How To Listen To Music


The thing I like most about creativity is that there are no right or wrong answers. I like how the same piece of music can sound beautiful to one person and ugly and uninspired to another because it all revolves around a frame of reference. The title of this entry is rather a pretentious quip because you don’t think about listening to music while you’re listen to it, you just feel it and maybe you can’t even explain why. I like that.

I like that there isn’t a singular concrete correct solution disguised as a formula or hidden in a method and unless you unlock the key or crack the code, all differing answers are dead wrong — counted as marks against you, circled in red ink. Naturally I can only speak for myself but this is why I can somehow wrap my head around music, both the creation and admiration of it, much easier than I can the emotionless intricacies of math — which have always had me banging my head against the wall. Everyone processes differently and I love knowing for some there is endless joy in creativity, for others, in solving problems or making things work. That’s what makes music great; what connects with one listener may not connect in any way with another. I like that art is rarely neutral because it’s so subjective.

However, I’ve noticed something over the course of the past fifteen years as a music fan, as someone who’s gone through the typical teen angst phases of the avid young music consumer. I was a junior high kid who only liked certain bands and songs because that’s what everyone else was into and I found some sort of sincere joy in knowing the music I listened to was popular, and somehow it was a real and genuine admiration. Then I was a high school recluse who only appreciated music that was obscure or unpopular merely for the sake of being associated as an outsider and it wasn’t until later that I realized some of what I “loved” was not born of an inherent love at all, and thus it wasn’t even about the music. How funny is that? Making yourself believe you love something only because of the way it makes you appear to others. You hate the herd because it’s a “total clique” and nobody understands you, so you go off by yourself and do your own thing because you want to make a statement, but what you’re doing is creating an entirely different clique of its own which you’ll soon become bored with and break away from in pursuit of the next thing until you realize it’s all a waste of time. You realize you must simply enjoy what you enjoy for exactly what it is rather than how it looks to others. Maybe you call it “the scene” and maybe some people embrace it because they think it’s awesome, and others hate it solely based on the knowledge that people they don’t like associate themselves with it. I totally did that stuff in junior high/high school. My question is: why.

I’ve always sort of hopped from one stone to another across a stream of conscious and unconscious appreciation for the emotion and artistic integrity of music as an art form, that is to say, I’ve always latched onto one thing for awhile (a music era or genre) and then moved on to the next thing, but mostly because I have a short attention span and that’s the way I’m wired. Over the past ten years I’ve somehow learned to not take so much stock in whatever it is I’m listening to solely as a music person or an artist, or rather how it looks on the outside. I don’t even care anymore, thus I’ve learned to enjoy whatever it is for the value it contains and hopefully not for the wrong reasons. Suddenly everything becomes clear and real and true and twice as beautiful because it’s genuine and you’re finally content with liking what you like, and not because of how people might think of you liking it. Maybe you still hate whatever’s on the radio but it’s an honest dislike and not prejudiced or biased because you’re annoyed with the kind of people who only love what’s on the radio. I feel like this is a rationality that comes with age, and maybe it’s lost on most people who didn’t grow up as music kids. Thoughts just pop into my head and I type them out and put them on the internet.

I used to catch myself listening to a song I’d never heard before, WISHING it would do this or that while I was actually studying it — maybe change to a different chord in a certain place or lyrically touch on an emotion, even down to tempo or the singer singing certain words — which makes listening to (albeit appreciating) music as an art form, with self-imposed restrictions, a setup for disappointment. Regardless of taste or preference, you are willing it to do something it wasn’t intended to do because whoever created it was not you yourself. For me, it seems listening to a song I’ve never heard before and somehow wanting it to do or be something it isn’t, because of unrealistic expectations, is always a letdown because it goes against the nature of appreciating the art of another artist. I like when you learn how to listen to music in a way that allows you to go along for the ride and the let song carry you whether it’s to your personal taste or not. If you try to make a song created by another artist do what you want while you listen to it, you’ll end up hating everything you hear and then it’s not even about the music at all anymore and then you become angry and bitter and arrogant until you eventually get a job as a writer for Pitchfork.

Only over the past decade have I better learned how to listen to music, if you can call it that, and really appreciate or respectfully dislike whatever it is for whatever it’s worth, whether I prefer the way it sounds to my ears or whether I myself in the shoes of the given artist would’ve made different creative choices. That to me is when everything suddenly comes alive because now you’re listening with a new point of reference, a new frame of mind, and it makes whatever you’re hearing enjoyable subjectively because you’ve got an objective frame of reference. I suppose it all boils down to the universal idea that learning to be more openminded (without compromising in any way morally or ethically) can allow you to appreciate more colors than you ever thought existed on the palette. I feel like we have a way of limiting ourselves in the way we appreciate creativity, whatever the medium. For music, thinking this way doesn’t mean you suddenly love everything you hear — maybe it’s even the opposite — but it means you listen to what you listen to with a pure admiration and respect for exactly what it is instead of how it makes you look to other people. Not because a certain type of people are associated with it, not because you want to like it even if you don’t, not because you’re the friend who always introduces everybody to new music and when people start listening to it, you bail. You listen to it because you think it rules.

Sometimes people ask me what’s on my iPod that I consider a “guilty pleasure” and I never know how to respond because what I listen to is what I enjoy and I don’t care about deciding something I like is “awkward or uncool” because of who or what it associates me with by default. The whole idea of having a “guilty pleasure” musically has always been weird to me. Why should I feel guilty about liking something I genuinely enjoy? Unless it’s something you deem “immoral” according to your own personal beliefs or set of standards, which is totally up to you — beyond that, a “guilty pleasure” is about you being embarrassed of something you shouldn’t be.

What’s really crazy is the thought of my own music and the way people listen to it — how they listen to it — what goes on in the inner workings of the mind when they hear it — why some people “like it” and for what reasons — why some people “hate it” and for what reasons. It’s an amazing thing to mull over because it can be so psychological for people like myself, and at the same time, so simple to others. I like hearing some people say they are “nervous” after reading my description of the new record sounding different, or how others love the idea of taking leaps and getting surprised with something new. I like how some people can love my music, I like how some people can hate it, I like how some people don’t even care.

It’s music. There’s no right or wrong answer. I love it.

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    True wisdom.
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