Can you listen to music without analyzing it?


I’m sure I’m not the only one: I’ve really studied music deeply in my life, to the point that my ear is quite developed (both in terms of harmony and production). It’s come at a cost, though – I can’t listen to music without knowing what notes I’m hearing (at least in terms of relative pitch), and I can usually pick apart what’s happening in the mix pretty well.

I fear that music has lost some of its edge for me. To hear like a non-musician, where music is this pure experience, seems incredible.

A big tenant of meditation and all the philosophies/ideologies it touches is the idea of experiencing without analyzing, since that judgement can get in the way of the experience of the thing itself. Experience seeing the flower, the thing behind the word. The feel of rain without consciously calling it rain. Etc.

Lacking this connection to music and sound is…tragic. As my meditation practice deepens, I hope that I can un-learn a bit so that music and sound join all other things in their space of non-judgement.

Anyone have any thoughts on the matter of regaining the ability to hear music like a non-musician after one has been trained?


Yes, and it took years to be able to just enjoy music without being overly analytical. I can now freely bounce back and forth (within the time-limit of a given track) and enjoy it upon multiple levels. As with many things, the more that one equips oneself the more possibilities and avenues for enjoyment will present themselves. It’s a great place to be. Again, it took years and a softening of intensity that comes with age/wisdom/lethargy.


For me this has to do with the modes of listening. The things you are talking about are all part of one mode of listening.

Listening can be practiced, like how ear training improves your ability to hear intervals for example.

Being emmersed in audio production your default mode of listening will adaprt to those parameters. It doesn’t mean that you will hear everything like that always.

Of course our experience with sound is what teaches us how to listen and interpret music and it is necessarily so.

I recommend firstly to read up on modes of listening as a starting point. Pierre Schaeffer is a primary source on this topic. Michel Chion elaborates, mostly in the context of film. Pauline Oliveros is a good person to investigate. Generally speaking Soundscape compositions are also connected to this line of enquiry. See composers such as Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax. Lastly, Simon Emmerson and Dennis Smalley are great sources to read up on for taking these ideas further into the field of electroacoustic music.

What I would further recommend is to listen to music where the rules are less connected to the rules that you are familiar with. Listen to musique concrete and soundscape and electroacoustic music by the above mentioned authors and composers.

Eventually the difference between that kind of music and more traditional music will become arbitrary from a listening point of view and you will be able to find new ways of appreciating the music you are already familiar with.


Yes, I can. But with music similar to mine it’s difficult.


I was a game developer for several years, and often I get distracted from enjoying a game by the details of how the environments were set up – trees and plants, water, sky, terrain modeling, particle effects etc. I don’t know how many times I’ve crashed in racing games because I noticed they were using SpeedTree from certain telltale LOD transitions, and wondering why they didn’t use the collision volumes to stop placing trees in invalid locations.

But I don’t often find myself analyzing music to a degree that takes me out of enjoying it. The exception is counting out rhythms when they’re unusual or complex. Or while editing my own work, it often reaches a point where all I hear is the flaws.


Haha, very similar for me. I’ve never been that much into actual music theory so that part is not an issue for me but I probably do some additional processing regarding sound textures/etc. (what type of effect is being used, etc.) when listening to music.

For games though, also for professional reasons, I do analyse things all the time : technical stuff, animation, game systems design, etc. but that’s never stopped me from enjoying a game, on the contrary… When something is good I appreciate it on two levels.


While my ear is not the most disciplined / developed in the ways you mentioned, I constantly analyze music while listening, too. One of the biggest drawbacks of this for me is writing music off because it doesn’t satisfying my “cleverness quota,” that something seems so basic that I feel it lacks enough conceptual depth for me to enjoy. In this way I often can’t listen to music like you described, as if I were simply experiencing it for what it is. There was a time when this made me dislike a lot of music (others and my own especially…), but now I feel differently.

At it’s core the music I enjoy the most strikes a balance between aesthetic beauty and technical interest. If I find something to be interesting or beautiful sonically, I’ll ask myself “How are they making that sound? What are they doing that makes me like this so much?” So my analytic tendencies get into a feedback loop with my aesthetic appreciation, each one always encouraging the other. It usually doesn’t work the other way around though, if I don’t like the way something sounds I probably won’t enjoy listening to it no matter how impressive it may be.

Also I almost always listen to music in an album/ep format, and I listen to the same music a lot. I’ll often find myself cycling between the same small collection of albums, trading things in an out as I’m more interested in certain things / get bored of others over the period of 1-2 weeks. I think if I were constantly taking in music that was new to me my analytic tendencies would act more like a judgement of “good” or “bad” and probably not much deeper than that. Listening to things repeatedly helps reveal more apects to the music than I could notice with just a few listens.


sometimes I listen to music in ways that actively obfuscate the potential for analysis. For instance: stars of the lid panned 30r, ornette Coleman panned 30l, and an audiobook (the more arcane the better!) panned center. Resist any urge to single out a track and hear what it’s doing; just float on the cacaphony and notice the synchronous moments as they bubble up. This is also something I’ve done a few times in a meditative context to ‘check’ my ‘openness’

as someone who’s mostly a writer, though, my BAD LYRICS meter is stuck on panic.


