Listening is something that we all take for granted like breathing. We breathe without thinking about it and we listen without thinking about it. For all of us, if we are more aware of what is happening sonically around us, it makes the world a more colorful place to be in. We are able to enjoy more of it. Just as if we are looking at a beautiful painting and we suddenly notice all of the wonderful variations in colors before us we are able to enjoy the painting even more. Sound has this same capability and it is happening around us all of the time if we just take a moment to listen and notice it.
Listening is also part of communication. A conversation of just talking without anyone listening is just a babble of meaningless noise. If we do not take time to listen to what is actually being said and then take a further moment to process what has been said before speaking ourselves, we may miss the point of what was being said in the conversation or miss a key opportunity to learn something. In order to learn, we must all be able to listen.
As musicians, listening is a critical skill that we need to develop. Music without sound is not music (either that or it is the most boring song you’ve ever heard!). Therefore it is key, as a musician, to be aware of our place in an ensemble group sonically. Are we to be the loudest or are we to be more complimentary in the group? Are there times when we need to be louder or softer?
Also, just like speaking, much of playing music is communication. What is each musician saying on their instrument? What are the other instruments saying back in reply? There is a lot of give and take in a song. The singer may take up the forefront of the song, but they don’t sing all of the time. What are the other instruments saying when the singer isn’t singing?
Finally, there is communication between musicians in a live setting. These can range from actual verbal cues such as starting a song, “1 – 2 – 3 – 4” or cues on when to play something such as “Take it” or cues on getting louder or softer such as “Hit it!” or “Take it down now”. There are also non-verbal cues such as quick eye glances such as when one musician is completing a section of a song and it is now time for another musician to take over.
Yes, the art of listening is something that we need to continually develop as musicians, but not just as musicians. If we become a better listener with life in general, we will be able to enjoy much more of it and also be better communicators with our partners, family members, friends and co-workers. So take a moment and listen to what’s going on around you. Otherwise, you won’t know what you’re missing!
Easy Listening Exercises:
General listening skills. Take a moment and really listen to all that is going on around you. What are the sounds that you hear? How many different sounds can you hear? What directions are they coming from? This simple exercise will help you begin to break down individual sounds from what we normally hear without even thinking about it.
Listening to music. Listen to a song – any song. How many different instruments do you hear? Drums? Bass Guitar? Saxophone? Singer? Backing Vocals? Lead Guitar? Now once you’ve identified the instruments, try to identify how loud each one is. Which is the loudest? Softest? Now listen to the subtleties in terms of tone. Which occupies the low register in terms of bass type notes? Bass Guitar? The kick drum? Which is in the middle range? High range? This exercise will help you realize all of the parts that make up a song and how they “sit” with each other in the mixture of sounds being heard.
Playing your instrument with other musicians. While focusing on playing your part correctly should always be your #1 focus, once you’ve got that under control, you should critically listen to how you and your instrument are relating to those that you’re playing with. You should ask yourself questions like, “Am I too loud?” “Am I too soft?” You should also be able to adjust your own volume. If you are accompanying a singer, when they are singing you should strum quieter or reduce the volume on your guitar if you are playing an electric guitar. If it is time for you to play a solo, that is the time when you should be your loudest, however even within your solo, you should practice being quieter at times and louder at others (e.g. a soft beginning ending with a loud flourish). Part of being a good guitarist is being able to control your instrument and being able to play soft and loud is part of that.
Guitar Class. When you are in class at RCGS, are you loud enough so that you can hear yourself but not so loud that you are drowning out other people? Try to be aware of your volume levels compared to others. This is good practice for when you play with others in an ensemble.