Like a lot of musicians and producers, over the years I’ve learned that I’m no longer able to listen to music passively just for enjoyment. Actually, that’s not completely true, I remember exactly when it was I came to this realization.
I was driving home from work listening to Hybrid’s “Theme From A Wide Angle”, one of my favorite CDs back then (indeed still). It was a great summer day, your typical windows down, music cranked up, life is good sort of day. But instead of just enjoying the drive with this beautiful soundtrack to go along with it, I found myself subconsciously trying to pick apart the timing of the drums, or how many string parts were playing at any one time. I realized I was analyzing the minutia, and not just enjoying the song as a whole.
There was the sudden realization that for a long time now I have been having this sort of interaction with the music I was listening to, and that I was doing it all the time. No longer was it just something I listened to because I enjoyed it, but it was a constant game to pick everything I heard apart, to figure out what made it work on many different levels. Ever since then, I’ve always had this sort of nostalgia for the times before I started writing my own music. A desire to somehow go back and hear some of my favorite albums or even my own work from the perspective of someone who wasn’t a musician.
Sure there were moments when I would be able to not analyze what I was hearing and just enjoy it (typically early in the morning surrounded by a few hundred other people in a warehouse if you know what I mean). But by and large the music listening experience had ceased to be something that was a passive experience, and instead became an active thing I did. Each new song became a chance to learn something new, to rethink the way I worked on my own music. Even today when it comes to my mastering business, I’m constantly listening to things like tonal balances, how loud things are, how long fade outs are, etc.
For a long time this kind of upset me, in a weird sort of “loss of innocence” way.
Then about a month ago I completely changed how I felt about this shift from listening for enjoyment, to listening on a much deeper level. I was attending a small music conference made up of different audio professionals from the Pacific Northwest, and one of the nights there was a small round-table discussion on how Seattle’s music scene has evolved over the years. One of the people on the panel was legendary producer Jack Endino (Soundgarden, Nirvana, you name it he recorded it).
He was asked by someone else in attendance what he liked to listen to in his free time, to which he replied “Nothing, I read” (paraphrased). Like a lot of audio professionals, after a long day of working on music for a living, often the last thing you want to do when you’re done is listen to more music (something I can personally relate to). But Jack went on further to say that he’s been fortunate to be an integral part of the creation of so much great music, that just listening to the finished product often doesn’t compare. The act of creating the music, and working with other extremely talented people has brought him experiences and moments that just completely outshine any sort of passive listening experience he’s had.
This really struck a chord with me for some reason.
I realized I had been looking at the whole situation completely the wrong way this whole time. Before, I had felt like those who knew nothing about making music were the lucky ones because of how they could enjoy music more ‘purely’. Now, I realized that I’ve been able to experience music in a way that they will never have the chance to. I can enjoy and appreciate it on so many deeper levels, versus just the surface level most people know.
The constant analysis of what I was hearing wasn’t a curse, but something I was lucky enough to be able to do. It not only taught me more about the art of music making, but also directly led me to situations where I got to interact with music in a much more complete way than I ever dreamed I would. Be it a live performance I was giving, witnessing first hand a once in a lifetime studio session, helping other musicians achieve their own dreams, or even just having meaningful conversations with other musicians about topics we cared deeply about.
It’s a great example of how slightly changing your perspective can radically alter your views on something you thought you knew.