Have you ever wondered whether trained musicians simply hear music in a different way to you? Well, it turns out they do. And in this episode we’re joined by Andrew Bishko, to talk about what exactly that means, and how it can help you. Stay tuned!
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Christopher: Hello and welcome to the show! We’ve got a slightly different episode for you today. Normally on this show, we have either a carefully prepared teaching episode, where I’ve written out what I’m going to say and I’m talking to the camera and I’m trying to explain very succinctly and carefully, a particular concept. Or we do an interview where I’m firing interesting questions at an expert guest. Today we’re actually taking the formality and preparedness down a notch or two, which I hope is going to work out well for everyone. My name is Christopher Sutton. I’m the founder and director of Musical U, and I’m joined today by Andrew Bishko, from the Musical U team. And we’re here to talk about a topic that has come up in the context of Beatles Month recently, and that’s active listening, and what it means to have the ear of a musician.
I thought what about how to do this episode. And obviously we could do it as a teaching episode, and carefully plan it out. But actually, we did that already. So if you go back in our archives, we have, about active listening. And we’ll put a link to that in the show notes, if you want a 10 minute summary of this topic, where it’s just me talking. But the other option was, we’re about to release, or we’re releasing today, as we published this episode, is out today, super exciting, theMusiciansEarCourse.com, or just musiciansearcourse.com. Go and check it out. New Product all about this topic of active listening, which we were going to release later in the year. And then we got super excited about this in the context of Beatles Month, and I rejigged things so that we could share it with you a little sooner.
So we have this product launch going on, and I was like, “Oh, we could do a thing all about the product.” And again, very careful and prepared. But ultimately what we decided was, if you guys were just a buddy of ours in the real world, what would we say to you about active listening? And so what we’re going to do today is, Andrew and I are just going to chat through this topic as if we’re in a room with you as our musical friend, who’s never done active listening. And we’ll mention the product along the way, because that’s what we’ve been immersed in. And if you want to check it out, by all means go to musiciansearcourse.com and we have an exclusive launch special going on at the moment with discounts and bonuses and all kinds of goodies. So do check that out. But in any case, we’re just going to talk a lot about active listing, what it means to have the ear of a musician, and what exactly that can mean for your musical life.
So that’s what we’re here to do. Like I said, it’s super informal. I hope you’ll forgive us if we blunder, or stumble, or cough, or sneeze, or my daughters yell in the background. We’ll do our best to keep going as if this is a Facebook live thing. And yeah, without further ado, I should give Andrew a chance to talk. Andrew is our product manager and a content editor on a Musical U team. I’ve been working alongside him for a good couple of years now. And he has a wealth of experience and expertise on this topic of active listening in particular. So Andrew, maybe you could just give a brief intro to yourself and we’ll take it from there.
Andrew: I’m Andrew Bishko, and I’m a multi-instrumentalist. For 21 years, I’ve taught college classes that were all about active listening. I also have my own journey, with active listening as I have different times in my life, sought to reconstruct music from the past, and bring it forward into my own life. Or, learn about different forms of music. I’m a world music fan, so I get very excited about music from cultures that are very different from my own, or things that I’ve experienced. And so looking deep into those cultures, and looking deep into those different kinds of music and learning to understand them, has been a great way for me to exercise my own active listening.
Christopher: Awesome. Well, we’re going to do this first episode all on the “what”: What is active listening? What does it mean to have musicians ear? And then we’re going to do a second part, in our next episode, on “how” to go about this process. So today we’re really focused on just making sure we’re all on the same page. When Andrew, or I say active listening, what does that mean? And we touched on this a little bit in the course of Beatles Month. And I was just saying in our summary episode, the last episode we published, that that was really what jumped out at me across those interviews. It was the Beatles’ ears were what sets them apart. It wasn’t some preternatural gifts that they were born with. It was that they had developed their musical ear to the point of deeply understanding music, and having all of these amazing skills come of that. And really, I don’t know that anyone can speak to how exactly the Beatles listened to music, but it’s clear that that was the source of their superpowers as it were.
And what we’re talking about today is a very particular kind of listening. So the Beatles, for example, they spent years and years playing in Hamburg, absorbing all of this different music. And you may be the same and you own in musical life. If you talk to gigging musicians, they may have been playing for decades, immersed in music. But depending on how they’ve been listening to music, they may have gained all of the amazing appreciation, and understanding, and awareness that we’re going to be talking about in today’s episode. Or they may not have. So that’s why this is the topic we’re talking about. Active listening is not just hearing music. It’s something very particular, and different, and empowering if you do it, and if you do it in the right way. So maybe I’ll fire the question at you Andrew, to get the ball rolling. What is active listening?
