How to listen like a musician

"One man's ceiling is another man's floor." - Paul Simon When I was a kid, in those long moments when my mom would not! get off! the phone! to shower me with attention and answer whatever trivial and random question I had, I would lounge around and do the strange things kids do when they are bored. I developed a game in which I would lean my head upside down off the sofa or staircase and imagine an upside-down world where the ceiling was the floor and the floor was the ceiling. I visualized myself walking upon the sloping "floor" and passing by the chandeliers, floating upon their chains like strange metal trees.

Like many kids, I also enjoyed playing with mirrors. Sometimes I would stare into my bedroom mirror, seeing what things would look like if east was west and the light came from the opposite direction. My grandmother had a light green three-way vanity that fascinated me. I would fold the two side wings to my ears and peek inside, pretending...what? That I was a Rockette? That I had an infinite number of identical twins? I don't know, but it passed the time.

When the Magic Eye craze hit in the 1990s, I was good at finding the images because I had already spent time playing around with what my eyes could do. Stare across the street, now focus on the screen two inches from my face. Now stare across the street again - repeat ad nauseum, literally. I can still find weird optical illusions in ordinary places: a Persian rug, the grate on the side of the pool, the light hitting the side of a building.

You can apply a similar playfulness when it comes to listening to music. The non-musician hears the sound coming out of the instrument or speaker, processes it, and it's gone. The musician makes choices in the moment about what to listen for and what to focus on, just like ten-year-old me switching back and forth between the metal screen and the landscape.

When you try listening for something specific (for example, picking out the cellos in the orchestra), the sensation is not so different from imagining the ceiling to be the floor, or mentally flipping your room to the mirror version of itself. You're inside the music, participating in it, remixing it to suit your needs. All of the other aural information is still present, but your perception has totally changed. The better you get at doing this, the more the part you're paying attention to pops out - an aural illusion.

When I was twenty-two and experimenting with drum programming for the first time, I didn't know how to recreate the grooves I heard on songs I loved in order to adapt them to songs I'd written. I couldn't hear the individual components of the kit (kick drum, snare, hi-hat) from the overall sound, even though I could mentally isolate the drumset itself within the recording.

I started studying transcriptions of drum loops, and began learning how to play the actual drums. After a few months of this, I could, in my listening, mentally separate each piece of the drumset and transcribe its part.

There are two skills involved in listening like a musician: First, being able to switch between the different musical elements in order to "hear the forest for the trees," which we've just discussed. The second skill is being able to perceive and understand the language of the music in order to get whatever information you need from it.

If you're standing in an elevator with two people speaking Polish, and you happen not to speak Polish, it will sound like gibberish. If you spend a year in Poland, immersed in its language and culture, the sounds will start to organize themselves into words, syntax, and meaning. This happens to every baby in the world - it's not about "talent." If you practice music with discernment, this will occur. If you cross your eyes in front of a stereogram long enough, you will see 3D picture.

Previously, I've written about how chords are colors - you can learn to identify harmonies that you hear solely by ear without having to play them on the instrument. Below is a list of some other things you can train yourself to do as you listen:

  • Identify various instruments
  • Identify the specific make or model of an instrument you hear (e.g. Les Paul or Stratocaster guitar)
  • Guess the producer, composer, or arranger of a work
  • Determine where the instruments are panned in a mix (e.g. piano hard right, drums in the center) 
  • Name effects or qualities of the sound (reverb, delay, compression)
  • Identify specific vocalists or instrumentalists by their distinctive sound
  • Determine any frequency bands that need to be boosted or cut (this is the job of a mastering engineer)
  • Learn how to play a given instrumental part
  • Harmonize the vocal line or sing along with an existing harmony part
  • Tap your foot along with the beat

These are just the few of the things you could be listening for, from easy to expert. Start with whatever level of ability you have, listen to live music or a high-quality stereo, and play around. Hang upside down if it helps. If you figure out how to go cross-eared, let me know.