Do we need to rediscover the art of listening? Does knowing what to listen for enhance your enjoyment of music or is it enough just to be carried away by the emotion? We asked two experts what they thought.
Fraser Lewry, Digital editor of The Word argues NO:
Do we need to learn to listen to music? The answer, for anyone in possession of a reasonably efficient set of ears, is no. Turning the appreciation of any art form into an academic exercise, as the people posing such questions are prone to do, is a sure-fire way to remove any pleasure that might be derived from hearing it in the first place.
The assumption seems to be that if we understand more about the recording process, and are able to identify precisely what’s going on, it’ll somehow open up whole new levels of appreciation. This is errant nonsense, of course – it’s the equivalent of marching into a restaurant and demanding that the chef supply a recipe card to go along with each dish, thus removing the surprise, the mystery, and any kind of magic. Worse, by concentrating on such minutiae you’re in danger of forgetting what it was that drew you to the music you love in the first place. In my youth I knew someone, who, after a typically forensic examination of a new Yngwie Malmsteen album, triumphantly announced that the histrionic Swede was using a heavier gauge of string than previously. When I asked him whether he actually liked the record, he looked at me as if it had never even crossed his mind to form an opinion.
It’s tempting to see this as an extreme example of audiomania, but it’s still true that those most concerned with “learning to listen” are often the ones creating the most sterile environments in which to do so. Sure, you can precision-engineer your hi-fi so that every note is crystal clear, every nuance apparent, and study the music so hard you can accurately produce a blueprint of the room in which it was recorded, but you know what? You’re not having much fun. Really, you’re not.
Prior to writing this piece I spent a couple of hours reading various online forums frequented by audiophiles, and was disheartened – but not altogether surprised – to discover that music is something that’s barely talked out. People casually refer to “auditioning speakers” or “listening to some [insert name of manufacturer here]”, as if the name on the cabinet matters more than that on the disc. You’ll never hear anyone say that they just listened a Stevie Wonder track that made their heart leap, or a Flying Burrito Brothers record that made them cry, or a Pixies track that inspired them to leap around the room like a freshly-shorn goat, bashing into the furniture and knocking over plants. And that’s a real tragedy, because those reactions are what music is really about: its ability to stir the soul and move the feet.
People don’t need to learn how to listen: they need to learn how to relax.
Dr.John Dibb, Bowers & Wilkins Senior development engineer argues YES
We all learn to listen from the day we are born. As we grow, our brains learn how to interpret those minute variations in pressure at our ears, which we call hearing. Because we have two ears, we can assign direction to sounds, and in a relatively short time, just as the brain interprets a 2D image in the eye to give a 3D view of the world, we experience a sonic image of the space around us.
It’s true that we don’t need to be an expert on music, or have any knowledge of how it was recorded, or spend all our time nerd-like, adjusting and upgrading our audio systems, in order to enjoy it. I remember my son, aged around 3, commenting on how much he liked ‘that noise’ – (I think it was Vaughn Williams )
We can, however, significantly increase our enjoyment by learning a few rules, with the ultimate goal of making listening our primary sensory focus and therefore a much more rewarding experience. Quite a challenge these days thanks to i-Pods, headphones, commuting, car audio etc. All of which turn music into something that exists only in the background.
Luckily, it’s not difficult to achieve a state of immersion where music, and your appreciation of it, becomes your primary experience. Just :-
Make sure your system is set up to reach it’s full potential.
Experiment with speaker position (if you have them)
Try out a few different headphones (if you don’t)
Make time to listen, and kill as many distractions as possible.
Appreciation shouldn’t be rushed.
Get comfortable – the right temperature and a comfy sofa can do wonders.
Relax and clear the mind.
Force yourself to slow down and recognise the space you’re in and the time you have made.
Finally, close your eyes. You may feel a little odd, but this is a vital stage in sound appreciation, because your brain should tune in to the sounds you are experiencing.
Many of us have become victims of sound convenience, but it’s never too late to learn. Following these simple rules will help you to rediscover the art of listening and I challenge anyone who tries this at home not to be won over by the experience.