How to improve your listening ability to music. Page 5

11. Personal remarks on listening. Further reading 

The ideal listener? 


This book, written by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallway (Pan Books 1986), gives some very practical and easy-to-understand advice on how to enhance your attention. It also provides the reader a positive way of looking at music studies and listening.

Also by Timothy Gallway: Inner game of Tennis, Golf and Skiing.



Hearing versus seeing

To focus more on hearing, it's very important to diminish the amount of distracting information received through other senses. This is especially true when it comes to visual impressions since they consume so much attention.

That this is a fact can easily be verified: With music in videos or in films, where the music often has a very subdued role and cannot stand by itself on a concert stage, the music is usually fragmented. Listen to any kind of film music and compare that to music from a "normal" symphony. If you do this kind of attentive comparison you will experience the great difference between these two very different genres. Itís important to distinguish between the music composed by European composers in Hollywood during the late 1930ís and 40ís and the work done by later generations of composers. Korngold, for example, wrote film scores comparable in density and versatility to his concert music. With the films of Hitchcock came a change, and the music began playing a subordinate role; an element working for the film as a whole and not tailored to stand on its own. In these pages, I'm dealing with music as an art form; personally I have very little interest in music which plays a subservient role. Which is to say: Iím not very interested in most film music and pop videos, since the music is too simple to carry enough interesting material without the pictures. This is, in fact, a very serious problem. Frank Zappa, in his later years, complained that the audience didn't want to listen to records Ė they were only interested in watching videos. By then, Frank Zappa had gotten more and more interested in music with a symphonic quality, and therefore developed his attention towards the music and not the images.

In my former school days, I believed in the old saw which states that an image speaks a thousand words. Later on I found out that if you want to probe deeper into any subject nothing will replace the actual information in a text. It is apparent that our modern society has become more and more dependant on images. Therefore knowledge and information conveyed through our media is becoming very shallow. Appearance is taking precedence over content. This is due mostly probably to the character of television itself. The moving image is better than any other medium at conveying feelings, but when it comes to abstract ideas and hard facts it cannot compete with either text-based nor sound-oriented mediums. This leads to a superficial culture which is mostly self-reflective in its character but not self-analytical. It will eventually become a true danger for any serious development of the mind, at least in the traditional sense. And this is Ė alas Ė a very difficult trend to break. If you work as a teacher who wishes to convey deeper levels of understanding, you have to fight inculcated ideas which germinate from commercial cultural life.

This new situation accentuates the problems discussed above to an even more critical point. These problems are most apparent in the performing arts. As I see it, the only path for an individual is the maintenance of a critical and inquisitive mind and a search for information and spiritual nourishment outside the predictable mainstream media.

In autumn 2005 Swedish Television Text published the results of a survey which assessed the reading ability of children in the 9th grade. Not surprisingly, the number of pupils with limited reading abilities went up from 14% (with reading difficulties) in 1990, to an alarming 25% (with grave reading difficulties) in 2005. In the modern school there is an unshakable (and unfortunate) belief in the computer and the picture as the foremost tools of learning. Notwithstanding, traditional methods are still very important and sometimes the only way to develop certain basic skills like reading and the ability to understand abstract matters.  




On page three I discussed the ability to identify the character of a certain musical passage/work. I also went a step further when raising the question whether this character had some kind of deliberation/direction or intention or if it was of a less developed nature.

The direction of the feelings is the intelligence behind it. But there is also another level to discover about feelings, concepts or characters: the level of humanity instilled in its foundation.

Focus again on the music and try to understand Ė which should be done with as much of an open mind as possible Ė if it is, for instance, the concept of Love that the music conveys. Could it be identified as the conscious, intelligent and selfless Love personified by Mother Theresa or Albert Schweitzer? (I would never claim that Love is only a feeling. Itís actually a conscious act of both sensitivity Ė rather than feeling Ė and intelligence, as it has direction and a purpose.) 

The opposite of this general concept of Love is the personal, objectified feeling; love that is directed at a specific person/s or object and is characterized by a more selfish sentiment. A more "teenage way of love" that is based on a surface view of its objects (i.e. sex and good looks).

As stated earlier, this is a technique you can apply to any aspect of music; a way of enhancing your appreciation of the many layers inherent in a composition. You can do this with any character that is inherent in the music, aspects which you will discover in your future listening adventures.  

A side note: some individuals have actually stated that they try not to transmit anything at all in their music-making. But that's really an impossibility, since we do not know what nothingness is. Therefore we cannot as human beings transmit something that we do not know. What would that be? A "nothing feeling" will still be a feeling, and will, at best, be tedious and/or very silly.



Feeling versus technique

I have never understood people who state that this or that performance is "too technical". Some people even say: "it's just technique" if the music happens to move beyond a certain speed. If you speak to excellent musicians of the highest rank, they all say that they want more technique to be able to express freely the ideas they wish to convey in their performances. In practise, you cannot have too much technique. The key issue is how you are using it to express the music.