Andrew: Well, the key word there is active. You’re making a choice. In our culture, we use music for recreation. It’s in the background. It’s in the background of everything we do. There’s background in the podcast intro, background when you go into a store, background for socializing. That’s a big use of music where people get together, and they’re socializing, and there’s music on. And I noticed this when I was teaching classes in music appreciation, when I would press play and the music would go on, all of a sudden people would start talking. I think it’s automatic response, because we’re used to socializing while the music is going on. I said, “We’re not going to do that in this class. We’re going to listen to the music. We’re going to actively listen to the music. We’re going to put our attention on the music, and how it moves and changes from one point to another.” So that’s really the gist of what active listening is all about.
Christopher: Fantastic. Yeah. And to be clear, I also talked about like what does it mean to have the ear of a musician? And what we want to talk about in these two episodes, it’s really that if you’re looking for the kind of musical ear that just gets what’s going on in the music you hear or play, active listening is the essential tool, or the shortcut to getting there. Yes, you can just plug away and hope that after decades you’ll magically have that skill. But if you want to actually take active steps to get those skills, to get that understanding, the most efficient way to do it is through this process of active listening. So that’s why we’re talking about the musician’s ear, why we’ve called this new product, the new training, The Musician’s Ear, because that’s really the end goal with active listening.
And there’s loads of side benefits along the way, but we’re really talking about, what is the process that gets you from hearing music as the average person on the street, or as a fan, and just getting this blur of sound that you appreciate a little bit, or you enjoy a little bit? What takes you from there, to having the ear of the professional orchestra player? Or the composer, or your mate Jim Bob, who always has the most amazing things to tell you about what he just heard on a record, And you listened to it and you’re like, “Oh there’s a guitar there, I guess.” So we’re talking about that kind of transformation, and how active listening is the vehicle that gets you from A to B.
And Andrew, you mentioned several things that I want to unpack. And the first to maybe pick up on, is music appreciation. You were talking about teaching music appreciation at college and, so what’s the relationship, if we talk about active listening? Is that different from, say taking a class on music appreciation?
Andrew: Well, active listening is more a general skill. Like in music appreciation, you’re learning the components of music. And you’re learning how to employ your understandings of the components of music, the elements, the dimensions of music, in listening to it. So you’re learning a lot of terminology, a lot of vocabulary. The great thing about active listening is, yes, that really helps. And you will be learning that, like with The Musician’s Ear, we’re teaching a lot about that. But it’s more about really pulling your attention. It’s like the pre phase to music appreciation. You have to be able to put your attention on something and listen to it and call it whenever you want to call it. You call the note C, you can call it do, you can call it Ralph, whatever. It’s still going to sound the same, whatever your name is for that note. So it’s about really, an attitude, a mindset of placing your attention on the music in a different way. And then, you can develop it through adding the learning about music appreciation.
Christopher: Yeah. I didn’t really plan to talk about this, so forgive me if it doesn’t quite make sense. But I’ll give it a shot. From the conversations I’ve had, it was really front of mind for me, is that a lot of these parallels mindfulness meditation. So this, the topic of meditation has come up a few times on the show, and not least because to really be zoned into what’s going on in music, it has a lot in common with that process of developing a mindful state, where you are 100% in the now. You’re not thinking about last week, you’re not planning for the future. You’re right there right now, absorbed in your senses and what is happening in front of you. And to me, like that’s a big part of what distinguishes active listening from music appreciation.
So I, for example, growing up in school, music classes, we’d be playing Glockenspiel, and we’d be playing recorder. But we’d also later on have classes where it was like, “Let’s sit and listen to some classical music.” And that to me, was what character, that was the definition of music appreciation class for a long time. And there was some structure to it. Like you say, they were explaining terminology. They were giving some of the history, and the context. And they definitely were waking up our ears to the music. But to me, music appreciation only goes so far. It’s like the introduction to understanding music, whereas active listening is this, as you say, generalizable skill that you can apply anywhere and everywhere in your musical life. And it parallels mindfulness, in the sense that you are there doing active listing. You’re not doing anything else. You are actively giving 100% of your attention to the music in the moment. And we’ll be talking a lot more in the next episode, about how to make yourself do that, because just like meditation, easier said than done, particularly in this day and age of is zillion distractions and possibilities.
