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 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 neuroplastic 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
Check out some of the ways that listening activities can make you a better singer:
- Your memorisation will improve.
- Your pitch and rhythm accuracy will increase.
- Your capacity to hear your starting note for any phrase will grow.
- Your ability to talk about music with instrumentalists will be richer.
- Your storytelling skills will come alive.
- Your retention of types of melodies and rhythms will make it easier to learn new songs in the future.
- Your intuition for singing harmonies will progress.
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.
According to Open Minds, listening to music has the following positive effects on our mental health:
- Elevates your mood and motivation
- Reduces stress
- Improves focus
- Helps relaxation
- Reduces anxiety and depression
Very Well Mind would add these benefits to the list:
- Improves your memory
- Helps manage pain
- May help you sleep better
- Improves endurance and performance
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.
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 or intentional 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.
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:
- Hearing – where you are aware of the other person’s vocal sound and some words, but are mostly focussed on preparing what you are going to say next – so you aren’t truly listening.
- Passive listening – where you might be processing the words of the other person in order to comprehend the message and then form a response.
- Active listening – where you listen with a much greater degree of curiosity and focus, suspending your preparation of a response in order to attend with all of your senses. You take in their tone of voice, their facial expressions, body language, choice of vocabulary and cultural idioms.
So have I persuaded you that developing your listening skills is a good idea? Awesome! Click here to look at some ways you can do this.
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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
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