Essential Listening

What is it that you enjoy about music? What catches your attention and makes your favorite song connect with you? 


When most people listen to music they tend to listen passively as part of an activity or just for their own enjoyment. It could be soft background music that helps them relax or upbeat music for a workout. With this type of listening most people are only noticing to the basic elements of the music. This could be the beat that keeps you moving or the strings playing a relaxing melody but there is a lot more going on in most pieces of music. 


Attentive listening requires more of your attention and concentration. You need to be focusing on the music itself and all the elements that make up that piece. Having a good pair of headphones will help you block out all distractions and really concentrate on everything going on in the music. When you listen attentively you will want to listen for the things that you enjoy in the music. 


What do you want to listen for? Listen for the seven elements of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, form, texture, and dynamics. It is one or more of these elements that cause you to connect with your favorite songs.


Rhythm is the length of a sound. The term can also be used to describe how fast the music is (tempo) or how many beats are in each measure (metre). I personally like bands that play in odd time signatures but make it flow so it is not so obvious that they are not playing in a typical 4/4 rhythm and have a good mixture of fast and slow melodies. Bands like Kansas, Spock’s Beard, or the Neal Morse Band are great at writing songs with interesting rhythms.


Melody is the organization or sequence of pitches. Do you like simple melodies that are easy to sing or complex ones that are a challenge?


Harmony is the combination of two or more pitches that can create consonance or dissonance. Do the songs you like have simple chords with no extensions or do you like more complex harmony with more dissonance. 


Timbre is the tone or sound of the instruments being played in the piece of music. I personally love a band with drums, bass, guitar (overdriven or clean), keyboard, and a vocalist who actually sings. Add in great harmony vocals like you would hear in bands like King’s x and there is a good chance I will like the music. Those are the sounds that are pleasing to my ears. 


Form is the overall structure of the piece of music. Some music like blues, jazz or pop music can have the same chords play through the entire piece. More complex music like prog rock or many classical pieces have many sections in the song and are not always as easy to follow.


Texture is how many voices are being played at once. The national anthem is often sung with just one voice and nothing else. That is a monophonic texture. A simple pop song is often performed with just a guitar and one vocalist which is homophonic. Get two or more melodies and more instrumentation and you have a polyphonic song. Which of these sounds most pleasing to your ears?


Finally there is dynamics which is how loud or soft the music is being played. One of my favorite examples of the use of dynamics is the Jellyfish song “Hush”. It starts off super soft but then the volume goes up and down throughout the piece.


The point of all of this is to challenge you to listen to the music you like with a critical ear and figure out what it is that you enjoy about it. What makes you want to listen to that song again and again? Knowing this can help you and give you a place to star when you start writing your own music. Plus you will have the added benefit of being a much better listener which is essential for any musician.



About The Author

Brian Fish is the Guitar Instructor at Guitar Lessons Geauga  located in North East Ohio.