We Hear Different

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.

9 Replies to “We Hear Different”

  1. Great article! I find that not only has music producing enabled me to enjoy music on a deeper level, but also it allows me to enjoy other types of music that I don’t really like. Even if a piece doesn’t reach me on an emotional level, I can still enjoy the craftsmanship and hard work behind good records. This is a great asset when on a road trip with my girlfriend and I have to listen to her CDs.

    1. That’s a great point, and another really powerful insight I took away from the conference. There were so many extremely talented people from such diverse musical backgrounds in attendance, and yet we all bonded and were able to share the music that moved us the most.

  2. I had this problem to the extreme. So much so that when making a new track, I would already imagine myself hearing it in a club, picking it apart. It became hard to hear “songs” but instead hear production.

    My way out of it was not to think this was a good thing, but to just change what I was listening to. I stopped listening to music that could ever be played in clubs. I started listening to things like Autechre that still fascinated me without understanding completely how it was made.

    Helped me break out of it and also inspired me to grow in different directions.

  3. Great article, once again! I definitely can relate, and for some time I did think “hearing deeper” or “hearing only the details” was a curse, but over time I’ve developed some sort of automated system where (at least I think) I can turn off the active listening for a bit and just enjoy. Still, mainly it works for me so that when I hear some killer details and I “get”, in addition to the actual composition, why the track works, it supports my “average listener” liking = best of both worlds. Also, like commented earlier, listening to genres that I don’t like, I still get a lot out of it being able to appreciate the tech side of thing, even learn tricks for my own work.

  4. Great article, man. I can totally relate to it and also felt the same way. I came to the same realization when I got to talk to casual listeners and they were the one pointing out to me how I could pinpoint and breakdown parts of a song and they were asking me how we musicians do it 🙂 It’s good reading about it in your entry. It made me think about it more.

  5. I’ve always been fascinated with how non-musicians hear music. But it’s such a difficult thing to talk about because they lack some of the more detailed terminology to describe things.

  6. excellent article and so very true! i realize that it makes seeing those really great artists that you love live that much better, but on the flip side it makes seeing your average top 40 club dj that much worse.

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