The Listening Singer – Part 1

Laaaaadies and GentleMen….drumroll puh-lease….I present for your wonder and amazement…the most magnificent listening device ever invented.  It weighs around 1300-1400 grams and is about 15cm long.  With state-of-the-art networking functionality, memory back-up systems and a vast music library, you will never have to worry about which operating system you’re running it on…it will work.  While it does require some charging, battery life can be exceptional, and some models have reported extraordinary longevity.

What is this listening device?  Where can you get it?  What does it cost?

It is your brain.  You were born with it.  It costs you time and appreciation.

Ok…I was being silly and lavish with hyperbole to get your attention.  Or was I?  The human brain is exceptional in every conceivable way, and particularly in its role as a musical instrument.

This blog is part 1 of an exploration of ways to practice your listening skills as a means to improve your singing, your overall musicality, and your entire physical and mental wellbeing.  These big claims are achievable due to the magnificence of your brain and its neuroplasticity properties.

WHY SHOULD SINGERS WORK ON THEIR LISTENING?

“But if you could say exactly what was going on in a piece of music, if you could talk precisely about the bassline, about the drumming part, about the guitar part, about the rhythm, about the sections, about the content of the lyrics – then you’re going to know exactly what to go do on your own instrument or voice to make that happen…now you’re thinking and talking like a musician.

– Christopher Sutton

Some of these factors will be explored in more detail in part 2 of this blog.  For now, here is a starting list of how listening activities can make you a better singer.

BRAIN ACTIVITY

How do we hear? How do we listen? As humans? As musos? As singers?

Researchers have been measuring the brain activity of musicians for years.  There is evidence that listening to music ignites energy and response in nearly all of the brain.  Playing music, and in particular improvising, ignites even more – but that is for another blog.

According to Open Minds, listening to music has the following positive effects on our mental health:

Very Well Mind would add these benefits to the list:

I’m sure you’ve seen stories about the way music is used in therapy for people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson disease, in children’s classrooms, to connect generations…all of this is possible because of the brain’s engagement in listening.

“Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem.  Different aspects of the music are handled by different neural regions – the brain uses functional segregation for music processing, and employs a system of feature detectors whose job it is to analyze specific aspects of the musical signal, such as pitch, tempo, timbre, and so on.  Some of the music processing has points in common with the operations required to analyze other sounds; understanding speech, for example, requires that we segment a flurry of sounds into words, sentences, and phrases, and that we be able to understand aspects beyond the words, such as sarcasm…Several different dimensions of a musical sound need to be analyzed – usually involving several quasi-independent neural processes – and they then need to be brought together to form a coherent representation of what we’re listening to.”

– Daniel Levitin

The facility and vitality that this sort of activity brings to our brain can only benefit us.  I don’t need to persuade you any further that developing your listening skills is a good idea…so let’s look at some ways you can do this.

HEARING IS NOT LISTENING

“Music, which is organised auditory information, helps organise the mind that attends to it, and therefore reduces psychic entropy, or the disorder we experience when random information interferes with goals.  Listening to music wards off boredom and anxiety, and when seriously attended to, it can induce flow experiences.  …..  It is not the hearing of music that improves life, it is the listening.”

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Did you catch that?  “It is not the hearing of music that improves life, it is the listening.”  Boom!  That is vital and the crux of what we are exploring.

For the sake of creating a working definition, I propose that listening is purposeful hearing.  When we listen purposefully, we notice details, we use more of the brain, and we build intuition that will inform our capacity as a musician.  Significantly, it blows the lid off our potential as a musician in ensemble with others.

Looking at Csikszentmihalyi’s quote above, the question posed is obviously – why doesn’t the hearing of music improve life?

In the culture I live in, sight dominates sound most of the time.  I mean, I can now leave Instagram on silent and still read the captions for the IGTV or reel and completely understand what’s going on.

Or can I?

What am I missing when I don’t hear the audio that was intended to be heard by the creator?  When I miss the inflections in the speaker’s tone or the music they included?

Well – clearly I am only getting half the story.  And hearing vs listening is like only getting half of the story because of where my attention is located.

My hypothesis, therefore, is that listening is mindful but hearing can occur mindlessly.  In the same way that I can drive down a familiar street and not actually “see” it (sure, my eyes are taking it all in but I’m not really looking), so my ears can functionally receive sound without me making conscious sense of it.