I’m in almost the exact same place as @Kent the past couple years. But there was a good stretch of time, maybe my entire twenties, where listening to music couldn’t help but be an analytical and/or critical experience for me.

I wonder if one thing that helped was listening to more stuff where I was out of my depth, like extremely dense or harmonically experimental jazz. I feel like that may have pushed my brain to recall the enjoyable state of letting the music just wash over you.

Also: going to loud shows and dancing. There is a lot in that equation that will keep your mind from analyzing at full capacity.

At any rate I can now turn the analysis on and off at will, and that’s been nice. I surprise myself sometimes at just how off it’s able to be now - just the other day it took maybe 10 minutes after messing with a sequence on my modular to consciously register that I had switched from 4/4 to 3/4 time!


I did a music degree as an undergrad, mostly history, musicology and analysis of European art music (“classical”). I remember being assigned a paper on a Bach mass, possibly the B minor. Bach was straddling the Catholic and Protestant worlds at that time in terms of his patronage and personal beliefs, and the assignment was to look at the structure of the text of the two liturgies and the way they were treated musically to determine if it was intended as a Catholic mass or a Protestant one.

I think I spent 7 pages making the case for first one and then the other, since you really could slice it either way, as it turned out. I then spent 3 pages ranting about how this didn’t necessarily have to matter, and to be honest we should be playing the B minor mass on kazoos if it sounded good to us.

I did not witness this, but fellow students told me they saw this professor, normally really stuffy and reserved, come out of his office waving my paper, saying to his colleagues, ‘This one is thinking!’ I was flattered to hear that, but in retrospect I wonder why they didn’t teach us a more balanced view. We spent our whole studies reducing music to equations, flow charts, textual analyses, historical contexts. None of which is bad! And I know academic careers are not built on ‘wow, that sounds really cool and makes my neck hairs stand up’. But I still wonder if they could have modeled that sort of thought in conjunction with the more analytic point of view.

I don’t know the current status of trends in the classical world, but in the mid 90s the ‘authenticity’ movement was in full swing. Meaning, in order to have a legitimate performance, you needed to research the structure of the instruments of the time of composition, and the playing styles, and the location that the piece was played in, and the people playing it, and only then would you understand the piece and have an authentic performance of it. I was railing against that. They were searching for a specific sound, but the sound only mattered because it was historically ‘authentic’, not for any aesthetic reasons.

As an adult now, I can see that that itself was a reaction to big institutional classical - Bach being played by 200 musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic say - and this sort of research can definitely reveal things about pieces. At the time, though, authenticity felt like dogma and it was stifling.

I graduated in '96, when house/techno/“ambient”/breakbeat/“IDM”/rave-derived electronic music was in full bloom, and I dove into it. To me this music was about direct experience of sound and emotion. The structures were regular enough to get oriented to quickly (intentionally) and so the interest lay in tension / release cycles, and in small slow gestures, say a filter slowly opening on a breakbeat loop over 64 bars. I felt like I was listening to music for the first time, and it felt fantastic.

Like others, I can sort of move back and forth on the continuum of these modes, but I definitely bias towards what I’ll call direct experience of sound rather than the analytical side. When I’m making sounds myself, I try to put myself in non-thinking mind and allow myself to be impulsive and more instinctual, and I’m a little suspicious of coming to the table with a plan already set. I don’t think this is better per se and don’t judge people who compose that way, but I really prefer to engage with music almost with my thinking mind turned off, previously with alcohol and pot, but these days thankfully I can quiet it down on my own. If I’m going to a symphony or such to hear a piece, I try to learn as little about it as possible beforehand before showing up, so that I can just listen and not impose a structure on it before the fact.

One thing I love about modular is that, if you want, you can completely sidestep the musical structures we’ve inherited, and in fact it’s really a lot of work to make a well-structured pop song or ‘classical’ piece on a modular system. It almost forces you to think outside that system. I remember reading that DJ Shadow would program piano samples onto his MPC pads to construct melodies, and that at least partly that was because he said if he played samples on his piano he inevitably would play piano-sounding lines. Modular feels like that, to me. It almost requires you to engage directly with the sound of things.

Woo tangent! But not really. Thanks for these discussions, Lines.


I just remembered that the thing that is most likely to prevent me from “just enjoying” something I’m listening to, weirdly, is a prominent part of the track being auto-panned by a slow sine/triangle LFO. Out of all things, for some reason that is my pet peeve.


I am mostly a headphone listener, and generally dislike hard panning. Having an LFO move it across a wide range is also pretty distracting.