So there are techniques and tools and ideas we’ll be sharing, that can make this a clear, and step-by-step process for you. But I just wanted to touch on that, because that being in the moment, and giving it your full attention, to me, that makes active listening a world apart, from say, a music appreciation class at your local community college, where they tell you a bit about classical music. And they share a few observations about piece of music everyone’s listening to. It’s definitely, I guess it’s an applied skill, rather than a book of information, is one way to look at it.
Andrew: I think that’s the big difference. When you’re active listening, you’re making these discoveries for yourself. It’s coming from you, it’s coming from your experience. When you’re doing a music appreciation class, a lot of times you’re just getting information. And we’ve all met those kinds of people, who are fans of music, and they’re like, “Oh wow. It sounds like a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Oh, did you know that the producer did this? And the history of that. And this person was born on this day.” And they have all of this line of trivia, memorized about the music, and it’s great and it’s exciting. But when you listen to the music, are you really there? Are you really present? And are you really making your own discoveries, having your own experience. I think that’s the distinction that you’re coming to here.
Christopher: Yeah, for sure. And so that touches on another distinction I wanted to make sure we talked about, which is the difference between active listening and “critical listening”. And Andrew, I don’t know how much personal angst you have about this, but I have an opinion, which is … It’s debatable. Like a lot of what we’re talking about to, part of the reason I wanted to spend this episode talking about what are we talking about, is, a lot of this terminology gets banded about. And people will call something active listening, but it isn’t really. Or they’ll refer to this whole area as music appreciation, when that’s not quite appropriate.
And critical listening, I think, is a slightly subtle one that I wanted to distinguish, because if you are coming particularly from the production world, like if you’re in a studio, or if you’re doing live sound mixing, critical listening can be used to mean ear training, and we’ll talk in a minute about ear training. But it can be used to mean your professional creative opinion about what should be changed. And it’s definitely a different thing to active listening.
So critical listening to me and how we’re going to define it, for now anyway, is it’s really about making judgments about what you hear, and using that to determine your actions. So you might be the studio engineer using critical listening to hear that the three kilohertz band on this symbol is off, and you need to tweak that dial a little bit. That’s critical listening. Or if you’ve heard me talk before, about the background of easy ear training of Musical U and my own journey, you might have heard me tell this story, where in my day job, I was doing these a- tests, these split comparisons, where you listen to the same recording, two different versions of it, two very slightly different versions. Like for example the CD recording and the corresponding MP3. Or the CD recording, and aversion where one of the 20 frequency bands have been adjusted by three db, up or down. That kind of comparison that can drive you a little bit nutty.
That is often talked about as critical listening, and particularly from that audio perspective, not the musician’s world of playing an instrument, but the audio perspective of those speakers, and cables, and EQ bands, and audio effects. They talk about critical listening with that perspective of, can we tell the difference between this version and that version? So that we know how to move the sound from here to there. And it’s obviously related, in the sense that if you are unable to do active listening, you’d be in no position to do critical listening. There’s a lot in common there. But I think it is worth noting, because when we’re talking about active listening here, and in the course, in the musician’s ear, we’re not really talking about, can you listen actively so that you get the answer right? Or can you listen actively so that you know what to do next?
There are those knock on benefits for sure. But we’re really talking about it from a perspective of, how can you do it almost for the sake of it, because you want to know what’s going on. You want to enjoy more, appreciate more. And that does then, become this amazing new bedrock for writing your own music, for arranging the song yourself, for playing your part of that song in a more dynamic and interesting way. Like it all feeds into this vague, inner musicality. But we’re not teaching it for the purpose of, do active listening, therefore you can answer these five questions and get the answer right. And I think that’s more where people talk about critical listening, whether it’s a right answer, or a right action that you’re trying to listen for. What’s your opinion on all that, Andrew?
Andrew: Well, I think what you’re getting at Christopher, is what’s your agenda? The agenda of someone who’s doing critical listening for audio, there’re listening to something with the intent of changing that recording, improving it, or making it fit on a certain platform. Like making it sound good on a certain kind of speakers, or something like that. And with active listening, the agenda can be simply, enjoyment. Deepening your enjoyment, getting more deeply into it. And yes, there’s other agendas that you can use with active listening. Like, I do a lot of transcribing. And so I’m listening, and it’s with a purpose. I’m transcribing an arrangement to use with my band. And so, I’m listening with that purpose in mind. And then using those active listening skills with that agenda.
