Monday, November 10, 2008

Better Ears: Voices in My Head - Part 2

This is part two of a series. If you haven't read part 1 of this article, I suggest you do it before reading this one. Click here to check it out: Better Ears: Voices in My Head (part 1).

I've had some excellent comments on the original article, including some who questioned the value of listening to the words in a song (AKA “lyrics”). That’s fine and I’m happy to have people challenge my thinking. I always learn something from your comments. I also hope you continue expressing your views and letting me know what you think.

I’ll take as many of the questions head-on as possible. I expect to answer over a few articles because one article dealing with all questions/comments will be too long.

Before answering specific questions, let’s be sure we are on the same page with a relevant subset of my music listening principles.

Overview Principles:
  1. “Selective Focus” is the goal
  2. “Over and Over” is the norm
  3. Lyrics are an excellent starting point
  4. Walk before you run
Principle Details:
Principle 1: “Selective Focus” is the goal
As your ears mature, you can listen to one instrument, a selected group of instruments or the complete mix, shifting between them as desired. This means hearing the cowbell, bass, piano, timbales, or any other instrument(s) while the complete band is playing along. Without significant practice and/or a musical background, isolating one instrument in your mind is not always easy. In other words, it can be harder in the beginning, but anybody can learn to do it with some practice.

Principle 2: “Over and over” is the norm
No matter what method you choose, you will listen to music repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. Nothing substitutes for hearing the same parts of a tune 20, 50, 100 times or more. Combined with the “selective focus” principle, it means you are listening multiple times with a specific purpose. You listen along, following the voice(s), piano, bass or a percussionist, with the goal of hearing every note they perform. For more details, check out this article from last year: “Listening to Music 100 Times or More

Even the best-trained ears require multiple listenings to hear all the different parts. In great music, you’ll continue to find new sounds months (or years!) after the first listening. Like watching a great movie multiple times, you notice lots of details that were undetected during the initial reviews. The details are there all along, but noticing them takes many reviews.

Over time you discover hidden treasures in the music, and sometimes it will make you laugh when you figure out some works, or hear two musicians playing off each other like great dance partners. The best music sounds great when you initially hear it, and has additional depth you discover through additional listenings.

Principle 3: Lyrics are an excellent starting point
The strength of focusing on the lyrics is you already have most of the puzzle. You practice your selective focus to fill in the missing pieces. This focus is easier when you start with something similar to what you already know. Because you've been talking since age two or so, you already know about stories, rhymes, and have a basic sense for what works and what is totally out of context.

Lyrics are not always clear, due to the artistic license taken by many singers. They cut off words, change pronunciation, have a funny accent, and stretch sounds to fit the feel they want or the mood of the music. In a few cases, a subset of lyrics can be almost impossible to figure out. (That’s why we have Google.)

Even with the minor issues above, they are still easier than many other instrument sounds due to our language experience. You’ll find these exercises still works amazingly well even if you never get every word right.

All this assumes you are listening to a singer who sings in a language you know well.

Longer term, we want to recognize the sounds of the different instruments in the tunes and clearly hear them in multi-layered, complex tunes (also known as salsa music). Many tunes have very interesting and complex backup vocals, and you'll love the new world you'll discover through these selective focus exercises. These same skills also apply to the instrumentalists in the music.

Don’t think this is only for beginners; I still sort out the lyrics of tunes I like along with using the same skills to selectively listen to the different instruments. Focusing on the lyrics is an appropriate starting point, but it will also sharpen your ears even if you have extensive experience.

Principle 4: Walk before you run
It should be easy and obvious; start with simple music, then grow from there. Leverage your existing language knowledge and expand your listening skills. A classic, time- honored learning method is to build on what you already know. It’s worked for thousands of years, and I suspect it will be valid long after I’m gone.

I see many instructors playing complex music and trying to show new people how to hear the “one” or a specific percussion instrument. I have to work hard at remaining calm because I want to stand up and shout, “THEY DON’T HEAR IT!” or “They are not hearing what you hear!”

Many experienced dancers and teachers assume because they are hearing the clave, piano, bass, congas, horns and/or other percussion, everybody else is hearing it too. Many newer listeners can hear an isolated instrument if it's playing by itself, but it becomes muddy after other instruments are added. Without some selective focus experience, cutting through all the different sounds just isn't realistic for many people.

The fact is the vast majority of non-musicians are only hearing a fraction of the actual instruments. It’s natural to assume everything you’re hearing is also the same thing others are hearing. Unfortunately, the listening world is just not that simple, and others can’t tell you what they don’t hear.

Just to say it all again
We all hear different things in the music, and it’s amazing the differences between individuals. Most people start with complex music like salsa, but I rarely do anymore because it frustrates new listeners and some even question if they’ll ever hear the time and the individual instruments.

I’ve long maintained that ANYBODY can hear the music and the time, given the right practice and some effort. With my private students, I regularly see them attempting to work on more advanced listening when the low hanging fruit hasn’t been picked yet.

Try listening to lyrics on tunes you enjoy when you’re in the car, working out, doing dishes or anything else where listening is an option. Don’t expect to master the music on the dance floor. Your selective focus experience will pay off and lead to much stronger ears over time, but it’s a process.

I’ll directly respond to previous comments in the next article. I'll put the lyrics from the previous articles in the comments for this one. (You did read the previous article, didn't you?)
I'm opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position.
--Mark Twain

1 comment:

  1. I recommend you read the first article and check out the tunes before reading the rest of this comment.

    For those wondering, here are the opening lines for the lyrics of the tune "As":

    "As around the sun, the earth knows she's revolving...
    As the rosebuds know to bloom in early May"

    And at the 34 second mark, the second section starts with the following line:

    "As now can't reveal the mystery of tomorrow"

    I'd love to know what you heard the when you were listening to it.

    Did you try it on some friends? Try it, you'll find it very interesting.


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero