Concentrated listening. How to improve your listening ability to music. Page 1
On the first two pages I will outline some basic concepts and other practicalities that will make the listening recommendations later on in the text clearer and in the end, enhance your listening. There is a lot of text, but bear with me a while as everything will fall into its proper place as you read on.
All perception is a mixture of contrasts; strong from soft, light from dark, downhill from uphill, straight from curved, and so on. Music is also based on contrasts; many notes as opposed to few notes, long notes in contrast with short, complex rhythm and simple rhythm, soft and strong, little dynamic and extensive dynamic, aggressiveness to softness, clumsiness to elegance, and so on.
It’s of the greatest importance to state that every human being is perfectly correct and right in his or her own perceptions. And everyone is perfectly true to his or her own ability to perceive music. It might possibly be added that they also could be convinced that their perception is the only true view of the music at hand. This conviction might be very strong indeed, sometimes almost bordering on fanaticism. In the first stages of perception, music is primary based on feeling only, and is directed by right brain activity. The next level of perception coincides with the awakening of the intellectual side – stated in a more popular way: the left side of the brain – or the awareness that there could be something that one is actually missing in one's perception of music. Only after this small step, when the person has achieved a more intellectual ability to perceive, is it possible to introduce concepts to train further and enhance the perception of music. Before that stage, great care should be taken not to undermine the individual’s free will. All training must grow from the will to learn, and must never be force-fed to anyone. Tolerance of the abilities of others to perceive music should be the foundation for all further discussions of this matter. No training will work if it's not truly rooted in the will to learn. Scientific research in music – to be more precise, brain research in children, untrained persons and trained persons – has certified that music develops in this way; from right sided brain activity, to both right and left sided activity. More on that topic later on.
Any given opinion on music will therefore only represent the present level of a person's ability to perceive. If any opinion is to be of interest, it must be followed by lucid and clearly defined arguments to make any sense. And furthermore, in order to present an even more thoughtful argument of music, one must base one's opinions on a general idea of music. This idea should present both the intellectual side as well as the emotional side, combined into a model that will provide arguments of true resonance in the science of music, as well as in the limitations in language and human perception put upon us. This is not wishful thinking, only the customary progression any scientific method entails. I have penned a proposal for such a method, but the space at hand on the Internet is actually not appropriate for such a large-scale text. I will therefore only make suggestions on how to improve your listening abilities.
On the other hand, I will try to elaborate on the fact that music is actually a language in its own right and that it features a specific grammar with all the implication of such a set of rules. (The grammar can be bent under certain conditions). If it were in any other way, all musical communication would be impossible. The implication of a music system without any basic rules is the belief that everything performed must be of equal quality. And we’ve all experienced the tremendous differences in music quality... Furthermore, I will give examples of some of these rules and how this can affect your understanding of music.
Anyone interested in the subject of human perception should read Bertrand Russell's "The Problems of Philosophy". In this truly wonderfully concentrated volume, some very precise and well-structured thoughts about the basis of human perception are presented. Russell argues that there has to be a basic logical understanding inherited in all people's minds that will – in spite of the basic problems of perception – make it possible for humans to understand each other, both through feeling and logical thought. Without these basic concepts – some of these are also found in the writings of (for instance) Jung – all communication with music will in practise be impossible. Opinions such as "there are no rules" are therefore not true and are only a reflection of a particular person’s limited and purely emotionally based perception.
I urge you not to make the common mistake of believing that human value is a synonym for, or have the same contents as talent or intelligence. It's not! All human beings have absolutely the same right to exist, but that doesn't make everyone a great musical talent. It does not follow, that anyone can deliver valid opinions that are correct and valuable on a broader spectrum for anyone but himself or herself.
To be able to focus more on hearing, it's very important to diminish the distracting information gathered through other senses. In this respect the visual sense is the most important to control. Please, try to listen with your eyes closed, in a dark room or even blindfolded. As our vision is a predominate sense, subtler information intended for the ears will easily be lost if you keep your eyes open.
I once heard one very prominent politician utter: "Quality is like the cream on top of the cake". Another example comes from a car ad in a newspaper: "Quality is a feeling". Well, quality is not and has never been any of these two things. Quality in life or in music can never be something that you add on top of something else or just a feeling. It's something much more subtle: it has to do with sensibility and not just feeling! Intelligence rather than thinking! Quality is something you begin with, work with and always have as a partner in all your undertakings. It's an attitude, or a will to strive for perfection with your own abilities. Unfortunately the above mentioned attitudes are spreading in our media and in society, but the only thing they will show is how far off you are from real quality. Real quality has more to do with what follows in this text: to stay alert and be critical to one’s own perception. You cannot leave out the quality aspect and believe it’s still with you. And you cannot expect any half measures resulting in quality. You have only underdeveloped that special part of your being, by being unfocused on that particular perception in your mind. On the other hand, if you are really serious in your ambition and attitude, quality will slowly develop.
1. Music listening. To be observant of your own perception
The first step to learn more about music is actually to be observant of anything that comes your way, which of course also includes this text. If the individual doesn’t perceive new information as a fact, nothing will convince that person to alter his or her opinion. If not perceived as a fact in your own mind, any such idea or suggestion will remain only an idea. To be observant is therefore of the utmost importance.
Still, the most difficult step is to be observant of your own perception and not so much of other person’s ideas! If you are unable to observe your own ability of perception and at the same time exaggerate your own abilities, then you won’t be able to sharpen your perception and will, in fact, have problems learning anything at all!
My advice is therefore: leave those who believe that analysis and intellectual discussions in the sphere of music are only open to personal opinions in their (sorry) belief. No argument will work until they start to wonder if they have actually missed out on something in their own perception. I’m afraid that this is a common problem today. Far too many listeners (and musicians) are focused on their own feelings and expressions. If you do not question your experiences and move away from this self-reflective attitude so common today, you will not expand your perception.
To enlighten people of their own level of perception, in my lectures I usually play a piece by Gregorio Allegri "Miserere Mei, Deus". After playing the piece for one minute or so I stop the music and ask the listeners "how many voices are you able to discern?" The answers usually range from two [?] up to seven. In reality this work is scored for a double choir in nine parts! So far, no one has yet been able to give me the correct answer. Even more telling is the fact that most people do not even remember from which speaker the music started! I then tell the famous story – which belongs to the without-any-doubt-verified stories of Mozart’s life – that Mozart heard this secret music (at that time) in the Vatican once, went home to his hotel and wrote down the entire piece. Mozart was 14 years old at the time and the music copy in his hand still exists to this very day. He could hear all nine parts and remember the whole ten, eleven minutes of the piece after listening to it only once! If this unbelievable feat doesn’t start a true examination of your own level of perception, nothing will. I can come to no other conclusion than to say that this lack of self-reflection reveals a perception based mostly on the emotional side of music – that you, in fact, have very little intellectual understanding of music. (To which I add: this only goes for music, as you might very well be able to have strong talents in other fields). But remember that this is not bad thing in itself. You should instead compare it with the level of an infant who starts learning language and communication for the very first time.
Another common reaction to this test is the understandable frustration one feels when confronted with one’s own limitations of perception. If this critical examination of your own abilities goes too far you will have problems with your self-confidence and this will decrease your ability to enjoy music. A delicate balance is necessary in life as well as in music. Neither the emotional nor the intellectual side should dominate. You need to achieve a parallel emotional development when the intellectual side has been awakened. Tolerance – when confronted with different levels of development – as well as balance, are key words in education as well as in life. Later on I will suggest some techniques to overcome a too critical view of music, as this state of mind takes away the real pleasure of listening to music.
(The listening position and the room) Page 2