Up Your Music Game

One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of music appreciation is that everyone listens his or her own way. Think of the last time you listened to music. What was it? How did you listen to it? Were you paying attention to individual instruments, lyrics, or do you remember how it felt?

In my experience, musicians tend to hear individual instruments; they can tell you what instruments are being played, and they can hear what each is doing and explain it to you. Listening in his mode makes it easy to hear each type of sound as an extension of the person playing the instrument, and appreciate the creativity and skill, or lack thereof. Musicians can break apart a song and explain it rationally.

But it seems to me the average listener hears the song as a whole; they have a connection to how a song feels, but couldn’t tell you what went into making it, and they tend to remember the vocal melody and lyrics before the instrumentation.

Here’s an experiment: if you’re the type who hears individual instruments, try to turn that off for a while and listen to the song as a whole. Pay attention to how it feels. If you’re the type who listens to songs “as a whole,” try to delineate what instruments are making what noises, and pay attention to what each is doing (this might take a few listens). Switching back and forth and listening to songs different ways can lead to surprising changes in opinion.

You can listen any number of ways. Listen to the rhythm section. Listen to the amount of reverb on the vocals or the distance of the mike from the drums. Listen to the lyrics and pay attention to their meaning. Manipulating your own consciousness around the music can be an interesting experience.

You might realize that you disliked a song your entire life because there is one small aspect of it that rubs you the wrong way. For instance, once you muscle through the totally bizarre opening two minutes of “Aja” by Steely Dan, the song is unstoppable, and the last minute is mind-blowing.

You might also find out one of your favorite songs is actually terrible. That’s not a fun discovery, but do you really want to listen to garbage your whole life just because you lost your virginity to Def Leopard?

20 thoughts on “Up Your Music Game

  1. I think this is a very interesting way to look at how we listen. I am a vocalist myself so I have always subconsciously kept time with music that was playing. Trying to turn that off was difficult and made me gain very little when it came to the music. I think this may be since I was thinking at that point more about shutting off my brain and just listening than listening. Thus I heard even less than I normally do.

    • I think I get what you’re saying. Some days I have to try harder than normal to meditate, but usually the extra effort and attention I put into meditating actually gets in the way of a good meditation. I find a lot of similarities between music and meditation, and I think it has to do with the quality and quantity of my consciousness that I can absorb into the task at hand. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I found this to be an interesting experiment, but perhaps mainly because I fall into a category not addressed here: the listener who can do both.
    I started off as one who listens to a song “as a whole,” but my training in audio engineering taught me to dissect a piece of music. I can switch between these two types of listening very easily, but find it tough to turn off my synesthetic response of associating colours to everything I hear. I find this is a fun exercise to try, if you’re not one that listens to music this way. Afterwards it can be interesting to discuss the other senses triggered by the music (not necessarily just colours).
    This song to be interesting for this exercise, if you’re interested, as long as you try at least the first listen without looking at the video.


    While there aren’t necessarily the same outcomes as you get when you break apart a song or hear it as a whole, this cool is to try as it gets you listening to music in a whole new way. It can also, I find, can be a useful way to listen to your own music during composition.

    • I assume people who work with audio or people who have something like a trained ear have a much easier time listening to music as a whole or as distinct parts. I played drums for about 8 years and I think for most of that time, when I listened to music, I was really only paying close attention to the drums. When I started recording music it really opened my ears. Mixing is an art all its own.

      Synesthetic experiences with music have always been pretty fascinating. There are certain songs or types of music that almost always give me visual hallucinations (when pay full attention with eyes closed). I think Oliver Sacks has written about this in a few places…maybe Musicophilia.

  3. I definitely have to agree with you on this. More than anything I find specific people, instrumentalists or not, will always gravitate towards their perception of the most appealing sound. For me, music has always generated a specific aura for me, in the sense that the music has embody a sense of fullness; completion so be it, like Classical music! Classical music, at the time, was generated for high class individuals and was the first genre I ever felt connected to; it had so much more story behind it. Classical music has generated a lot of my influence as a musician and interest in music; enabling the idea that it has to feel and sound full, from the most prominent instruments to the minimalistic things that contribute to it’s entirety. When it comes to isolating instruments for my own interest, vocals and guitar have stood out to me the most.

    • If I hadn’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s movies, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten into classical music. It never goes out of style! I basically grew up with rock and roll, so when I finally started to appreciate classical it was like discovering a whole new world. Thanks for posting.

  4. As a music theatre performer, knowing the whole piece, individual instruments, and every part of the song is an asset. I find that most people just want to enjoy the whole song, and relax as opposed to actively listening to every individual instrument. When a person says they don’t like a song I feel as that is because they don’t enjoy it, but haven’t taken the time to try an appreciate it. With what you’re saying is trying to get every individual to appreciate all music. I agree that the more you listen to individual sections you can appreciate it more, or depreciate it if the song is poorly written, which usually a musician can tell.

    • To add to the confusion, sometimes music can be technically ingenious and impressive, but it still misses the mark. People have looked at me like I’m crazy when I’ve said I’m not a fan of Kim Mitchell. “But he’s a great guitar player,” is usually their argument. But so what? Technical ability is no substitution for good taste. Thanks for commenting. And for the record, I didn’t lose my virginity to Def Leopard.

  5. I am a musician myself and I totally agree with the passage. I believe that musicians tend to hear individual instruments, and the average listener tends to hear vocals and how the song feels. Seeing as though I am a musician, and I also appreciate music, I don’t find myself stuck on either of these aspects. I find that I listening to the song “as a whole” and I hear things an average listener wouldn’t. Since I tend to work with audio a lot, I find that I can switch between these two aspects really quickly without even being aware of it. I guess after doing it for so long, it is just something you adapt to. I find that when listening to music for the first time, I tend to break it down into stages. First, I listen to the beat to see if I like the it, then I start to analyze the lyrics and after I analyze the lyrics I feel the mood of the song. It is amazing all the things you can hear if you listen to a song “as a whole”, and you’re right, If the average listener was to do this then they might realize they dislike a song they have been in love with for a very long time. This is an amazing passage and a great experiment!

