Critical Listening Part 1: Hearing vs. Listening

I began this article with several topics and sub-categories that I wanted to address, but after writing some and seeing how expansive the topics that I wanted to cover were, I have decided to make this a series of several posts. Hopefully these mean something to someone other than me; furthermore, hopefully these articles make sense! I am enjoying writing them, and so I must continue to do just that! Read on…


Listening can be broken down into one fundamental aspect, a pre-requisite; hearing. How we perceive sound is fundamentally important within this topic, however, it is beyond discussion right now as it is deeply rooted within the psyche, any biases we have and our circumstances etc… It is therefore important to discuss that stage which lies immediately before opinion and personality is applied to our listening; the question of listening and hearing.

Within the category of music, the performance and uses thereof, I need to challenge those who hear music rather than those who listen to music. Fundamentally they are the same; hearing and listening require the ability to hear and as discussed above they, at a base level, are devoid of personality for the simple matter that they just are, however, listening is much more important and beneficial to us as musicians. I must enforce my question to those who hear. Why do you simply hear music? Any time you hear music without listening you lose a chance to develop certain skills which are so important to the musician. It is understandable how you can get into the habit of hearing rather than listening, as music now is treated very much as a commercial commodity and time filler. It was the case in the 16thC, however I wager that it was not at the same extent of prevalence that it is today for the simple fact that they had no CD systems, iPods, TVs, loud speakers and recordings which can and are played ad. nausea on these media! Simply, our society devalues music by making it such a commonplace event, and the listener, you and me, are bombarded and begin to develop a de-sensitivity to it as essentially it is background noise. We have little control over music when out and in the public, in cinemas, restaurants et. all however we should decide to do something about it.

It is not always possible, nor is it commonplace to find much interest in the majority of the music which is constantly numbing us; however, to have the ability to find something in the banality is a singular way in which this assault could become a little more tolerable. You can listen for interesting motivic ideas, or analyse what and how elements of the music make you feel, irrelevant this is positive or negative. You can listen to tuning, chord progressions, harmonies, auto-tune etc… the point being that you make the common-place de-sensitising music mean just that little bit more in terms of how you can learn from it. It is the change of outlook and perspective of the listener that you change, not the object in question.

The noise which constantly bombards us, a corporate musical effort, can condition the mind to switch off the listening and critical thinking part of the brain, and it is something which I believe can affect the listener as well as the hearer. As a listener it is important that you have your critical faculties constantly improving, and that you yourself appreciate a finer subject, smaller details etc… with use the mind develops, and it should be clear to see that when we want to appreciate, listen thoughtfully and learn through listening, we should do so in a way which will help us learn I.e.. focus on the subject at hand, don’t distract the mind with other tasks, make notes etc… When we begin to use our music which we deem in some sense “better” than that of this anonymous corporate music, we should treat it so. If it deserves to be listened to with depth, do so. I would like to say how it is important that we have space for “background” music, however, in this situation the music means something to us, and may help subconsciously influence us and our moods. I have surely felt this to be the case. In summation, and before I become a little more specific; we are in a society which now craves media 24/7.The listener can lose critical faculty in this department and thus it is something which must be practiced, and treated respectfully.

It may seem like an alien notion to practice that which most of us take for granted and that which few of us, sadly, cannot do. It is hard to imagine a world without sound, almost as hard as it is to understand a world without vision, food without taste, and at this stage an emotional part of me feels that it is important to take a moment to respect upon what I am glad to have. How common it must be to take what we have for granted, and you surely know about it as soon as you become ill, an example will follow, but given that we have our own respective personal gifts and abilities we should be working on developing them rather than working ways to dull ourselves and our intellect. In the timeless words of Groucho Marx (and in my probably somewhat re-phrased words) “Every time the television is turned on I become smarter; I immediately leave the room and read a book.” Anyhow, my example; as a child I had to have grommets put in my ears as the canals in my ears were too small leading my hearing to be very poor. I can never forget the day that those were taken out; the time with the grommets in was not a time where I was hearing much better as these plastic capsules were obstructing as well as helping, so the day that I had them out the whole world seemed so much more aurally vibrant. I could hear as I should have, and I immediately asked people to stop shouting at me and enjoyed headaches and tinnitus. Well, consider your critical, musical mind as something similar; give yourself that experience of listening rather than hearing. Don’t spend your times dulling your senses and mind, as this will not lead to a musical musician. Playing the notes is not enough; we hopefully know and appreciate this. As one further example: I spent a little time working on a cruise ship, during which I had an ear infection. Anyone who has enjoyed one of those knows how wax buildup can lead to your hearing being diminished, and contrary to all popular belief, us trumpeters do need our ears! Everyone else may not want ears around us, but fundamentally, going slightly deaf in one ear made playing a terrible experience. Due to shift times, sleeping habits, playing times etc… it was quite some time before I finally saw a doctor to get my ears syringed, and it was the stage where my hearing was not only 95% gone in my left ear, but my right ear had probably only about 45% remaining in the hearing spectrum. It was un-nerving playing like that. Do you think it is terribly far removed from the concept I posed earlier? I think it is remarkably similar. A critical faculty was very much diminished; the only barrier is the physical and mental one. I believe that there are many people who call them musicians who have this listening deafness, it only takes you to hear them play (see what I did there?) to notice this! Certainly as you move up the echelons in the world of the performer, the composer, the musician, you tend to find fewer and fewer of this type of person (at least I like to believe this) however it does not exclude them.

