Most people who listen to music are listening passively, meaning the music is playing in the background and it isn’t the center of focus. And while musicians naturally tend to focus on music they are listening to more than the average person, many still don’t take much time to only listen to music. There is usually an accompanying activity.
I have always considered it the “musicians curse” to not be able to listen to music entirely passively or even simply for enjoyment. There is always information buzzing through a musicians brain when he/she listens to music. To some degree, a musician is always analyzing what they are listening to. I often envy my non-musician friends who simply love listening to music just because its music. For me, I almost always listen to music partly to get something musically out of it; to hopefully learn something new, find a new musical idea to transcribe, or hope that something sneaks its way into my playing by osmosis.
Most musicians like me have learned to embrace this curse. Clearly we love music, otherwise we wouldn’t spend so much time doing it. But like any other craft, to achieve mastery you need to study it and analyze it. This is essential.
As jazz musicians, we need to be constantly listening to jazz in order to learn the language. If you don’t do this you’ll never be a jazz musician. Therefore it is important that some of this listening time is intentional. What do I mean by intentional? I mean that you deliberately set aside time that you only listen to music, and specifically jazz. Whatever style of music you are pursuing, you need to set aside some sacred time to ingest it and give it your full attention.
Think of one of these intentional “listening sessions” in the same way that you would watch a movie. You sit down (usually), you may even turn down the lights and you play the movie. Then for the next 2 hours your eyes are glued to the screen. You may eat a snack or have drink, but other than that you are immersed in the glimmering lights of your television screen. I am suggesting that you do the same with music from time to time. Allow the music to be the main attraction, and open yourself up to what the music is offering you both as a listener and a musician.
When you enter into your listening session, be sure to remove all distractions. Get rid of your phone if you are tempted to scroll through Facebook. Turn off your T.V. The only active device should be the one playing the music. If it helps you, close your eyes so that you don’t get distracted. The only place you want your conscious mind to be is on the music.
Once you set aside the time to listen, and focus in on a particular album, artist, or even song, here are some questions to ask yourself while you are listening:
What song are you listening to?
When a new song comes up, do you know what the title of it is? Have you heard it before? Do you know how to play this song yourself? Is this song considered a jazz standard or is it an original piece by the artist you are listening to.
How is the song structured?
Is it a 16 bar form? A 32 bar form? Is it an AABA form, or something else? Maybe the song is a blues. These are seemingly minor but important details to be aware of. When the soloist is playing, do you know where the top of the chorus is?
Can you identify the chord progressions?
Who are the band members and do you recognize their sound?
Do you know what musicians are playing on the recording you’re listening to? If so, what about their particular style is unique? What do you like or dislike about the way they play?
What is the piano, drums, bass, guitar, sax, trumpet…etc playing?
Take some time to single out particular instruments while you’re listening. You may be automatically drawn to listening mostly to the instrument you actually play, but try to listen to an instrument you don’t often focus in on. Ask yourself what they are doing, and at the very least try to phase everything else out and focus on just that instrument.
Is there a particular part in a song that stands out to you?
Maybe you really love the melody to the song. Maybe you find the chord changes interesting. Maybe there is a particular solo you like a lot. Maybe there is a particular musical line you really like in a solo. It’s important to be aware of the moments that really give you energy, because ultimately those are the things you would like to incorporate into your playing.
How does the music make you feel?
This is important, so don’t dismiss it. As musicians, as artists, we need to be aware of how the music we are listening to makes us feel. Ultimately we enjoy music because of the emotions it gives us, and we want to learn how to express emotions in our playing. The feeling doesn’t have to be a particular word like “happy” or “sad”. Just be aware of the feeling. Every song, artists, or even album can have a unique vibe, and it’s important to tap into that.
These are just some questions to ask yourself. If you don’t often take the time for intentional listening, I encourage you to set apart some time for it this week. Block off some time, grab a drink, and spend an hour just listening. It’s amazing how much you can get out this if you eliminate distractions and just listen.