have... but it's close.

    Different male vocalist. Even with the low quality sample, the phrasing is different and the drum mix is different.

    Let me know if this is the version you are referencing or if there is another.

  8. That's the one (the song and the album as listed on both the board and download site).

    I guess there must be another version, which I am unaware of.

  9. I appreciate you pointing me to that version... I hadn't heard it yet.

    Through this process I've found more versions than I expected, and one of the Sting versions is slower than the version I use for teaching.

    I'm always looking for slow tunes for practicing fundimentals, for myself and students.


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