pile of CDs
Listen To Music, Dammit!

Listen To Music, Dammit!

pile of CDs

Too often I hear people say things like “pop and rock concerts are a massive snore, unless you live and die by A minor and C major.” Defenders of popular music then launch back with lists of bands making sophisticated art in popular mediums, often followed by lists of pieces of concert music generally considered great that stick to one or two harmonies (hello, Electric Counterpoint; hello, first 136 bars of Das Rheingold). This line of argument isn’t that productive, though, and while we can use specific examples to poke each other all day, doing so doesn’t address how unhelpful the thinking behind such opinions can be. More importantly, it doesn’t address how positive keeping your ears open can be.

Listening to and trying to understand as much music as possible, even music that you don’t enjoy, is an incredibly important part of becoming a better and better musician. Different genres make use of different musical processes and ideas, and listeners raised in different traditions pay attention to different markers. Classical training, for instance, teaches us to follow tonal changes and listen for transformations, largely in the realms of pitch and rhythm. No wonder people who grew up steeped in this tradition find radio rock so boring—it does, in rather a lot of cases, tend to repeat the same four chords.

The rock tradition, on the other hand, trains listeners to pay attention to changes in color (here meaning timbre/sound). Those might be the same four chords, but this time they’re distorted, the drummer has moved from a closed high-hat to a crash, and the singer has moved from singing to screaming. Those markers, in rock, can mean the same thing to a rock listener that the move to dominant in a traditional sonata means to a classical listener. A rock listener, moreover, might entirely miss the structural importance of a change in harmony, because it may not be accompanied by a change in instrumentation. It certainly won’t in a piano sonata.

I’m not an expert in Hindustani music, but I assume there’s an equivalent structural/narrative device involved in listening to different ragas; different makams in Turkish classical music might serve the same purpose for its listeners, as might differences in the ways that different MCs place their lyrics across beats in rap and hip hop.

There is no way to make an argument that one type of music’s formal devices are better than another’s. This is not to say there isn’t a range in the quality of how well pieces take advantage of those devices. How convincing is that cadence? How dramatic is that color change? How cray is that shit, Jay?

I believe that creators have a responsibility to listeners to make ourselves aware of what’s out there, and to use what we learn through listening to improve our own art. I see no reason not to take advantage of multiple sets of signals to affect our listeners in the deepest way possible. If I’m writing something, I want it to be the best thing that I’m capable of writing, but there’s a whole world of possibilities out there that I might be missing. Even if hearing some of them doesn’t contribute directly to the work at hand, they can all contribute to my artistic understanding.

This, to me, is an extremely practical application of Plato’s allegory of the cave. A quick explanation: a group of people is chained up in a cave, in such a way that they can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them are their captors, and behind their captors is a fire. The prisoners have only ever known their current situation, and thus assume that the world consists entirely of their captors’ shadows on the wall in front of them. If they get free of their chains, they might think that the world consists solely of the cave, which includes the fire and the captors themselves. Upon escaping the cave, they’d learn that the world consists of a valley, and so on, and so on.

Today is an amazing time to be a listener with open ears. As we now have a practical means of easily accessing music from all times and all regions (Spotify and YouTube aren’t without their moral quandaries regarding royalties, but they’re a godsend for curious listeners), we have no excuse not to listen to everything we can get our ears on.

To be fair, no one has time to listen to everything that’s out there. I’ve only heard a little bit of Turkish classical music, and I don’t expect that I’ll ever become an expert on it. Of what I’ve listened to and read up on, I honestly haven’t enjoyed much. But for having heard it, I am a better composer, and better listener to other musics, than I was beforehand.

Maybe that’s the other side of expertise. If we realize there’s no way we can hear everything, and accept that we’ll never have anything near a complete understanding of the music being made today, then that frees us to grow infinitely. Knowing, experiencing, and learning from more than I knew, experienced, and learned from yesterday is a worthwhile goal.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: what, as an artist, is the benefit of being closed-minded or closed-eared? There isn’t one. What are the benefits to listening to and being aware of as much music as possible? There are about a zillion. Make it a mission to hear something new each day. Even if you hate it, figure out why you hate it. It’ll make you a better musician.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

7 thoughts on “Listen To Music, Dammit!

  1. Kyle Gann

    My composition students’ refusal to listen to a wide range of music is the bane of my existence. The school gives them free access to the entire Naxos catalogue. I gave one kid a list of composers he ought to listen to. Two days later he sent me an e-mail: “Which pieces in particular?” Had he asked me that in person, I might be writing this from prison. Another told me he listened to the Concord Sonata and knew he should listen to it a second time, but he could already tell it was the kind of piece he would never like. I criticized another kid’s nascent rock opera as being rhythmically simplistic, and he smiled indulgently and replied, “You probably don’t realize what it takes to make music ‘radio-friendly.'” They’ve got the entire world of music on the internet, a cornucopia that would have made me salivate at that age, but they adamantly filter out everything they can’t understand on first listening. It troubles my sleep.

    1. Nick

      Thanks for the comment! I must say, I feel honored to have you read my writing. I’ve been a fan of your music for a long time, Kyle (am even writing a bit of microtonal piano stuff for Aron Kallay, after hearing yours), and have enjoyed your writing.

      The only thing I might respond with, as a bit of a devil’s advocate, is that while the things that trouble you about your students trouble me too, we’ve also got to remain open to hearing their ideas about “radio friendliness” or whatever we want to call it. In fact, I think we should push them to quantify those ideas and see what they come up with. It’d probably be interesting.

  2. Oded Assaf

    Kyle Gann’s experience as a teacher and his comment (plus his relevant article on his own website, PostClassic) could be mine as well. Listening to all sorts of musical styles and genres, and learning from thousands of old and new musical examples, is technically possible today, more than ever. And, as Nick Norton puts it here, this is a really vital for any young musician if he/she pretends to be creative, artistic, original (not just ‘radio-friendly’, etc.) . But something has gone wrong. I have become frustrated (well, my sleep has not been troubled that much…) by most of my students’ refusal to be challenged by any unfamiliar, unconventional music (and I’m speaking of ‘modernist-academic-avant-garde’ conventions, not only tonal-classical-Romantic conventions!) . This is – let me use a political phrase I’ve learned from the British writer Tariq Ali) – the (stubborn) Extreme Center of musical life and music education today.

  3. Nick

    Thanks for the comment Oded. I’ve had similar experiences in teaching as well, as well as when working with musicians who haven’t had experience with avant-garde/concert/art/whatever-we’re-going-to-call-it music. That said, I’ve looked for ways to challenge their thinking within their own languages, and have had some success. Doing rhythmic dictations with music by math metal bands, for instance, has opened up some of my students to actually listening to serialism. And noise rock isn’t all that far away from 1960’s experimentalism. Try hitting your students with those avant garde pitch and rhythmic conventions in a timbral language they already like and you’d be amazed how into it they’ll get.

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  5. Tom

    Great article. I need to remind myself that influence and inspiration usually make themselves known when I least expect it, and this happens when i listen more adventurously.

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