Monday, March 5, 2012

Using Your Eyes to Hear Music

This article was originally written/published in 2008, I've done some minor edits for today's republish.

You've probably heard that some people like to watch, but many miss ideal opportunities to tune their ears when live music is around. Watching musicians perform can accelerate your ability to hear the music, especially the details.

When a live band is at your club or event, it's a perfect time to tune your hearing. Some people simply ignore the band and pretend a DJ is playing, except for complaining the tunes are too long. (Many times, they're right.)

If there's a live band playing at your next dance, take a couple tunes to watch the musicians individually and try to hear what they are playing. (Perfect for break times.) Visually focus on one musician at a time, matching their movements to the sounds of their instruments. You can focus on one musician for most of the tune, or visually wander around, watching the musician playing the most interesting sounds at that time. (I do both, depending on my mood.)

Your goal is to hear the sounds of the individual instruments, while mostly ignoring the other on the bandstand. For example:
  • Can you hear the piano sounds matching her hand movements?
  • Do you hear the cowbell part matching his pounding?
  • You can see the bass player plucking the strings, are you hearing the low notes that match?
  • Do you hear the sounds from each individual percussionist, as they strike each instrument?
Depending on your prior experience, some musicians are easy to hear, and some are more challenging. In all cases seeing them perform makes it easier to hear the sounds, and you'll be surprised what you can hear while you're watching.

If live music isn't an option in your scene, then there are hundreds of clips available on YouTube. They provide much of the same experience and in some cases are better because you can find instructional clips, focusing on one instrument at a time. Of course, the ability to rewind and replay is also a huge bonus.

The primary down side is on some clips the music and visuals are out of sync. This is usually more an issue with live band videos, where the quality of the original recording isn't always great. Sometimes the camera angles don’t allow you to see the musicians hands, and you want to see them actually playing the instruments.

Below is an instructional example I like, with examples of individual instruments playing in most salsa tunes. It's a quick introduction and is NOT comprehensive, but it will give you some good ideas. You can clearly see her playing and hear the sounds as she plays. Watch it a couple times (or more), ideally on a computer with quality speakers.

You may not hear the piano player in the music on your iPod, but live (or via video) you can see her pounding on the keyboard AND match what you are seeing with the sounds. The clip below is a live band example (same piano player). As discussed earlier, the down side is the camera person decides where to focus. Toward the end of the tune below (around 9:15 or so), the drummer is soloing, but it's clear to me the person with the camera doesn't hear it, so the visual focus is elsewhere.

Check out the piano when you can, and during her solo (~3:50) she sings some of the parts she is playing, further making the visual match the hands. I’d like a better angle on her hands, but you’ll get the idea. In a live club, you should move around so you see the piano players’ hands clearly, while they are playing. On video, you take what you can get.

Watching musicians is a powerful way to improve your ability to pick out sounds. Clips can be good, but live is often better, where you decide on your visual focus and can match the sounds.

The next time a live band is playing where you are dancing sit out a few tunes and watch. It will open up new worlds for your dancing as you advance. By definition, dancing to the music requires you to hear what the musicians are playing, even if you can't see them.

I'll post some additional visual examples I like in future postings.

Let me know what you're doing to tune your ears.

Side note: When I'm working with someone in private lessons, I rarely start with complex salsa music or even percussion sections. Most people learn faster by hearing fewer instruments, in a simpler context and build up rather than starting with complex music like the live clip above. That said, when you are around a live band or have some good clips, your eyes can help your ears grow much faster.

Related Articles:
Air Guitar, Air Drums: A One Man Band

The man who is too old to learn was probably always too old to learn.
--Caryl Haskins


  1. Hi Don,
    I just found your blog this weekend and I already love it. Yes, I find that my greatest weakness as a dancer is that I am rhythmically challenged so I really appreciate your articles about training ears to really listen to the music and all the nuances that occur during live concerts. I'm looking forward to reading all your past articles on this site. My compliments to you on providing this excellent, informative blog!

  2. The point "anonymous" is trying to make here is obviously flawed.

    In my experience there is mostly no correlation between being a great dancer and being able to analyze and explain dancing and related subjects.

    I've had several dance teachers, and the best dancers (actually world class international performers) have so far been the worst teachers.

    Their advice, if any, have not been very sound. (Nonsense like "relax, have fun, stop counting" etc..)

    I do not expect this to be some kind of rule of thumb, but do not expect great dance skills to indicate a great teacher or thinker. It's not that easy.

    This is not too surprising, when considering that a truly great dancer, born with talent, who might have danced since childhood might very well have less awareness of what they are actually DOING and why.

    Their dancing comes with less concious effort, they might have forgotten the theoretical foundation that a beginning dancer can benefit from. They don't need it anymore.

    Actually that's exactly how the brain works, the cerebellum that handles the feedback from the body get's sort of "disconnected" from the concious mind after many years of training. It's called "LTD, Long Term Depression", necessary to get the flow we're all looking for. It's impossible to move with great precision and speed if you don't inhibit the feedback system.

    I don't remember who pointed out that the best coaches in sports usually aren't the best athletes, but rather the mediocre.

    I am also, naturally, quite curious about Don's dancing. But I can see how it would be a bad idea for him to show it if he's not convinced he's nothing short of a world class performer. (Which would be most unlikely)

    Far too many visitors would prematurely dismiss his insights, sound and very useful advice just because they believe "Great Dancer = Great Teacher", which simply is not true at all.

  3. I suffer from a severe hearing impairment ( nerve damage )that has always made it difficult for me to make out the lyrics in songs since my teen years in the sixties. What I have developed over the years is quite literally making the vocal part into an "instrumental" part of the total sound that I hear coming from either the radio or the stage ( at a live performance...I did security work at rock, jazz, and pop concerts for many years...usually close to the stage, which speeded up my hearing loss considerably...nothing quite like "feeling" the music, NOTHING! ).

    I didn't start wearing ear protection until the late seventies, but by then I was no longer working concerts. What I found was that in the midd-seventies I became enamoured by latin percussion music and celtic music ( I am a mixture of Irish, Cuban, and Cherokee Indian ancestry ). I have long had an urge to study percussion instruments, but I put my time and money into jazz dance and latin dance studies instead. My ability to hear "voice" as "instrument" has developed over the years...who needs to understand lyrics (especially since I love latin coros, but I understand only rudimentary espanol...Ismael Riviera, Beny More', Ruben Blades, ahhhhh! ). Of course, some voices like Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Beny More, Ruben Blades, Ismael Riviera, and Sade sing lyrics so clearly that they really put my brain and my feet into smooth overdrive...another layer?

    I do know that when I first heard Santana live at the Kinetic Playground in Chicago-circa 1970-I was able to "hear" the band, the percussion, the guitar, the singer, as "distinct waves of rhythm." I have always been able to hear all the parts of latin recordings as "layers" rather than as the multi-part chaos that most western listeners hear latin music as ( this includes western jazz players with lots of chops and experience! ).

    It is difficult to find latin dance partners who can follow the various "voices" in latin salsa music that I "hear / feel."

    I hope this makes sense.

  4. Makes sense!

    Few people hear all the layers, and you being around so much live music will provide insights others miss.

    Even though today your hearing isn't as strong, the roots are there, and that foundation will stay with you even if the details are lost due to the nerve damage.

    I always wear ear protection these days, and even use it in classes. Few people pay attention to that (I didn't) until after they notice some loss.

    I wrote an article on that subject last year and I'll dig up the URL.

    I appreciate your feedback!


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