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?