A METAPHOR

Imagine you are having a conversation with someone where you are really intent on understanding one another and having a true exchange of ideas.  In this situation, we could have:

INTRO TO ACTIVE LISTENING

According to Christopher Sutton, active listening is “thinking while listening”.  He proposes that asking yourself questions as you listen can begin this process of focussing your mind.

Choose a song or piece of instrumental music that you know reasonably well.  Have a listen to it, and ask yourself these questions:

  1. If you had to describe this song to someone, what could you tell them?
  2. Is the song in a major or a minor key?
  3. What’s going on in the harmony? Can you hear when the chords change?  Does it modulate?
  4. What is the time signature? Is it a feeling in 2, 3 or 4?
  5. What production techniques or audio effects are being used?

It’s ok if you don’t know how to answer all these questions yet.  Or if you hear things that you don’t know the name of.  The important task is to start noticing.  Use your own descriptors for now – but use them consistently from song to song that one day when you do learn the name for what you heard, you will apply that knowledge broadly to your experience.

LISTENING FOR A SONG’S BIG PICTURE

You can do this in a range of ways – perhaps start by either trying it with your eyes closed (not driving!) or with pen and paper ready for noting observations, doodling or drawing shapes.

Listen to the song through once.  Try not to notice any one thing in particular…just take in the whole song as though you’re hearing it for the first time.

Now listen to it 3 more times, asking yourself:

  1. What’s the overall structure of the song or piece?  Which parts repeat and in what sequence?  How many bars are in each section?
  2. What instruments are present?
  3. Can you hear each of the instruments present if it’s a small group, or each of the sections if it’s an orchestra?
  4. What types of rhythm are being used?
  5. Can you figure out the melody notes by ear, starting with the first note you would sing?

LISTENING FOR A SONG’S DETAIL

Still using the same song we’ve been working on for the past week or so, let’s dig deeper by investigating these questions:

  1. What is the dynamic landscape of the song? Where is it soft or loud, where do the dynamics change?
  2. How are the rhythms different for each instrument?
  3. What is the overall range of the whole melody?  What is the highest note?  The lowest?
  4. Are there any changes to the timing?  Change in time signature or tempo?
  5. Can you mentally reconstruct the song in your mind’s ear straight after you’ve hit pause or stop?

DEEP DIVE

Now, if you’re still interested in going further, I recommend you get The Active Listener’s Handbook from Musical U.  It contains a great action plan and is full of more investigative tools like these (directly quoted from the handbook):

Instruments and Timbre

Pitch

Rhythm

Dynamics and Articulation

Form and Texture

Audio

PASSIVE LISTENING

I do think there is a role for listening with slightly less focus.  Here are some ways this could benefit your musicality.

SIGNPOSTS FOR ACTIVE LISTENING

Another way that I develop my own listening skills is by listening to other people listen…sounds funny, I know.  But a favourite activity of mine is to head to one of these Podcast or YouTube channels and do the following steps:

  1. Choose a song they are discussing.
  2. Listen to it a couple of times for myself and notice as much as I can.
  3. Then go ahead and listen to their analysis.
  4. Then listen to the song again on my own and see how my listening has opened up.

PODCAST CHANNELS

YOUTUBE CHANNELS

These musical whizzes will take your breath away…subscribe now!

 

I hope you have found some useful ideas here to ignite your listening.  Part 2 of this blog will land early in 2022 and include more activities to develop the singing benefits listed above.  In the meantime, why not jump onto the listening posts on Facebook or Instagram and share your listening experiences?  I’d love to listen to your discoveries.


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SOURCES

Csikszentmihalyi, M.  (1990).  Flow: the psychology of optimal experience.  Harper Collins, New York.

Levitin, D. J.  (2006).  This is Your Brain on Music: The science of a human obsession.  Plume, New York

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

Ratliff, B.  (2016).  Every Song Ever: Twenty ways to listen to music now.  Penguin, USA

Sutton, Christopher.  The Active Listener’s Handbook from Musical U (https://www.musical-u.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/The-Active-Listeners-Handbook.pdf )

Wilson, P.H. (2010). The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual (2nd Ed.). Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney

YouTube clip: How Does Music Affect Your Brain? https://youtu.be/HRE624795zU

https://www.openminds.org.au/news/5-positive-effects-music-mental-health

https://www.verywellmind.com/surprising-psychological-benefits-of-music-4126866

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