Another kind of thing that might be called critical listing, are someone who’s a critic, who’s going to write up a blurb, evaluating this band, how good or not, they are. So they’re listening with that agenda, like we’re saying, “I like this. I don’t like that.” But with the active listening that we’re talking about, it’s not a matter of …You may make judgements on the music once you’ve listened to it, and you may have all kinds of, like you’ve said, these knock on benefits. But you’re first of all, the first step is just to say, “What’s going on here? What’s happening? And what are all these things?” And then, you can add your agendas and your tools and do what you want with them.
Christopher: Yeah. Great way of putting it. And I think we should address the emotional, psychological aspect of this too. I said you’re doing it for the sake of it, and it’s the state thing. And that’s true. But there is, actually, something, where even if you don’t have that particular agenda, this will do something very concrete and valuable for you, which is, I think a lot of us, and a lot of our musicians, and the musical audience are coming at it from this hobbyist perspective. They haven’t had the Julliard training. They haven’t necessarily possible of their grade exams. They’re doing it because they love it, and they may have achieved a very high level on their instrument, or in their career, or whatever the case may be. But I think a lot of us end up with this little chip on our shoulder that says, “I’m not a real musician.” Or, “I don’t have the knowledge I am meant to have.”
And I had a similar case for myself in the business world, because I’d never really studied business. I felt very inferior for the first several years of running my company, because I hadn’t been taught how to do what I was trying to do. And we had a great episode recently, on this with Brent Vaartstra of Learn Jazz Standards, in the Passive Income Musician Podcast, where he was talking about imposter syndrome, and that sense that you are not worthy of doing what you’re doing. And for me, what really helped, was going through this accelerator program for my business, which was like a mini MBA. And actually, it wasn’t that I learned specific things that then helped me in my business. It was really just, a quiet to that voice inside that was saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” Or, “You haven’t been taught how to do this, therefore you shouldn’t do it.”
And I think, I wanted to underscore that this is a big tangible benefit of doing active listening, and learning to hear in this way, is, it means you know for sure. You are hearing it like a musician. And yes, you can go on to all of these applications of that new knowledge, understanding, appreciation. But also, it feels really good to know, “I’m hearing this music. I’m hearing everything there is to hear this music.” Okay, you never hear 100%. That’s part of what makes this process fun. But you hear more and more, you appreciate more and more. You look back and you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe I was oblivious to that stuff before.” And it’s just this really fun journey of living up to your own potential as a music listener, as a musical ear, as having the musician’s ear.
So I wanted to mention that, because I think a lot of us have that psychological baggage, that chip on our shoulder, or inferiority complex, or imposter syndrome that says, “I don’t hear music the way I meant to.” And it’s worth noting that active listing delivers you that, whatever your background, whatever your training, whatever level of formality you’re coming from or wanting to go to. This is the process that can put that mind at ease.
So the third area we wanted to distinguish it from, is something I mentioned in passing there, which is ear training. And if you’ve followed Musical U for a while, you’ll know we’re all about ear training. It’s at the core of a lot of what we do. A lot of our training modules at Musical U, are ear training modules. And they’re teaching these very solid, specific, practical skills, like identifying the notes for scale by ear. Or being able to transcribe rhythms you hear in music. All of these cool nitty gritty things, that can empower you to play by ear, or improvise, or write your own music. Ear training can lead to all of that. And you might be wondering at this point in the conversation, what’s the difference? Like, if active listening is about getting a better ear, and ear training is about getting a better ear, how do we tell the two apart? And Andrew, maybe you want to pick up that one?
Andrew: Well, ear training is very specific. You’re learning to hear certain intervals. You’re going to hear certain scale steps, certain chords. You’re learning to hear certain rhythms. And in that way, it’s more compartmentalized. Where active listening for me, is all about hearing how the parts fit in with the whole. Hearing how this little counter-melody over here is accentuating the melody over here. Or this, “Oh, I hear that. The way the bass is, the rhythm and the bass is pushing the song forward.” But the whole song, it always comes back down to this huge context of seeing how the whole thing fits together. So yeah, ear training skills are great for assisting with your active listening. But active listening is in sense, bigger. And also, it’s not necessary, really, to have all the ear training to do active listening.