    • Hey, thanks Raymond. I think that ability to change gears when you’re listening is super helpful, and it’s probably way easier for “insiders” to do than people who aren’t inherently musical. I’ve always been fairly musical, so I sometimes wonder if a reader who isn’t that musical will get anything out of my post. I have no real idea how easy or hard it is for an “outsider” to pick up that ability, but practice can’t hurt.

      I also think the ability to change gears is essential for anyone who wants to work in the field, from recording music to doing sound design on films. Even though you’re essentially designing sound for a broad audience made largely of non-technicians, every piece of the puzzle needs to be in place or you risk losing people.

  6. After reading this post I was able to identify that I am the type of person who listens to music as a whole. I listen for the way music makes me feel and what the lyrics are saying in order for me to like a song. Most of the people that I hang out with listens to music the same way. We use it to make emotional connections. I was able to listen to the Steely Dan song both ways. I was able to listen to it as a whole in hopes to gain an emotional connection and I was able to separate the song into different instruments. The biggest impact was when I had the chance to listen to each individual instrument. Instead of gaining the emotional connection I needed through the whole song, I was able to gain another connection through the different sounds that were produced. Overall, I think if I would take more time to listen to the true artistic elements of a song I might enjoy music even more and I will be able to make even more connections to it besides just listening to the lyrics.

    • Isn’t that Steely Dan song weird? The first half sounds like something you’d hear in some sleazy tourist lounge in a foreign country while the last bit sounds like some super-modern, all-American psych-rock. Instrumentally, most of Steely Dan’s stuff is interesting, but a lot of it just doesn’t touch me on an emotional level. That’s why I like to switch up my listening-game. Otherwise I would have written off Steely Dan and a lot of groups without really “hearing” the music. Without switching gears that way, it can be easy for people to write off entire genres of music. But every genre offers something. I recently discovered that I actually like “No Flex Zone!”, which was a bit of a surprise. Thanks for commenting.

  7. As a person who isn’t very musically gifted but loves music, I have never thought of trying to listen to music in sections this way. I enjoy the song as a whole, getting the feel of the music in its entirety. While thinking of this way to listen to music made me realize that I have done this from time to time without noticing. I think in future I will try this way of listening to songs that I don’t really like, to see if I like them more. Also with songs that I like to see if they are actually good songs.

    • I catch myself unconsciously listening to one instrument a lot of the time. Other times I really have to put effort into hearing a particular element. Ultimately I never want to overthink it when I’m watching a movie or listening to music, and I find I have a knack for shifting my attention without letting my rational brain short circuit my attention. This might be because of the ridiculous amount of my life I’ve spent enjoying music and movies. Thanks for posting.

  8. I have to agree with what your saying here. As someone whose music technicality knowledge goes as far as my grade 8 clarinet lessons, I would say I listen to music as a whole as opposed to identifying with each instrument. However, I don’t think I would like to experience music any other way. I feel that appreciating the song as a whole is what is supposed to be done. If we were supposed to focus on the different technicalities and instruments of a song, those instruments would be playing the song on their own. The instruments are so important because together they create something beautiful but alone they would produce nothing. When I listen to my favourite song don’t get me wrong, I feel the different instruments resonating through my body but I relate to the mood of the song as a whole much more.

    • I find I have to consciously try to listen to songs as a whole as opposed to focusing on a particular element. It’s interesting that we come at music from different angles. I don’t quite agree with you, however, that listening to songs as a whole is what’s supposed to be done. I don’t think there’s any authority out there who would say that a person should listen to music “just this way” and not any other way. All the elements of the song make up the whole, and I’m with you that that’s the beauty of multi-instrumental compositions, but what I’m advocating is a fluid attention that can increase your appreciation. For instance, if you only listened to songs as a whole, you’d probably never put on a song that didn’t give you a great overall feeling. But certain elements of those songs you neglect might blow your mind if you can just home in on the good bits.

  9. I don’t play music nor do I sing but I love music. It is part of my everyday life and I think it is interesting how you ask how we listen to it. For me it depends on the song. Certain songs I listen specifically for the lyrics and others for the instruments, usually guitar or keyboard. I’m not sure why guitar or keyboard stands out to me but I think its interesting how we I guess subconsciously pick out certain things of a song whether it be lyrics or a specific instrument. Do you think we subconsciously pick out certain things in a song rather than just listening it to as a whole?

    • Frankly I have no idea how it works. I know that when I played drums I mainly listened to that instrument, and it took me a while to break free of that habit. I have a hunch it has something to do with the music we hear as babies. I know babies don’t like atonal music; it’s a taste only some people acquire, and much later. I bet that pleasant music we hear even before we start making memories guides how we listen later in life. I think a lot of people probably don’t listen to particular instruments, but listen to the whole song because they like the feeling it evokes.

  10. I found this article to be very interesting, I have played the piano for over 10 years now but still listen to the song as a whole. My favourite songs all have beautiful instruments that compliment each other with meaningful lyrics. I don’t feel like I’m listening with just my ears but my entire body. I will get goosebumps when there is perfect harmony. This post made me think about why I like certain types of music and not others. Thank you!

    • Thank you. I definitely know what you mean about feeling the music with your whole body. That’s why you can’t beat live music. Some of my favorite experiences in life have been at really, really loud concerts, where the vibrations are so strong they absorb all my attention and I feel like I just dissolve into the music.

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