To bring this article into a more practical and applicable perspective, I would now like to focus on the aspects of listening which I believe promote a development of what musicians often refer to as the “ear”. These exercises, if you will, are worth doing with the intended focus that you would have during an ideal instrumental practice session, however, they may be background processes in your mind as you focus on something else; walking through the town, trying to stay awake in the latest Hollywood snore-fest film, staying calm on the return train after a long day as obnoxious teens play their latest ringtones (that were developed by masters of the psyche with the sole intention of intoxicating the listener with an un-controllable rage to kill)… you get me? Put the inherent annoyance to use; analyse, work the critical mind, count backwards from ten!

Here are some ideas and applications for listening practice in any environment. A non-exhaustive list as you will find, but include any ideas that you feel are relevant.

A simple one to begin with: Identify the overall tonality of the piece; major or minor.

Identify when (if) modulations occur. Typically in the most simple forms a modulation will tend to do several things; move to the dominant for the cadenzas in many classical concerti, step up one tone to the II (major-two) chord in a lot of pop music – it has a lifting sound, adding little more vitality and stretching a two-minute long idea into a three minute idea (ok, other music does this, but all I can hear in my head is pop… which is perhaps the main culprit), going to the relative minor (vi); often in worship music for reflective purposes and to conclude a short list of common modulations, my all-time most hated, moving to the bII (up a semi-tone) AKA the Andrew Lloyd-Webber maneuver. I can’t help thinking that many semi-tone gear-shift key changes are very lazy sounding, as if the composer was desperate to lift the energy and had no other ideas… and my choice of example was not by accident. (Wow, snarky!)

Identify rhythmic devices used to maintain interest and cohesion (if present) in the music. Some are very subtle, some are… blatant! The most blatant often being found in rock and metal music where there is a change between time and cut-time, or double-time. It serves a purpose, for sure, but it can sound crude but on the other hand it can serve as a good device for releasing tension… which segues nicely to my next point.

Spotting tension within the music; finding and locating harmonic and rhythmic tension within the music and analasing the intended use and overall effectiveness of that design.
Moving to some more difficult areas now; identifying chord tones and where they resolve, or how they move. It may not be one to worry about much in riff-based rock music as there are enormous chunks of coincidentally moving power chords (think A5, a chord with no 3rd, often voiced I-V-I, I-V and for a “heavier” or crunchier sound it is sometimes played as V-I-V which leaves a 4th to resonate in the bass… I am getting distracted). Classical string and brass quartets as well as small-ensemble vocal music would be ideal to listen to.

Identifying the intonations within music (tuning, and the lack thereof sometimes); listen to the groups where there is a freedom to play outside of the equal-temperament that many instruments are bound to. The 3rds are lackluster and the tuning is compromised greatly compared to what we want to hear. Listening to sackbut ensembles playing 16th Century music will open your ears to new possibility. Listening also to orchestras, brass ensembles (good ones) and choirs can be amazing; however, listening to the latest pop star being auto-tuned to death is not. It is important to recognize when an artist has been electronically enhanced… to find pitch! It is not hard to spot as soon as you know what to listen for. It is also important to critically appraise even those we highly esteem, be that through their image or ability, as no-one is beyond reproach but you simply may not hear their issues. Watching a piano masterclass with Daniel Barenboim is humbling to say the least; his ear is so finely tuned, and his vision and artistry is so refined that his criticism of virtuoso pianists is seemingly impossibly small – sometimes it is hard to hear the error in interpretation (or the deviation from Barenboim’s own concepts)!

I believe you can teach yourself to become more pitch sensitive and more musically intelligent by singing along chord tones and resolutions to music. The accuracy of interpreting or predicting what is to come, through the act of trying (guessing) in a bass-line or another musical part is often relative to how trained your ear is, and though this is a very simple exercise, your mind can subconsciously pick up on patters which have been programmed into our brains; cadences for example – we would recognize a plagal cadence (IV-I) by sound, but not necessary by name, also the familiar I-V cadence for cadenzas is common enough. Within music, the passage of chords has mostly an underlying structure, and subconsciously our brain can decode this, though some can clearly hear the chords involved.

Finally I believe it is important that all musicians begin to transcribe music; this is not simply for jazz musicians! Learning baroque ornamentation is best done by learning and emulating the greats before applying some personality to it. The same applies to aspects of all music, so transcribe! It can be as simple as learning to sing a tune, or whistle or hum an entire solo. It can also be the notation of horn charts for blues bands, transcribing to paper the solo of a jazz great, or learning how to play “Let the Bright Seraphim” just as Wynton does (let’s not discuss how much ornamentation he applies right now…). The point is that you develop your ear, vocabulary, and instrumental skill at a greatly improved rate by studying those who are worth studying!

So, in conclusion, I planned to outline some of my opinions and thoughts on the differences between hearing and listening, and I think I have effectively done so, but this is certainly not an exhaustive article – far from it – so please, continue to do that which you love. Continue to play, compose, gig, record and listen!


About Michael Barkley

Trumpet player/tutor, luthier, jazz enthusiast, coffee addict.
This entry was posted in Music and Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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