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How to Listen to Music - An Introduction

Updated on January 7, 2018
Reginald Thomas profile image

25 years as a conductor, professional trombonist, and teacher. This author enjoys writing about his passion for music.

Listen to Music on Good Equipment!

A good pair of headphones is a good start.
A good pair of headphones is a good start. | Source

How to Listen to Music

If you are reading this article, I will assume that you are interested in learning about the subject of “How to Listen to Music” and that is great! Music is all around us and a day doesn’t go by when we are not exposed to some type of music. The problem is, do we know what we are listening to? Not just the name of the group or the title of the piece. Or, in many cases with the more “popular” streams - the “Lyrics”. Depending on how old we are will determine the depth of our musical tastes as well as how serious of a listener we are. To be a more “serious” listener, we need to develop a few skills so that understanding what we are listening becomes much easier.
This article will introduce you to some of the basic skills necessary in becoming a good observant listener. In a short period of time you will be amazed at how well you listen to music by using these fundamental skills.

Music Room / Office

A simple area in your home could serve as an office/music listening room.
A simple area in your home could serve as an office/music listening room. | Source

Create an Atmosphere!

Now, before we start talking about listening to music, we need to create the proper atmosphere for this activity. This could be for enjoyment and could be for learning as well. Let’s hope you are one that wants both. These first three steps are important in order to develop the skills needed to get the most out of listening to any type of music whether it be Bach, Beethoven or the Beatles.

  • Your Listening Equipment

“Having the right equipment for the job”, is the creed of most construction workers. Having the right equipment for your music listening is important also. This can be as simple as a CD player and a set of inexpensive headphones. Or, for the more serious person you might want to be in a concert hall atmosphere in which case you will need to either have or invest in a good sound system that should include: an amplifier, stereo speakers, CD player, and a very adequate pair of stereo headphones.If you do not have these items in your home now, then maybe going out to a place that specializes in home sound systems will be able to help you choose the correct equipment for your home and budget. Talk to an audio specialist in a specialty store about the room that you are setting up. They have sound rooms in most places professionally setup where you can actually sit and experience some nice systems live. I don’t propose to know a tremendous about sound systems so, I leave that area up to the specialists. Lots of fun!My last point about equipment is that with good equipment you will be able to appreciate the great sounds produced in the recording studio.

  • Time

Dedicating a certain amount of time for your music listening whether it be daily or weekly is important. Call it a hobby, I know I do. I simply set aside one hour every day to listen to my favorite groups or composers. Many of us watch television quite the same way. My wife and I like to watch The Big Bang Theory. We know when it’s on, so we set aside that time each week. You can do the same with your music.

  • Location

This next part is very important. You should pick a good location to listen to your music for a few reasons:
A. Privacy - If you live alone, maybe your living room will be the best place for your music listening. If you have other people in the house you may want to designate another room. Maybe a den, basement or a spare bedroom where you can set up your sound equipment. This is all for the purpose of privacy where you can be by yourself with no interruptions or distractions. I know from personal experience that the simplest of interruptions is very annoying and I had to make sure that everybody knew that my activity time was not to be disturbed. It's just like practicing the trumpet or the piano. This is your alone time! I’m giving you an extreme method by which you can really enjoy your hobby. But, you can certainly arrange this any way that works for you.
B. Comfort - You don't have to be a professional musician or musicologist to have a nice area dedicated to your music listening. Be comfortable when you are listening. Setting up this area should be fun. To get the best possible benefits of your music listening activity, arrange your room with the following:

1. A nice comfortable chair or sofa

2. A good sound system - Amplifer, CD Player, Speakers, Set of good headphones, Your (now) ever growing music library of CDs, Tapes, LPs etc...

Many people, including amateur musicians set up their music room/office area with the instruments they play: Drums, Saxophone, Piano etc....

Medium for Performance

The Canadian Brass Quintet
The Canadian Brass Quintet | Source

Canadian Brass

The Singers Unlimited - Vocal Quartet - Very Cool Sounds!

Medium for Performance

Now that we have a location to listen to our music, a time set up and good equipment, we can move on to the next area. We will begin by talking about the term “Medium for Performance”. Throughout these articles I will be using this term so, let me explain what I mean by the term if you are not familiar with it.
If we are listening to any piece of music, something or someone is playing the sounds we hear. We could be listening to “Saturday In The Park” by Chicago. The medium for performance is a Rock Band (Chicago). We could be listening to the 4th movement to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The “medium for performance” is a Symphony Orchestra. One more! If we are listening to a child playing “Chopsticks” on the piano then, the medium for performance is the Piano. Simple! Right?

What to Listen To in Music vs What to Listen For in Music
Music has for centuries now been evolving into what currently is known as our Modern Period of Music. Because of this, we have many, many different genre of music at our finger tips for our listening pleasure. For the purpose of this article, I would like to clarify what is a common mistake by many as to how we should approach the subject of “How to Listen to Music”.It basically comes down to “listening” - yes? So, let’s substitute the word “to” with the word “for” and we have “What to Listen For in Music”. The whole concept here to remember is that without a basic understanding of these five elements, one can listen to a piece of music and even enjoy it, but knowing each of these will allow you to appreciate what you are listening to because you have the ability to know what to listen for.

The Five Basic Elements of Music
Below is a list of the five basic elements of music.

  1. Melody - the soul and emotional part of music.
  2. Rhythm - the heartbeat of music
  3. Harmony - two or more pitches played at the same time.
  4. Form - how a piece of music is constructed. The blue print of what you hear!
  5. Timbre - the sound quality of the music

These five elements are the cornerstones of music and as we explore each one, they will give you a better understanding of how to listen to music. In the next article I will break down the element of Melody and explain its function in a piece of music.

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

Please feel free to comment or ask any questions and I will get back to you.

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