How do we listen to music?

I never thought about listening. Being a musician myself, I spend much time listening: live performances, music on CDs, Internet, streaming and listening to my own playing. I always took it for granted until I had two unusual experiences in the concert halls that I would like to share with you. Both turned out to be useful learning experiences and inspired me to write a blog about the process of listening to music in general, what is perceptive listening, how we listen to music, what influences our listening and the art of relaxed listening.
I was lucky to get a ticket for a sold-out concert of my favorite pianist. The day turned out to be busy and full of unexpected meetings. So when the lights were being dimmed, I was feeling tired but my joy of anticipating a wonderful piano playing was immense! It was my first time hearing the maestro live! After the first bars, I knew that I was occupied by my inner thoughts rather than listening! The live sound was very different from the one I adored in his youtubes. I could not see the face expression of a pianist, only his body movements – what left me with the feeling of missing something important. My neighbors were enjoying the slow movements of sonatas far too much– up to the point of producing purr-like sounds in a half sleepy state of listening. My inquisitive mind was wandering between the soft pianissimo and the people sitting around me. Until the moment came where I had to admit to myself that my attention was not just riveted. The unknown sonata was stretched in time as if it had six movements and my expectations of a divine concert were not met. I was very eager to hear the reaction of the audience. The pianist got the standing ovations and the leading newspaper did not spare the superlatives in their feedback leaving me with an open question about my personal impression of this evening.
To give you one more idea about listening, I love thinking about one particular concert from the past. It was a big symphonic orchestra concert. The first piece was for piano solo. The famous virtuoso pianist walked onstage, sat down with a determined expression on his face and…sat there in silence and full concentration for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Then he stood up, bowed and walked offstage. The audience and the orchestra were “frozen”, nobody moved, everybody was sitting and listening very intently. But to what? We had listened to John Cage’s “4’33”. This is the unique musical composition. It is performed without a single note being played. The idea behind this piece was to listen to the sounds in the auditorium: rustling, breathing, some traffic, occasional whispering, pages turning and forget about the judgement. In a way, John Cage wanted to show that music is all around us. He was pointing out that we only hear what we listen to. He taught us about how we listen to music.
So how do we listen to music? An author and composer Elliott Schwartz has some interesting insights in her book “Music: Ways of Listening“, originally published in 1982. She says that listening to music is not an inborn capacity but an acquired skill that can and should be trained. Some people are more sensitive to the sounds than others are. The classical music can sound very complex to untrained ears as it represents the hierarchical and highly structured system of notes with the interrelationships and dependencies. In our lives, we often hear the sounds only in isolation: for example, the humming of refrigerator, the first birds thrillers in the morning, the siren of the police but we do not relate these sounds in pattern.
All scientists agree that the most important aspect in listening to music is attention. It is simply crucial when it comes to lengthy pieces. Our time span is limited. Due to our busy schedules, we cannot afford the luxury of fresh attention all the time. Composers and performers use different tactics for handling it. Composers are very inventive, they bring variety into their compositions and musical structures of short and long pieces, for example, the full-scale sonatas present the same themes in different tonalities, in slightly modified ways, the repetitions etc.
Another criterion of perceptive listening is time. We all have our inner metronomes depending on our mood and activities. Music is the physical phenomenon that develops through time. Every musician has his/her own sense of time. The duration of notes, the sense of motion and flow, the placement of notes within a given rhythmus are never the same. I would like to refer you to Lang Lang youtubes of Liszt “Liebestraum” – the live recording will have different length – it is enough to listen to the starting bars to feel his sense of time on those days! What strikes me is the fact that if my inner clock-time has “presto” time, I will definitely have different perception of slow movements. There will be a conflict. If I am listening to a piece for the first time, there might be even a bigger discrepancy in time and duration perception. I would compare it with walking on an unknown road without a clear goal – it might be a big adventure with many discoveries when the time is flying or a long winding road that would lead somewhere.
While listening we are using our memory. Hearing the well-known melodies brings back not only musical memories but also the recollection of people, objects and situations associated with music. Memories bring mental pictures with them, the feelings and emotions. Surely in a positive as well as in a negative sense. When hearing the music for the first time, we tend to enjoy more the musical compositions with repeated elements or with simple melodies that stay in our ears. It is so much easier for our brain.
It is very difficult to listen to music objectively and dispassionately. Elliott Schwartz says, “All listeners approach a new piece with ears that have been “trained” by prejudices. ‘A new piece’ is much more than the sounds heard in a concert hall; it also consists of previous performances, recorded performances, the written notes on manuscript paper, and all the reviews and critiques of these written notes and performances, ad infinitum.” This explains the pleasurable experience I had with John Cage piece: I could enjoy this piece with fresh expectations and truly innocent ears.
This brings me to the idea of relaxed listening. The relaxed listening is a concept of active listening with full concentration and should not be mistaken for background and passive listening. When we have the pleasant and cosy surroundings, we feel relaxed and with our new calm self we are open for new music explorations.The music experience can bring new creative powers. The most youtube videos struggle to get through the 10 sec mark, but my experience was the music period of the 3 minutes. I believe in the emotional power of music through mindful listening with paying attention to the finest details. We all have vivid imagination and fantasy waiting to be awakened through music like a sleeping beauty.
What is your listening experiences? How do you listen to music? Have you noticed what influences your listening? What was your most striking music listening experience? What was your bad listening experience? I am looking forward to discussing this topic with you. Thank you for reading.