One thing when you were talking before about active listening, it’s that, the most fun thing you can do, it’s easy in the sense that it’s really easy to get started. It’s really easy to improve. It’s a very pleasurable process where there’s not a lot – you have to be able to do things with your body and your hands like you do with an instrument, or with your voice. It’s something that’s very light and portable. You can take it with you anywhere, you can do it anywhere. And so, ear training is more specific, and more detailed. And it’s great because it’ll help you take what you’re hearing with your active listening, and then put it into practical use.
If you’re actively listening to a piece, and you want to play that song, you’ll be able to say, “Okay, I know where the chord started there, and I can play those chords.” But you can still, even without knowing what the chords are, you can still hear, “Oh, there is a shift there, in the chords.” You can still actively hear that. And there’s a change there in what’s happening in the harmony. There’s a change that’s happening in the rhythm, and it’s affecting the whole song in this certain way.
Christopher: Terrific. Yeah. And it’s been really interesting over the last couple of months, since we made that decision to release this thing we’ve been working on, behind the scenes, and at the end of it, getting our heads around that, and what it means. And with my marketing hat on, I have to think quite carefully about, what’s it going to look like? We have Musical U membership that’s mostly about ear training, and those practical actionable skills. And we have our Foundations of a Musical Mind Course, which is in some sense, introductory to Musical U. And in another sentence, is quite a different thing. And we have this third thing, which is the Musician’s Ear, that’s going to introduce people to active listening.
And it was clear to me, these three deserve to coexist because they were all doing different things. But I did have to think quite carefully to be like, “Where are the lines? What is each of these doing for people?” And in a nutshell, because I think this is useful, as a case in point of how these things are different, Musical U membership, all about ear training, it’s all about, “Can I learn the difference between a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth? Or can I learn to hear a straight versus one rhythm?” Those kinds of things that have a right or wrong answer, and you’re listening to try and identify something, or classify something, or get the answer that’s going to enable you to improvise, or play by ear, or write your own music. All of those things.
Foundations of a Musical Mind, is that our promise is it puts a new foundation in place, that gives you the mental models to understand music instinctively. So in a sense, it’s the perfect foundation, that I’m going on to Musical U membership. But it’s a different thing. It’s not just ear training. It’s very practical. It’s very physical. It’s multimodal. It’s a very different learning experience, and it develops that instinct in a different way, than just ear training drills traditionally do.
So the question was then, how does this “The Musician’s Ear” thing fit in, if it’s not quite ear training, and it’s not quite mental models? And the answer we came around to was, it’s about this experience of understanding music. It’s about that bigger picture, as you were talking about Andrew. And it isn’t a smaller version of the same thing. It’s not step one of the same thing. It is its own thing. You can definitely be a musician, who has done a ton of ear training, can tell you any interval, any code type they hear, but actually has no idea whether they’re hearing a trumpet or saxophone on that jazz album. Or they have no idea listening to a piece where they are in the overall form of the piece. Is this the verse or the chorus? Is this the introduction section, or what’s going on? Why has one of the instruments suddenly disappeared. They don’t have that big picture awareness, and that appreciation of how music’s put together.
And contrary-wise, you can absolutely do a ton of active listening, and get how music fits together in that bigger picture without ever knowing what an interval is, or whether solfa is the right choice for you, or whether the rhythm is straight towards one. So they are two very different things, but obviously they’re beautifully complementary, as you were saying just there, Andrew. The active listening can provide you with a perfect context into which to put those more specific training skills.
Christopher: So that’s how they fit together. And once that clicked in our heads, it became a lot easier to think about how to release this product, and how we’re going to present it to people in future. And if you go to MusiciansEarCourse.com, you’ll see how that’s turned out. Hopefully well. I haven’t quite written that sales page at the time of recording, so wish us luck. So that’s how active listening relates to music appreciation, to critical listening, and to ear training. And hopefully, you’re getting a sense now, of what it is, how it’s different from those. But maybe we can just wrap that up by giving an illustration. And Andrew, maybe you want to take this one, where we could paint a picture of like, “What would my experience of listening to a song be, before practicing active listening for a while, and learning this process?” Versus, “Where could I get to afterwards?”
