A Subjectivist’s Guide to Music Listening

(It’s going to be my goal to do at least one post a week that’s a little different in tone and focus than the more newsy/editorial content that will continue to make up the majority of the daily postings, at least at this point. I’m going to call it “A Subjectivist’s Guide to…” and tackle something different each time. We’ll see how it goes!)

Clearly this guy has read my guide. Photo by Shiv Shankar.

Clearly this guy has read my guide. Photo by Shiv Shankar.

Music, like all forms of art, is highly subjective – the incredible variety of compositions and styles demonstrates the wide range of audiences and preferences. It has been around as long as humans could vocalize and continues to evolve and change to this day, like so many things in culture. For me, personally, music is something special and evokes a deep, unique passion which I don’t always see equaled in others. That’s fine, I understand that certain things do not appeal to everyone – certainly, I enjoy music more than, say canvas painting (not that I don’t like canvas painting), and no doubt there are individuals out there who have the opposite opinion. However, I believe that perhaps the reason passionate music fans aren’t as common as I think they should be is like introducing someone to ice cream for the first time as a warm, melted puddle. Like many things, if not consumed properly, maximum enjoyment can be hard to achieve – I’m going to show you how to enjoy your music properly frozen (no don’t put your iPods in the freezer, it’s just a metaphor)!

That said, I am of the opinion that there are certain ways to experience or evaluate a work – in this case, music – so as to get the most out of it for the listener. This goes beyond just the standard “turn the lights down and the volume up” (which isn’t a terribly bad idea of itself) and requires a more “holistic” form of engagement from the listener. I use the term “holistic” to mean all-inclusive in this context: You, the listener, are not listening to songs but rather, to an album, a presentation. The songs are merely parts, chapters of the album; while they may stand on their own with some strength, the best artists (in my experience) tend to create their songs as parts of the greater whole that is the album. So it is from this understanding that we derive the first and perhaps most important rule of Subjective Music Listening:

1. Listen to the album, the whole album. Every song, in order.

Many people like to listen to music on shuffle/random but this would be akin to skipping around on chapters in a novel – sure it could be done, but the experience would just be incoherent and be devoid of most of its intended meaning. This includes not skipping songs you don’t immediately like, as well. As time passes and you listen to the album more, you may come to enjoy a disliked track or at the least appreciate its place within the context of the album.

Next is regarding the more technical aspects of music listening. Though I understand that this will be the least convenient part of my recommendations, it is very important:

2. Listen to your music in the highest quality possible, preferably lossless. Vinyl if at all possible.

Old school. Photo courtesy Wicker Paradise.

Old school. Photo courtesy Wicker Paradise.

One of the largest casualties of the so-called digital revolution has been audio resolution in music. Without going too deeply into the science of digital and analogue, just like there is standard and high definition in television, audio too has resolution which, like video, affects the quality. If you’ve ever seen any video in “HD” you’ll have noticed it is sharper, colors are richer, and motion is less blurry than it’s non-HD predecessors. It is no different for audio – higher quality means deeper bass, sharper highs, less “muddy” mids. The odd thing, however, has been that while video has been getting progressively higher resolution, audio has been going steadily lower. That’s right – those MP3 and iTunes Store songs are all in low resolution formats, whereas CDs and vinyl are (for our purposes of this explanation) the highest resolution you can get. It’s a bit like going from Bluray back to 8mm. The higher quality you listen to your music in, the closer you’ll be to hearing the work as intended. Vinyl or CD are the easiest way to do this, but there are also online music download retailers who offer music in high or lossless formats.

3. Don’t listen to music through $10 earbuds or your awful laptop speakers. Use good, over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones, preferably. Otherwise, a set up of a dedicated amplifier and a pair of speakers; subwoofers are fake, avoid at all costs (for now).

