Saturday, September 12, 2015

Progressively More Focused Listening Yields Surprising Fruits From The Unconscious Mind

Listening Is Learning

One way to learn more about music is to listen more carefully to music you like.  Combine that with a little Googling of what things are called, and you're on to a whole new way to appreciate music.  This can particularly come in handy when you're motivated to try to write your own songs. 

When you can discern the number of bars in an intro, recognize the song form, recognize the parts and the arrangement, hear the harmony and melody, notice the time signature, etc., then you're more of a discerning listener than you were when you were just a kid who liked a song on the radio.  Knowing what parts of it sound good to you and why they sound good, knowing why you like certain songs by a particular artist, knowing why you don't like others...all these things tell you about your own taste, but they also inform what kinds of songs you yourself are most likely to write.

The Ape vs. The Fly

Practicing cover songs by googling the chords and tabs, reading them as you try them out, playing along with the recordings, memorizing them...these are ways to learn more about music you like, but you can also do it silently - that is, to listen without taking action, using only your mind.  You can train yourself to hear all of the parts and their details that make up the whole of the song.  While listening, and after repeated listenings, more details reveal themselves to you. 

Subsequently, you can take this knowledge of what works and what doesn't and get out your instrument and word processor and make educated guesses at what will work as you create new songs.  There's no doubting if the Beatles never logged so many hours as a cover band, they would never have become such great songwriters.  That said, although there's nothing wrong with enjoying pure imitation (some musicians never get past being ape men and women who perfect their renditions of other people's songs),  it is quite another and arguably more satisfying way to be a musician when you take it all in and then use that knowledge as creative reserve (being a fly on the wall).

From Consumer To Preparer

This somewhat subliminal internal processing of information gleaned can happen on an unconscious level in which your mind works on it unbeknownst to you and then makes sense of it through magical manifestation that surprises you when you start to write.  When you least expect it, it's similar to when you're trying to remember a name and then stop trying and later on it pops into your head.  It's cool. 

Preparing for doing it yourself as you listen is different than just listening for fun, although it can arguably be even more fun.  It's like when you've never given a speech before, and you know in a few months you'll have to give one, and between then and now you have the opportunity to watch others give speeches, you listen to their speeches differently, listen and watch for different things than if you were just an attendee audience member there for entertainment. 

You have to take it easy at first, and as you start to train your ears, and as your knowledge increases, you start to notice more and more of what you think works well and why.  You are gradually able to identify rhyme schemes, verses, bridges, turnarounds, song forms, tempos, keys, etc.  More than anything, in order to do this, you need to combine your listening with some basic instruction you can find online about song construction.  Take it in little chunks at a comfortable pace, learn some basic music glossary terms, and then slowly you know what things in songs you used to just hear are called.

Developing Your Inner Critic

It's like instead of trying to learn from a teacher when you were a student, you instead thought about how you could teach it better while you were being taught.  As we progress as musicians, we may notice a live performance or hear a recording and think to ourselves about how we could've/would've done it a little differently, how we would re-do it to improve it here and there.  It's imposing our creativity and uniqueness on something we're exposed to, critiquing it as we take it in. 

More than being able to say negative things about other's music, you are listening with your own personal tastes in mind, only armed with deeper knowledge of what you're hearing.  This allows you to better form your own opinions of what aspects of songs are appealing.  All the music you've ever listened to, whether you liked it or not, becomes an influence (and a tool) as you start to craft your own songs. 

Easy To Teach, Hard To Do

Just because you can talk the talk, doesn't mean it's easy to walk the walk.  This newfound power you have can rarely manifest itself in you writing a perfect song or a commercial hit, because it's rare even for the best songwriters to fire on all cylinders.  That's not to say that popularity alone makes a song great.  I generally despise and avoid pop music, which in my opinion has been on a slow but steady decline since the late 70s. 

However, I have no trouble admitting I like the bubblegum sound of Sugar, Sugar by the Archies, or I'm A Believer by The Monkees.  I like a good pop ballad too, on occasion.  There are a couple radio songs from the late 90s I've heard that come to mind which are near-perfect:  Shania Twain's You're Still The One, and Savage Garden's I Knew I Loved You.  Not sure who wrote each, but these are examples of commercial pop hits that I wouldn't know how to improve.  I doubt their songwriters have come that close to perfection with any of the other songs they've written.

A Good Place To Start

Universal appeal is of course something anyone who aspires to write songs should not totally ignore.  The best resource I've found for this online is this wikipedia page:  List of songs considered the best

It combines many published best-of lists from reputable sources.  There's no accounting for some people's tastes, and although true, it can't hurt for you to recognize the commonalities, know the rules so to speak, so you can then go out and break them in your own unique way.