Andrew: Okay. So let’s say I’m listening to a piece of music, or I’m hearing a piece of music. And I’m not active listening. So basically, I’m feeling it energetically. It feels good. It sounds great. I might be able to sing along with the words. And the way the whole thing fits together, I might say, “Well, that sounds like … I haven’t heard this song before, I put it sounds a little bit like this band.” Or, “It sounds a little bit like that band. It has a little of a grunge sound to it.” A lot of people talk about music like it has a sort of funky bass, with grunge, or something like that, where these terms that define genres for us. And these shortcuts, or use words like, “Oh, it’s really upbeat because it makes me feel happy. I have a happy feeling. I like this rhythm.”
But basically what it comes down to, is like in a relationship, if someone says … If you say to your girlfriend, you say, “Oh, I love you.” And she says, “Oh, why do you love me?” And, then you’ve got to come up with all these reasons. Like, you know, you love her. You’re feeling it. You’re expressing it honestly. But it’s like, “Okay … But …” She wants to know what you love about her. She wants to know, what are the things? What are those qualities? And don’t we all want to know those?
So it’s the same thing with music. It’s like, okay, now you’re active listening and you’re saying, “Yeah, I know why this makes me feel happy. Because there’s this backbeat on two and four that I like to move to. And because this is an ascending line in the bass, the bass line’s moving up, and that that gives me that feeling of lifting up from underneath or something like that. So it’s lifting me up to my feet. And that sound of the guitar, it has just enough distortion where it’s warm. But it’s clean enough where I can still hear the tone. I can hear the pitch and discern that. And the vocalist is shaping their phrases, and singing, where it’s able to communicate their emotion and their joy, whether there’s an exuberance in there because they are … I’m thinking right now, like Aretha Franklin, the way she just has this round sound to her, that just bubbles out and it feels like it’s easy. Where there’s not a strain to it, where it’s bubbling out.”
I’m thinking things like that when I’m active listing, where I’m able to say, “Oh, this is why this music feels like this to me. These are the elements.” And I can describe them. And then, if I could describe them, I’m one step closer to saying, “Look, if I want to make some music like that myself, this is what I can do.” Or, “This is what I can shoot for.” I might not be there. I might not be singing like Aretha Franklin yet, but I know what to do to make those steps. Or, I might not be playing bass like Paul McCartney, but I know he’s playing lines going up. So I can practice that, skipping up type of thing.
And so now that you’ve listened to it, you know you can do it as a musician. You know what you can do to create your own music like that. And even if you’re not going to, you understand what it is that you enjoyed about the music, and you can talk about it, and you can communicate about it. If you’re in a band, for example, you would say, “Let’s do a song, and I want the bass to go up like that. Can you do that, bass player? And can you do that, singer?” So if you’re getting together, you can create with it. You have the tools, because you understand what was going on.
Christopher: Awesome. And I love that analogy to a relationship, because one of the concerns people sometimes have with active listening, or inndeed with ear training, is, doesn’t this take some of the magic out of it? And I know it comes up in music theory too. Like, songwriters worrying that if they learn theory, they won’t have creativity. Like those are an either-or proposition. And the reality is, this is empowering. It’s not taking the magic out of music. It’s giving you a much deeper appreciation of how that magic works, and where it comes from. Which makes you feel it’s even more magical. You enjoy it even more. And Andrew, you gave some great examples there of the concrete impact this could have on your musical life, both in terms of describing, and interacting, and expressing in music.
I want to play the role of just bringing it back a notch too though, to say, it’s not about being able to write down the perfect description. And it doesn’t matter if you’re ever going to collaborate with anyone, or write your own music. Even before all of those amazing real world implications, imagine you’re hearing all of that stuff. Even if you don’t do anything outwardly, imagine the transformation from hearing this blur where, yeah, you can make out the words. And you get the overall feeling of the music, to having this crystal clear, in the moment appreciation of everything that’s going on.
It’s really hard to explain. I’ve been trying to put words on it to explain this new product, and I was remembering back to when I was doing that critical listening, and as part of it active listening in my day job, and I was listening to these tracks for hours on end. And I was driving myself crazy. But the silver lining, what made it all worthwhile, was when I’d finished one of those sessions of painstaking A-B tests, I would then just kick back and put on some music to relax to. I wasn’t zoned out. I wasn’t exhausted. My ear was 100% awake. Like it was 200% more appreciative, and alert to what I was hearing, than it would have been before I’d spent that time engaging and getting mindful and getting in the moment. And before I’d done that training, to understand what I could listen for.