This is in the same vein as #2; quality does matter for the listening experience. You don’t need to spend $500 on an amazing amplifier then $800 on a 5.1 surround system to do this. The reality many audiophiles won’t admit is that there’s a threshold to equipment quality that once passed begins to see diminishing returns for every dollar spent. When talking headphones, it is not hard to reach this threshold with a very reasonable budget – this isn’t a headphone review article, but if you do your research and shop around it is possible to get fantastic cans for anywhere between $70 and $300. For someone who is used to spending $10-15 on cheap earbuds all their life, this may sound like a lot but if you’re truly passionate about music this would be something well worth investing in. Amplifiers are also important to good set up, though somewhat less important when using with headphones (that’s not to say it’s not worth investing in a decent headphone amp in the $30 range), if using via computer.

Ok, now that you’re going to get to actually hear the music correctly and plan on listening to all of it, there are a few things I practice that enhances the album “break-in” process.

4. On your first listen or two, preoccupy yourself with something else simultaneously.

In my experience it can be difficult to keep full focus on unfamiliar music; it can even be somewhat boring. This is not a good way to try to enjoy a new album and might discourage repeat listens (listening to music shouldn’t be a chore). If the first few listens are allowed to be absorbed in the background, it’ll become much easier to enjoy on dedicated listens later on.

5. Don’t actively read the lyrics for the first few listens. In fact, don’t even put much effort into trying to hear or understand them (Exception: Hip hop & rap, obviously).

It’s distracting and let’s be honest: most lyrics are not that great and if they are, they are more profound within in the context of the instrumentation and the album. Few artists’ lyrics work to the same effect standing alone on print as they do within the original song. After a few listens the lyrics will either make themselves evident otherwise the album is probably broken-in enough to allow for a lyric read along.

This may sound like somewhat of a contradiction to #5, but it isn’t entirely:

6. Examine the album artwork and liner notes (vinyl is unmatched in terms of packaging) during one of the first few listens.

The album is more than just the music on the CD/vinyl/hard drive, it’s also the cover art, the liner notes, the cliché black and while promo pictures of the band posing like they’re too cool to be doing anything other than hanging out in an abandoned warehouse decked out in leather. It’s all part of a package and when they’re done right can enhance the album experience.

 7. Even if you like the album or a particular song a whole lot, limit your listening to just once a day.

These things suck, don't put them anywhere near your head. Photo by Rob Ellis.

These things suck, don’t put them anywhere near your head. Photo by Rob Ellis.

One of the biggest problems with listening to a new album is that you can become quickly enamored with it, and feel tempted to do repeated listens throughout the day. The problem with this is that doing so can lead to album burn-out where after two weeks you’ll be so sick of the album you won’t want to listen to it ever again. Besides, there is so much music to discover, why do you need to listen to the same thing over and over continually? Ideally, an active music listener will have a constant influx of new music to listen to.

So let’s recap:

  1. Listen to the album, whole album. Every song, in order.
  2. Listen to your music in the highest quality possible, preferably lossless. Vinyl if at all possible.
  3. Don’t listen to music through $10 earbuds or your awful laptop speakers. Use good, over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones, preferably. Otherwise, a set up of a dedicated amplifier and a pair of speakers; subwoofers are fake, avoid at all costs (for now).
  4. On your first listen or two, preoccupy yourself with something else simultaneously.
  5. Don’t actively read the lyrics for the first few listens. In fact, don’t even put much effort into trying to hear or understand them (Exception: Hip hop & rap, obviously).
  6. Examine the album artwork and liner notes (vinyl is unmatched in terms of packaging).
  7. Even if you like the album or a particular song a whole lot, limit your listening to just once a day

Studies have shown that appreciation of music is learned and practiced; even hearing some pitches must be learned. Hopefully this guide will aid in doing just that – expanding your ability to practice appreciating and exploring new and difficult pieces of music. It’s not a rigid system, so tailor it to your own listening preferences and find what works best for you.

Enjoy your music listening!