How I Listen

The Lost Art of Listening: Attention [Volume 3]

In this third installment of The Lost Art Of Listening, we look at the challenge and importance of disciplining oneself to properly focus on music, and the layers and details which can only be taken in by truly concentrating on the music.

Guest post by The Song Somelier of DLMDD

Back when we used to attend live shows (it’s coming back, don’t worry) how often did you find yourself at a gig and wonder why the people at the back or next to you seem to be spending more time talking (loudly, so as to be heard above the actual music) than listening? Many fans go to gigs for more social needs I guess, but it has always baffled me that you wouldn’t want to simply drink in the performance. Well, for now all that is on hold, so perhaps this is an opportunity to simply play more records at home and really listen.

It is a skill and a discipline to listen to music, it really is.

This excellent piece from the Brain Pickings blog summarises the 1982 book Music: Ways Of Listening which outlines seven key ways to listen better. This book was a precursor to many more good reads on the subject, from David Byrne’s best seller ‘How Music Works’ to Daniel Levitin’s ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’. In Music: Ways Of Listening, author and composer Elliott Schwartz argues that our collective listening skills have been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out”. Our ability to actually listen to music has been gradually declining since the chamber concerts of the 19th century. I can’t help thinking that the 21st century range of distractions can only degrade our listening powers even further.

One thing that strikes me is that there is a disconnect somewhat between the creation process of music and the consumption of it as a product. Artists may spend a great deal of time labouring over the making of a record, with teams of people involved – bandmates, producers, engineers. Stories of how specific sounds were achieved in the recording studio are legend, from recording vocals in the toilet (Bjork’s ‘Big Time Sensuality’) to the main guitar motif recorded on a child’s ukulele (Neko Case ‘Last Lion Of Albion’) to percussion taken from banging sticks on radiators outside the proper recording studio (The National ‘Mistaken For Strangers). When we hear the tracks we are largely oblivious to these details.

Music studio

Streaming services are doing their best to embellish their vast libraries of music with this kind of context, from Spotify’s ‘song stories’ and ‘enhanced album’, to Apple Music’s more straightforward editorial approach, including bespoke artwork. The insertion of lyrics and ‘visual radio’ style information also bring more to the music, yet somehow all of this doesn’t quite add up to anything like the insight you can get from Song Exploder, or a good Pitchfork review, or the warmth you can get from a radio presenter. The grumpy assertion from Paul Weller that an iPod was like “a fridge with no fucking beers in it” has since been fixed, but does it still have a ring to it?

While the streaming platforms make more effort to provide context, we can also just create our own. Sometimes an absolute lack of context might work better too. One method of listening better is to tap into your teenage self and turn off the lights, preventing you from the obvious distractions (mmm, maybe this technique is actually great for actual teenagers right now in fact). Going further along this theme, you could try ‘Pitch Black Playback’ (once the isolation period is over and everything gets back to normal, I pray it still exists). Here, you go along and hear albums played back via a supremely high quality audio system, in the dark, with others. It will change your perspective on those records you hear this way.

For the connoisseur of contextual listening experiences (again when everything gets back to normal) you must try another event-led brand, Classic Album Sundays. In these geeky but authentic sessions, a short interview preludes the playback of side 1, followed by short interval, then side 2, of a classic album. Vinyl of course, and usually on a very decent system.

Until these simple pleasures return, we can all try them at home. For a while, I reserved Thursday nights as designated music nights. No socials and no Netflix, but decent headphones and a sofa, choosing just one album and sticking to it. I resumed the habit again recently, and I can wholly recommend if you do want to try it, KIWANUKA by Micheal Kiwanuka. You can dive right into that record and leave the outside world at a distance. You’ll feel better for it.

A modern home interior with a vast record collection

From The Song Sommelier’s point of view

When it comes to attention, nothing quite reaches the giddy heights of staring at the vinyl cover or pouring over the sleeve notes as the record spins. Am I nostalgic? Sure, but so are all those vinyl fans in their adolescence and early 20s. With The Song Sommelier, we wanted to try and recreate this experience for the streaming world. Taking a well curated playlist, adding Mick Clarke’s characterful artwork and accompanying sleevenotes by the curator, the idea is to listen, look and read, and for all those things to help pay more attention to the craft, just as the artist might imagine.

We also encourage our ‘discerning listeners’ not to skip tracks. Our ‘No Skipping’ policy isn’t mandatory (it’s really just a token gesture) but it is half serious – designed to encourage a little self-imposed scarcity, attention-paying, and most certainly making sure a stream is a stream and not a dreaded 30-second clip. And come on really, if you can’t spare a song three or four minutes of your time, you’re in a bad place, or listening to the wrong playlist.

For some posts we have introduced Track By Track; a short commentary on just a few details to listen out for in each track. In the coming weeks, we’ll up this feature as much as possible.

Five great alternative ways

to really tune-in:

Nominating your own ‘music night’

Tim Burgess is doing virtual album playbacks during the lockdown period: Twitter @Tim_Burgess

The Song Sommelier’s American Import Record Rack

and Songs of Love and Loss

Pitchblack playback – hopefully will return soonClassic Album Sundays – now doing live streaming sessions

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