The most common problem that I have perceived in my listening experience is that music is too often played badly. In many aspects it is played badly Ė a rhythm or pulse is incorrect, the pitch is out of tune, there is an over-emphasis on sentiment or a lack of pre-concert practise. A performance which is too intellectual or which over-emphasizes technique over spirit is, in my experience, truly uncommon. Most statements decrying performances as "too technical" are more often than not voiced by persons who have an over-emotional view of music. They also tend to react against the music played.

I do not agree with people who state that the most moving music is that which is the most emotional. An over-expressive interpretation or piece of music can be very frustrating to listen to, especially if the performerís intentions are stronger than their means of expressing it. When one is younger, barn-storming performances are usually something cherished. As I've grown older however, I often find them frustrating if at the same time other aspects of the music are overlooked. The more subtle ingredients such as harmonic structure and tension, multiple melodies, clarity, sound quality, phrasing and rhythm, are often neglected in these high-voltage acts. You usually gain very little and lose so much more when listening to over-expressive interpretations.

Unfortunately, I find most popular music mostly emotionally based. Rarely I have found interest in other aspects of the music. For example, itís almost impossible to find any popular music involving counterpoint except in short phrases. Usually the phrases are made up from a few notes, and they are usually unmovingly repetitive. There is no musical or harmonic development, except for the very simple half step rising in the coda of a tune. But most of the time, I find that the phrases are sung or played over-expressively. Ask yourself an attention-awakening question; ask yourself if the musician holds the piece together; has he/she a feeling for the longer lines in music, or does he/she get stuck on a single phrase which is not connected to the a whole?

Over-expressiveness usually means that there are two or more stresses in a musical phrase. Try to stress two syllables in any language and you will directly understand how silly and childish this practise is. In music, it's the same. Itís just a bit more difficult for an untrained ear to hear each accentuation. Interestingly enough, bad phrasing is also often the result of two or more stresses in a music phrase. There must always be one major stress, and not two or more of the same amplitude. Usually, the phrases are also connected in pairs, equal to a sentence with a comma. One part of the sentence with more energy is dominating over the other. This means that an actor and a musician share the same basic ways of moulding a sentence through accentuation. You might add energy to a part of a sentence, but you must make the other parts weaker. If you keep the other notes on the same energy level, it will become a boring performance since you aren't varying the expression. This goes for soft as well as loud playing. If one plays softly all the time, it's just as boring as playing too loud. It will appear as if youíre only able to shout, or only whisper.



If you have nothing to say, act out your hysteria in public; 
perfect for a emotionally based medium such as TVÖ

My former teacher, Roberto Szidon, used to say: "many personsí opinion of what is beautiful music is to hear a lot of the same thing". Take a few moments to reflect on the true meaning of this statement! On the positive side, the good thing is that unvaried music wonít in the long run make anyone happy. Itís not such a far-fetched idea to believe that many people will search for something else when the expression is not varied enough. Other things that reflect the same attitude spring to my mind: Big Mac and Coca Cola. You will get the same thing everywhere in the world. These companies strive towards uniformity. 

So again, much of the same thing ...



Attention versus concentration




In this book (there are actually two more published in Sweden), you will find very interesting material concerning relaxed and focused concentration which will enhance your life and make any activity more rewarding.



I would further suggest reading books by Paul McKenna; literature which, in a more Americanized fashion, presents positive ideas on how to improve your concentration ability. Here youíll find very little scientific jargon, but instead an easy-going and practical approach to enhance your understanding of the mind and life in general.



One must always be very careful with miracle methods which claim to "transform you" to new heights, especially when they prescribe only few set of rules and ignore other things in the music. They promise much, but behind these fancy words is often a much more primitive and simplified way of listening, derived often from emotion-based judgments.

On the HiFi manufacturer Linnís webpage, youíll find their own system of judging HiFi equipment called TUNE-DEM. According to Linnís founder, Ivor Tiefenbrun, itís an straightforward way to judge HiFi equipment by listening to the melody line. The better the HiFi product, the easier it is to follow the melodic line. They also call this way of listening "Active listening".

With the information from the books I have suggested on these pages, one can easily draw the conclusion that TiefenbrunĎs method doesnít use the whole brain, despite their claims to the contrary. Furthermore, this approach only deals with the first basic level of listening, which various brain research experiments have proven it to be. Therefore the TUNE-DEM method can only be a first step towards serious listening.

When listening only to the melody line, you are missing out on many other aspects of the music. But even more importantly, you are using only the right cerebral hemisphere. One can wonder if Linn makes very expensive products for people with only half a brain? ;-)

I would, instead, recommend reading Ralph Kirkpatrick's book about Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (Yale University Press 1984 (132 pages. ISBN: 0-300-03893-3)). It is easy to read and will definitely improve your way of listening and give you many ideas on how to stimulate both cerebral hemispheres. (Itís clear that a book for the entire brain should be at least twice as good as a text for only one half of your brain! :-))

Kirkpatrick's introduces six aspects in performing (or listening) which are applicable to any kind of music: the historical approach, the aesthetic approach, the melodic approach, the rhythmic approach, the harmonic approach and the interpretative approach.


(Dr. Tomatis and his revolutionary hearing method. Martinus a Danish philosopher)   Page 6