Musicians listen differently than the average person. But anyone can learn to listen music more deliberately, and understand more about what they hear in the process.
We might think of the way we listen casually as passive listening. This is the way you might hear music playing in the background, whether you’re driving your car, sitting at a desk, or even dancing. The music accompanies some other activity as a part of the atmosphere. You can enjoy the song and even be moved by it, but be conscious of the experience more than the particulars of what you’re hearing.
Good musicians listen critically, with a level of comprehension.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the listener recognizes the specific notes being played, although sometimes they do. Rather, a trained ear perceives details of the way the music is put together. That might include any and all aspects of music: instrumentation, musical vocabulary, rhythm, and texture. This perception is fluid, in that sometimes we might notice something without actually listening for it while other times the experience is more “active”.
“Active listening” is a skill one applies consciously, simply by paying attention. You might have heard a song a hundred times but never really paid attention to the specific details. Sometimes you might even discover an instrument or a part you never knew was there, simply by listening more closely. Talent and training play a role in your ability to perceive these things, but it starts with the simple decision to pay attention to what you hear.
We might also call this skill critical listening. “Critical” in this context doesn’t imply passing judgment but differentiating and observing. Critical listening allows you to hear the individual elements of the music, as well as the way they interact to form a complete and pleasing sound. This process often occurs in layers or levels, in which you perceive more and more detail upon repeated listens.
At the most basic level, we feel a beat and hear a melody.
This is the way the average person hears. A particular instrument might stand out at some point, but for the most part the collective sound is perceived as a whole. But that whole is made up of individual parts. Most people do find that when they begin to pay attention, they can separate the different sounds when they know what to listen for. Over time, this sense becomes more and more acute. Even someone with trained ears might require multiple listens to peel away the layers, depending on how complex the music is.
The ability to learn by ear comes more easily to some people than others but it’s a basic skill anyone can acquire. It can be developed through formal training but also requires lots of trial and error. I had spent so much time in high school trying to learn music by ear that when I got to college my skills were better developed in that area than most of my classmates. Even so, there was still music I listened to every day that I didn’t know nearly as well as I would come to years later. This ability to hear critically has continued to develop over my entire career. In fact, I think most of my improvement as a musician over the last twenty years has been in my ability to hear more than my technical ability to play.
I’ve also found that as my ear has grown more sophisticated I’m able to appreciate music that used to be difficult to follow.
Every piece of music tells a story, whether there are lyrics or not. If you’re only accustomed to following a vocal, instrumental music might seem random and uninteresting. When I first discovered jazz, I sometimes found it hard to separate the improvised sections from the composed “head” melodies. I might respond to and enjoy the sound and texture of the music, but I couldn’t follow the story. As a student playing classical guitar, I could learn the notes and even follow the musical instructions well enough give a convincing performance, but I needed guidance from my teachers to actually hear the music.
This idea of developing your ear applies to everyone that listens to music in any setting. You don’t even need to play an instrument to be able to fine-tune your ability to hear and appreciate. For a player or writer, though, learning to really listen expands your ability to communicate: to tell the story with a level of nuance and detail that adds depth and power to your work. That doesn’t mean that your music needs to be more complicated. Having a “sophisticated” ear simply amplifies your ability to perceive and play with ideas. It allows you to infuse even the simplest thing with layers of subtlety and meaning. This is what gives great music staying power: not complexity on the surface, but the kind of depth that continues to yield new rewards upon years of repeated listening.