Even without any active effort, at that point my ear was just awake and aware in a new way. And that was one of the most wonderful experiences of my 20s, was just giving myself that gift of enjoying the music I loved even more. That was amazing. And I’ve talked about this before in the context of ear training, because ear training played into it, and active listening played into it hugely. And that to me is the prize. All those other benefits like describing it, knowing the right terminology, collaborating, those are fantastic. And we’ll talk in a moment about two other great side benefits, but before all of that, to me, the prize, what makes all of this so exciting, and why we sat down today to do this informal episode, and just geek out and enthuse about active listening, rather than doing hardcore teaching, was that prize.
What better prize is there, to someone who loves music, than to appreciate every piece of music you hear in so much more depth and detail and richness? Like I said, it’s hard to put words on it, but hopefully you’re getting a sense of what we’re jibber jabbering about. I said that there’s a couple of other side benefits. Andrew’s obviously described some of the impact it could have on your musical life, but as we were developing this material for The Musician’s Ear, we realized it dovetails really nicely with two of the areas we talk about a lot in the context of ear training. And those are, musical memory and audiation. So maybe Andrew, you can tackle musical memory, and I’ll talk a bit about audiation.
Andrew: Okay, very good. A lot of what I see, working with Musical U members, is that some of them are saying, “I can’t remember what I just heard. I can’t even remember three notes in a row.” And for example, a lot of musical training, where it’s based on … In a lot of the traditional musical training, our musical memory is obliterated very early on, because we’re taught to rely on those dots in the page, tell us what to do. And so we don’t really remember, and we have a hard time memorizing music. But, even without memorizing music, being able to remember a piece of music, is a huge benefit to active listening. And there’s a great exercise we’ll talk about, I guess, in the next episode, about reconstructing a piece of music. Because when you can sit down and okay, you just take the headphones out. You’re not listening to anything and you can reproduce this piece of music in your head, Gosh. It’s wonderful, because you can go anywhere. You don’t need headphones. You don’t need anything to be plugged in. You don’t need an instrument, and you can hear music.
And we all do hear music in our lives. A lot to us, we have a soundtrack going all the time. But to be able to do that with more clarity, and to have more memory, and be able to reconstruct a whole piece of music, again, as you said before, just the sheer enjoyment and the sheer pleasure of doing that. We do that all the time, where like, you feel good about something. We’ll sit there and think about … Again, talking about if you’re in love, you’re going to sit there, and you’re going to think about your beloved, and think about everything that she does, everything that she looks like, and all this that happened, and at those experiences, and you reconstruct those experiences. And those memories are alive in your mind.
And, you know, when people grow older, and they lose their spouse of 50 years or whatever, they remember. They go back in their minds and remember this, and it’s a great source of comfort and joy and pleasure. And this is something we can do with music, where we have this. And active listening is what gets us there, because we’ve spent the time to give it our attention. Then it’s there for us, and it’s a wonderful experience.
Christopher: Yeah. I think the relationship analogy is a good one. Again, because if someone says “my wife’s always – to take a totally stereotypical example – my wife’s always yelling at me for forgetting to pick up the milk”. You can look at that and say, “It’s because I have a bad memory.” And we hear this at Musical U, “I just have a really bad memory for music.” Or, “I don’t seem to have a musical memory.” Or you can look at it and say, “Well, the reason you’ve got to pick up the milk is because you weren’t really paying attention when she asked you to. You weren’t really listening. You weren’t really giving it your active awareness. And if you had, maybe your memory wouldn’t have had to work so hard. Or maybe it wouldn’t have even been a question of memory.”
And I think the same is true of music. Part of the reason we find people struggle is, as you say Andrew, their music education has not required them to pay that close attention to what they’re hearing, or even what they’re playing. And so when it comes to memorizing songs in the Foundations Course, for example, that’s where we hear it, people saying, “You’ve given me the short song to memorize. It’s going to take me ages to do that.” And to us, people who’ve practice active listening, it seems hard to imagine that memorizing four lines of a saxophone with the very simple melody, using only three notes, could be hard. Or that it wouldn’t just stick in your head. But it’s because we spend that time to train our brain, and ears to actually pay attention to what we’re hearing, in a way that, through no fault of their own, these members, and students haven’t been trained to do that. They haven’t spent the time awakening their ear, and their musical brain, to pay enough attention that it sticks.
