Tune In, Drop Out

We interrupt your casual listening experience to bring you the following special report: chord X just modulated to chord Y, which emphasizes pitch relationship Z, and this, in turn, reflects the overall macro structure of the first sub-section, implying such and such, and blah, blah, blah. Whoa. Slow down mister. Relax. Take a deep breath. It’s only a Kelly Clarkson tune. Hey brain, please refrain from identifying theoretical attributes of the music. Cheers. Thanks a lot.

For me, listening to music while in analytical mode isn’t exactly satisfying. I find that, in the end, listening for melodic function and harmonic progression greatly distracts from the rewards of simply wallowing in the music’s immediate visceral impact. Excuse me for being shallow, but the surface-level elements are really music’s most important feature.

While I understand the value in learning theory and analyzing music, I fear that some composers have wound up on the dark side of the force, never to return. I know a composer who claims he’s actually unable to listen to music without recognizing its theoretical aspects. Lucky for me, the analytical part of my brain can easily be switched off. For those composers away at graduate school who didn’t get the memo: It’s okay to enjoy music again. Let it simply wash over you and take you someplace incognizant.

8 thoughts on “Tune In, Drop Out

  1. Colin Holter

    I don’t even know if that comment is sarcastic or not.

    Seriously, though, I wonder if the line between analytical listening and sensual listening – and, by extension, the boundary that divides the kinds of pleasure we get from each way of listening – is such a hard one. I’ve always felt that the ability to explain (not to say dissect) a piece of music as I hear it has enriched my listening experiences tremendously, just as forcing myself to listen “stupidly” has from time to time provided insights I might not have received had I been mentally Schenkering the piece in question.

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  2. stevetaylor

    Sometimes when I’m really listening to music super hard, super analytically, feeling every sound move, tweaking the balance of the whole structure just so, it’s shatteringly intense and beautiful.

    Maybe it’s meta-analysis, like the Zen saying. “Before you know Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. Once you begin to learn Zen, mountains are no longer mountains, rivers no longer rivers. But after you’ve attained mastery, mountains are again mountains, rivers are rivers.”

    Not that I’m a Zen master of analysis or anything, but that’s my ultimate goal in listening.

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  3. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    listening…
    Randy, you say that you “know a composer who claims he’s actually unable to listen to music without recognizing its theoretical aspects.” Count me as another one. But I think you misunderstand the way some people hear… I can’t speak for your composer friend, but I can speak for myself. As someone who hears chord progressions and modulations all the time, I find it a perfectly natural act. I’m not consciously analyzing the song, it’s just how the song sounds. One of the things that gives a song its unique (or not so unique) sound is that theoretical stuff. I don’t actively tune into it, but it’s there, and I have a certain type of ears, so I hear it. The chord progression is as much a part of the musical surface as are the words (“I’m so movin’ on”) as is the electric guitar effect, the quality of Kelly’s voice, the nifty little drum loops that the producer put in there to spice things up… and so on and so on.

    It’s as if you’re telling me that you enjoy, say, a Dutch pop song very much, and how dare I pay attention to what the words mean in Dutch. Yes, of course it’s okay to enjoy the song without knowing Dutch, but a part of how the song works is involved with the words, the language used, and what’s wrong with hearing that? The language of the lyrics, the language of the harmonic structure… neither of these necessarily takes more brainpower and concentration to understand than the other. I’m not sitting there listening intensely, writing down Schenkerian graphs and Roman numerals… but I hear those things because they are right there, on the surface, just as much as that kickin’ drumbeat.

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  4. ydandaman

    I’m curious Scott, do you have perfect pitch? I don’t, and I’m always curious how it effects people’s musical perception.

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  5. Daniel Wolf

    If there’s anything I know after too many years of making music, it’s that I have no idea how other people hear. Someone may describe their listening habits as analytical or intuitive, but what precisely that means, and how that listening experience is processed by the individual listener against the background of their own musical memories and imagination, is extremely remote to me. From the variety of music that people make, and the bits of evidence kicked up by scientists exploring the psychoacoustics and neuroscience of music, I gather that there is considerable biodiversity when it comes to listening, and although it sure makes responses to music unpredictable, in the end, I can’t imagine that this is a bad thing.


    And then, too, as composers we are both colleagues and competitors, and I think that the economy of music making is far healthier when we are on different paths, doing different things, than following the same narrow path with the same mindset. Music is a large house, with room for radical extremes, and that includes the over-intellectual as well as the anti-intellectual, and perhaps even the rest of us, muddling around in-between.

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  6. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    (side note…)
    ydandaman – I mostly have perfect pitch… that may seem like a contradiction, but it’s true. Any time a piano or guitar or pitched percussion instrument plays, I can pinpoint exactly what notes are being played without thinking about it. With wind instruments and brass, I have to concentrate fairly hard to get the pitch. With strings and voices and other very pitch-flexible instruments, it’s a little trickier, but if I focus intently I can usually figure it out. In any case, I’m sure it affects my listening somehow, but I’m definitely not one of those people who thinks that if my piece were in C# it would sound supremely different in color than in D.

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  7. dannycdoubleb

    I would hope that you are not asking me to turn my brain off while listening – if I want to sleep I will sleep. I think it is very important to listen actively (Maybe to Mozart more than Kelly.) That does not mean recognizing the trichordal array or even analyzing the harmony, but to gain anything emotionally one must at least pay attention. ‘Tis the miracle of mindfulness.

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