The importance of listening

The importance of listening

The National Curriculum refers to four areas of musicality that should be taught: performance, composition, appraisal and listening. These four are supposed to be taught in equal portions, as part of a balanced musical diet as it were.

However, as we advance through our musical careers, it becomes all too easy to forget these things. We possibly choose to concentrate on one of the first two: performance or composition. Some of us do both – I compose mainly, but perform in ensembles dear to me. I think the majority of musicians in both disciplines appraise their work, alongside that of others – I think that doing this can often make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful professional musician.

Listening, however, is something I fear we often neglect. Yes, we listen to our own works as composers (in our minds, in performances, via the computer) in order to assess how we should develop them further. Performers listen as they practice, identifying how they can improve and develop their skills. However, I fear that listening to others, for the sake of listening, is something we don’t do enough of. I think this stems from the earliest seeds of our musical education: I think teachers rarely emphasise how important listening is to their students (of performance, theory, composition or otherwise), and as a result it becomes something we do only when necessary rather than as part of our continuing development as musicians.

As composers, I think there are a number of important reasons for listening to works. It helps us engage with musical cultures (be it contemporary, past, or that of another area of the world), it helps us hear what else is going on in the world of musical composition around us, and can help remind us of why we’re doing what we’re doing. When I listen to a piece of music I find truly wonderful it reminds me of the magic that is writing music, and reinvigorates me. Finally, I always find listening a good way to get into writing. If I’m stuck on a piece, or in one of those moods where it seems like nothing’s working, taking a step back and listening to something with the aim of improving my own work as a result always seems like a wise idea. It doesn’t always work (and often results in me starting work on something completely different!), but at least it’s a productive way to spend moments of composer’s block!

Below are a few pointers that can help us all listen more productively. Before someone points out incredibly simple these are, I’ll point it out myself. Nothing here is complex or complicated. However, it’s basic things that we all neglect from time to time, and yet it’s those that can have such a profound effect on us musically. I’ve been actively making an effort to do all of the following over the past few weeks – a habit which I will definitely be continuing, and I wanted to share them with you all.

I think there are several different (personal) types of music we should make an effort to listen to.

Listen to music you’ve always liked. There will be pieces you’ve always loved (Wieniawski’s Scherzo-tarantelle), pieces that inspire you (the Finale from The Firebird) or maybe music you feel connected to through previous experiences (Fauré’s Requiem).

Listen to something you wouldn’t normally listen to. Listen to something you don’t necessarily like, be that Mozart, Max Richter or Stockhausen. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from it; similarly, if you can analyse them and identify precisely what it is that you don’t like, you can be sure to always avoid using such things in your own work. Also, it’s worth remembering that musical tastes do change with time. Just because you hated something when you were younger, doesn’t mean that you’ll still dislike it now. It may not ever become one of your favourite things, but you may be able to find some positives in it!

This also includes listening to music in different genres, and from different musical cultures. We live in a musical society that is infused with fusions of music; by paying attention to them, we may discover something we wish to add to our own music.

Listen to music that’s related to a project you’re working on, or about to work on. Maybe you focus on the same instrumentation, the same texture, similar composers or scores from similar films or television programmes (if you’re working to picture).

Deciding to listen to something is one thing. Staying focused, however, is another.

Active listening

The problem a lot of us have nowadays is our inability to listen properly. We switch off and start thinking about our dinner, our plans for the weekend, or our to do list.

My advice for more active listening would consist of three independent elements, to mix and match. Firstly, consider jotting down things as you listen. Things you really like – maybe even things you dislike! I’ve always found it helpful to jot down references (minutes and seconds into a track) where I’ve come across a texture I’ve particularly enjoyed in order to come back and analyse it at a later date.

Secondly, consider thinking about some elements to concentrate on before you start listening. Maybe it’s the way Debussy handles string writing, Stravinsky’s textures, or the way Chopin develops melodic material. Maybe you could concentrate on one thing on a first listen, then start over, listening for something completely different.

The third point isn’t always possible, but does help focussing. Following the score of a piece while listening helps to keep your mind on subject. Another way of doing this is to watch a video of a piece – watching the ebbs and flows of a performer, or the interplay between sections of the orchestra.

One final thing that can help is the use of a listening diary. I kept one of these during my Masters degree – initially as I thought it was a requirement, but later (when I realised it was) just for my own purposes. I would ensure I listened to a couple of “new” pieces a week, analysing bits of them, writing my thoughts, likes and dislikes. It will be interesting to come back to in a couple of years ago, to see how my musical tastes have changed.

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Listening is also a very important phase, personally, when it comes to a new piece – especially if less familiar with the instrumentation. In the case of a new work I have just embarked on, I am very familiar with the instrumentation (having accompanied it frequently!), but I have spent the past week listening to key repertoire again, reacquainting myself with it and preparing for the first stages of sketching. It’s something I’m very excited about, with a premiere in 2012. I hope to share the details of it in my next post, sometime over the next week..!

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