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What do people think about when they listen to music? People have the impression that non musicians listen in an inferior way, and that musicians listen in a very technical and analytical way which somehow increases their experience of it. What I want to say is that this is not true and that everyone’s way of listening is equally valid. Why do musicians do concerts, as opposed to playing in private? To share something with an audience, to communicate something. John Coltrane said: “I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I’m doing . . . the emotional reaction is all that matters as long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood.” Once you give the music to the listener, it takes on a completely different identity. For example, if two people listened to “mood indigo” at a jazz concert, and it happened to be the tune that was playing in the train station when one of them had their first kiss, it would have a completely different meaning and significance to them than to the one who had never heard it before. It is also a meaning that Duke Ellington was not aware of when he composed it, and may actually be a completely different emotional state to the one he was in or the one he wanted to describe when he wrote it. It could also have enormous significance to a listener, but to him have been relatively throwaway and not very considered at all. But it doesn’t take anything away from the kisser’s experience listening to it.

Even things which are written to communicate something very clear and obvious can never have a completely correct interpretation. For instance even if a group of people was to listen to Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony”, without knowing the title I think it is unlikely that everyone would have figured out exactly what it was about. In a similar way, if you don’t know the story behind Eric Clapton’s “tears in heaven”, you will definitely experience it differently to someone who does.

Imagine if I were to do an experiment. Play something not very well known to the average listener, but with a clear programmatic theme as the idea – a Debussy prelude maybe. Play it without saying the title (as Debussy used to write it…) and ask for a few ideas of what the piece might be about. Give everyone an erroneous title that could fit (“the hot air balloon”) as the correct one and play it again, asking people to see if they can hear that in it. I think people would concur, maybe even sighting particular parts of the piece as reminiscent of the behaviour of a hot air balloon as it takes off or lands, etc. Then I explain that actually I was lying and it was in fact about something completely different. Has that invalidated their listening experience completely? I doubt it… if I hadn’t told them they would probably all have gone home thinking what a nice piece that one about the hot air balloon was. But the fact that everyone was able to relate to something in it that was nowhere near the composers intention shows that the listening experience is very subjective, and that there is no right answer for how you listen to music.

Now let’s turn to the presupposition that some people have about musicians – “don’t you listen to things in some sort of superhuman way as a musician and understand things that non musicians could never possibly understand about the universe just by listening to a piece of music?” Ok perhaps it’s not always phrased that flatteringly, but it is definitely true that people think musicians have a superior taste in music or that there is some music that the ordinary person is unable to appreciate. Something which annoys me a lot is when people talk about something they’ve heard and they say “I don’t really know enough about music to appreciate it properly” or “you’d probably understand it a bit better than I do because you’re a musician”. In my opinion this is completely false.

I can tell you as a musician that I have spent a lot of time learning how to identify exactly what notes are in something as I listen to it and what the chords and rhythms are etc. I can generally identify pretty quickly what’s going on musically in about 90% of the things I encounter. And I am telling you from the other side that this has not enhanced the actual enjoyment of listening for me at all. That might sound like a negative thing to say, but allow me to explain. That training has given me the ability to understand the technical details of what is going on, and better tools to make music myself, but it doesn’t do anything as far as the emotional or narrative experience of the piece. Let me to give you a parallel:

If I had, for some divine reason, the ability to look at a building and tell you how many bricks it had, or how much all the bricks weighed, that information would not give me emotional information about the building, whether it was beautiful or not, whether I liked it or not. That information is essential for the construction of the building, but doesn’t affect your aesthetic perception of it. In the same way, a musician needs to know all the technical information and be able to manipulate pitch and rhythm in order to create a piece of music, but on it’s own this information has no intrinsic emotional value. It’s interesting that people don’t feel the same about actors, reserving judgement on them because they are not actors themselves (you don’t generally hear “I’m not really an actor, so I can’t really say whether I thought Leonardo Di Caprio was any good in that film I just saw). I can safely say that in my experience knowing how a chord is constructed or exactly what notes are in a melody has never increased my enjoyment of it. If anything some things could be said to lessen your experience of it, in the same way as a magic trick is lost on someone who knows the mechanisms by which it is achieved.

For example, if I was to play the first chord of Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green” on the piano, I know that it could be described as a G minor 13th chord. I know that this chord is made up of a low note (a G), then the note 7 notes above it, then the one 10 above that, then the one 7 above that, then 5 above that, then 3 above that. So what? That information on its own is not beautiful, it doesn’t even have any kind of arbitrary mathematical symmetry that I could marvel at for all of the one and a half seconds that I’ll be playing it in the piece. But what is beautiful is the sound of it. And that sound is just coming out of the piano into the room, for anyone to hear in the same way. The sound is not affected by my knowledge of what it’s made up of, in the same way that our knowledge of how a plant cell works changes it’s construction or our knowledge of how far away the nearest galaxy is affects the distance to it.

A lot of people say after listening to challenging or complicated music “it just went over my head” or that they didn’t feel equipped to appreciate it properly. But what my view is is that that is sometimes a failure of the artist to communicate, not a flaw of the listener. Yes everyone has personal tastes, and some things will always appeal to some and repel others. I’m not saying that any artist who isn’t universally loved is a failure, but what I’m saying is that everyone should feel more empowered about their taste in music. If you didn’t like it, it’s not your fault! It’s also possible that the musicians have failed to communicate something or that they have over-complicated or misjudged something. There’s a big difference here and I think it comes from this idea (which is sometimes held by musicians as well) that a non-musicians opinion is less valid.

I think everyone is free to experience anything the way they do instinctively, and that the feeling of any listener (musician or otherwise) in response to something is the most valid response possible to a piece of music. I also think that this is one of the most interesting things about being a creative person, to see how different people experience your work and what effect it has on them.

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Listening to music

Posted on

January 17th, 2014

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