And this is actually a specific case of the other thing we want to mention, audiation, the other side benefit. And some of what you said there Andrew, you are really talking about audiation. Like if I’m at the bus stop, I don’t have headphones on, can I conjure up in my mind, a piece of music? And one specific case is, can I conjure up the Queen song I was listening to when I was at home? And can I replay that in my mind? And there we’re talking about musical memory, but that skill of audiation is a general one. It could be, can I improvise a pentatonic solo as if I’m in a jazz band, in my head, when I’m at the bus stop? Or it could be, can I take that rhythm that I hear on the radio over there, and imagine what it would be like if it was a song beat? Or, can I run ear training drills, just in my mind’s ear, without singing them, without doing anything on my instrument? Can I actually spend time just in my head, just hearing in my mind’s ear, the difference between a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth? Or whatever it might be that you’re working on.
And that musical imagination, that ability to conjure up a vivid piece of music in your mind’s ear, is 100% down to active listening. And have you spent time paying so much attention to music, that you have the mental facilities, the structures, the kind of “muscle” … You’ve built up that muscle of being able to recreate in vivid detail, what’s going on in the music. And if all you hear on a piece of music is a big blur, all you’re going to be able to audiate is a big blur. And we’ve talked about audiation a few times on the show before, and the benefits go throughout your musical life. Like, once you think about it as musical imagination, and the ability to hear music in your head, you realize just how wide reaching that is.
Andrew: As you were speaking, I kept on thinking about these Beatles podcasts that we’ve been doing, and how they really, and getting back to what you said at the beginning, their active listening was amazing. They were absolutely devoted to listening, and figuring out music. And they had very little understanding of music theory. But because they were able to listen to the music, they figured out how to duplicate it. Or they worked with George Martin, who was also someone who had spent a lot of time active listening, but had had more of a education with the theory, so he could take their ideas, and translate them. Paul could go home. He was recording Penny Lane, and turn on the BBC, and hear this piccolo trumpet solo on a Bach piece, and say, “Okay, I want that in Penny Lane.”
He’d come back to the studio and say, “George Martin, I want that sound.” And he’d go, “Bup, Bup, bup, bup, bup.” With mind. And George Martin could then write it down, and bring in, I think his name is Dave Mason or whatever, to get the piccolo trumpet guy to do this awesome performance. And they could work like this, not because of their theory, because they knew the intervals or anything like that, but because of their active listening, and all the time they spent with that, and because their ears were awake. They were ready to hear something, whether it came from classical music, music hall, Indian Music, traditional blues. They were able to hear everything that that was going on around them, and then bring it together.
Christopher: Absolutely. Andrew, I don’t know if you feel a bit stupid like I do, that it’s taken us this long to put together an active listing product. It’s come up recently, a lot, as we’ve worked on Musical U together, and as I’ve worked on it over the years. And the focus has been so much on ear training, and then gradually broadened out to musicality, and I think both of us, once we’ve sunk our teeth into this project of developing a Musician’s Ear, the handbook, and the listening guides, and the solo, we were both like, “How did we not do this sooner?” I think it’s partly because we taken different ground to them a little bit. And it’s only through working with our members at Musical U that we realize that there’s so much of that contextual understanding, and awareness, and just appreciation of what’s going on, that you and I, until we stop and think about it, we take 100% for granted, it’s part of who we are as musicians. It’s part of how we’ve experienced music.
And so it’s been super fun to step back and be like, “Oh, so if someone doesn’t have that, how can we get that to them in the best possible way? How can we make it so easy, and fun, and appealing, that they have this amazing experience of developing their active listening skills that we know is possible.” And I’m sure if anyone watching, or listening, you’ve felt our enthusiasm in this episode. We could clearly geek out about this for many more hours, and indeed we do, behind the scenes. And we have been, for months, developing this product. But just to say, it’s not coming late in the story of Musical U because it’s less important than the ear training, or the Foundations course. This is going to exist right alongside those, and it’s something we’re going to continue building and developing, because if you haven’t already done this, it is such a vital part of developing your musicality, and it’s such a powerful and exciting part.
I know everyone on the team is really psyched to have this now, as part of our offering in our training at Musical U. So all of that just to say, hopefully, you’ve caught our enthusiasm at this point. That’s what we had in mind to this first episode, is just to get everyone on the same page about what is active listening? What does it mean to have the ear of a musician, to have a musician’s ear? Why would you care about that? How does it relate to these other areas? And hopefully, leave you itching to know, how can I actually go away and do this? So that’s what we’ll be tackling on our next episode, where I’ll be joined with Andrew again, and we will be talking about, how to hear like a musician.
Thanks for joining us for this one, and we’ll see you real soon.“
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