Monday, August 21, 2017

Three Levels of Listening to Music

Nothing is simple with me. It seems I have to add some layer of analysis to, well, everything. Listening to music is no exception. Years ago, I realized I have three levels of listening to music. For fun, and to show you just how nerdy I am, I'm going to share them with you today.

Level 1: Background Noise

This is the simplest, most boring way that I listen to music. It's on because I don't want silence, but I'm not really paying that much attention to it. It can still get into my head enough to play back with full orchestra, though. And yes, there are songs my brain can play back to me in full orchestra.

Level 2: Analysis of the Music

This is probably the most nerdy of my levels, and comes directly from playing instruments. I like to analyze music for the different instruments, the different styles of playing, the dynamics, the different musical forms, identify key changes, figure out the time signature...all sorts of things.

The first time I really remember using this style of listening was when my sisters and I dug out my dad's old recorded-off-of-the-record cassette tape of the original Star Wars soundtrack. We'd listen to it during school and spend probably more time than we should have identifying to the best of our ability which section of the orchestra was most prominent at a given point, and what instruments we could identify. (There did happen to be a lot of UMIs, or Unidentified Musical Instruments.) I can remember sitting in the car listening to the soundtrack for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, trying to figure out a way to describe the obvious sound difference between the string section and the woodwind section. The best I could come up with was that woodwind sounds round, and strings sound flat. But not flat like the notes are flat or there's no expression. And brass just sounds brassy. And then it was interesting to note the use of electric guitar in "Muttations" on the soundtrack for The Hunger Games.

As I got further into violin, I began to be more analytical of string pieces. I understood how concertos worked, and so I would identify the different aspects of them while listening. If it was a piece I was learning, I would focus on how the performer interpreted the piece. I also began to enjoy identifying bowing techniques. I was excited to note the up-bow staccato in the song "Life and Laughter" on the Cinderella (2015) soundtrack. There are many instances in the soundtracks for BBC Merlin where the string section is playing pizzicato. This analytical listening has helped me learn pieces by ear, and also to play along with a song completely by ear (if it's not terribly fast)...a skill that has actually shown its practicality when I'm learning a new song for church.

Level 3: Story Listening

This level primarily works with film score and songs from musicals...which is generally my primary musical material. I'll be listening to a song off a soundtrack and start envisioning the scene in my head. It'll spark my imagination and I'll start to live in the world of that movie or show.

Sometimes, as in the case of "Lucy Meets Mr. Tumnus" from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I'll recite the dialogue in time with the music. My sisters and I actually went through a phase where we'd act out that section of the movie, from where Lucy enters the wardrobe to where she goes off with Mr. Tumnus, to the music a few times a day. We had to take turns being Lucy. 

This method of music listening has at times sabotaged my writing efforts, as it will get me daydreaming about the originating story in stead of my own, but once the soundtrack is familiar enough, I can get it down to Level 1 listening and focus on my book again.

There you have it: My three levels of listening to music. It's clearly difficult for me to take anything at face value, but it just makes life far more interesting.

Do you have any special way you listen to music? What's your favorite kind of music?

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