Can you listen to music without analyzing it?


#1

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?


#2

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.


#3

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.


#4

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


#5

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.


#6

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.


#7

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.


#8

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.


#9

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!


#10

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.


#11

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.


#12

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


#13

I had a conversation a few years ago with a friend who’s an avid listener, but not really inclined to music production or performance. I mentioned a particular section of a particular song, and that I liked the way a few synth voices had been stacked on each other. My friend knew the section I was talking about, but said something along the lines of “how did you know how many notes were playing? I just like, hear the whole thing.”

I’m not as hyper-analytical as some people here have described themselves, but it was eye-opening to me that something that (for me) is as baseline as keeping track of distinct melodic lines was just not on the radar for my buddy.


#14

Reminds me of an exercise a music teacher of mine did in school. We listened to an excerpt of a relatively simple piece of music and he asked us to identify the instruments in it. I believe there were only four. Some kids could pinpoint every one, most could tell which sounds were distinct instruments but perhaps didn’t know all their names, and then there were a few people who just had no idea whatsoever. That blew my mind.


#15

Much like many of you have described, this used to be a big issue for me, especially for the past few years.

It was nigh on impossible for me to not listen to music and try to dissect it, either harmonically or the production side of things.

What actually changed that, strange as it may seem, was truly going deep into music theory. Learning from the ground up, from simple voice leading to full on integral serialism and beyond.

Besides deepening my appreciation for certain composers immensely and opening my eyes/ears to music which I did not even know existed it also allowed me to just sit back and listen again for the first time in years. I think it may have to do with the fact that I now know that should I want to, I can more or less analyze any piece of music and fairly quickly (depending on the composition of course) identify the processes behind it and “break the code” if you will.

Having the power to do so enables me to listen without analyzing and just enjoying the music. Before I was always trying to figure out how the song/piece was composed, sometimes I could do it with more straight forward songs but with more complex compositions it was always a dead end, even if I had the score in front of me.

There’s always a certain amount of debate surrounding music theory on every music-forum and I realize that this of course is very personal but for me, learning theory has been one of my top 3 decisions in my life so far.


#16

For me it is like the conundrum of asking people about their own mental processes. Once they are thinking about their thinking, is it their actual normal thinking process anymore?

If I start working and am focused, or am relaxing and very unfocused, I can have music in the background. But as soon as I consciously say to myself, ‘interesting that that isn’t bothering me, I’m not analyzing it’ boom, it is over.

And if I start out saying ‘I wonder if this’ll work, …’ it never does.

I have a moderate amount of classical and theory, and have played casually for 50 years, if that is relevant in some way. I learned to read and write music before English (my mother tongue), and much of my analysis skills were developed at that age. By 12 or so I’d abandoned playing classical at all, and am only now reinvestigating it.

I can listen and for the most part hear individual parts and identify most instruments (I had training in this, but it was … a while ago). Once I engage in that I find it VERY hard to stop doing it.


#17

This thread reminded me of a very early childhood memory. I must have been closer to 3 than 4. I was learning to read and I remember (eerily clearly) a conversation with my parents about “can I ever not read now?” I was at a stage of learning where reading took great effort, because I was absorbing the etymology and context of every new word I encountered. It wasn’t just “reading”, I was learning how language itself works (in the context of English, which is far from sensible, logical, or consistent). Most of the time this was all very interesting to me (my mother was a librarian and there were few places I felt more comfortable than in the stacks) but sometimes it was a real annoyance/drain (my hatred of advertising started at a very young age, and had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with cognitive autonomy, which also happens to be political, but I digress…)

My parents were not very successful at the time with helping me understand that the effort of reading would pass, and that “not being able to turn it off” wouldn’t bother me after a while. So, I just got even more voracious with words, a pattern that persists to this day…

Sometimes I get quite analytical with my writing. Most of the time I just put down my cursor and let 'er rip (but I can’t resist an editing pass or two).

My approach to composition is not entirely dissimilar. I love improvisation. I also love having a concept and a bit of structure to hang an improv off of. And I love using improv to inspire more formal composition. And there are stages of that latter phase where analysis sometimes comes into the picture.

Analysis is just another tool for the mental toolbox. Plenty of other ways to use your brain, but it seems especially useful when you are climbing a steep learning curve.


#18

Oh man, that just sent me down a compare/contrast rabbit hole of my music making and the academic/professional/creative word-work that I’ve done. Probably another thread for that.


#19

For good or ill, I always write to discover what I’m writing about…

Garry Winogrand said something similar about photography: "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”; also expanding on this a bit: "I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.”

http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/15219/27-quotes-by-photographer-gary-winogrand/

It’s the same with music, if I’m to take one of my own pieces seriously, there has to be the sense of abandon – of letting something first assert itself, recognize it, seize upon it, cultivate it, give it a space to grow. But this also involves resoluteness, taking ownership and responsibility, making good on what I’ve been given. Music is channeling basically; channeling but also cultivation. But to do this I also have to be passionate about it, really wanting or desiring the thing to come forth. I make studying theory almost a parallel track – more inspiring than useful really.

My experience with childhood and writing is a semi-traumatic one. I had, over several years with a group of close friends constructed an elaborate fantasy world, sort of a live-action RPG superimposed upon the physical terrain around our houses and around school, but also a collective hallucination. (of course we didn’t know about actual RPG’s, they were around in the late 70’s but we were never exposed; I do remember structural/“game” aspects though.)

I suppose a lot of people did this to some degree but our world was held remarkably consistent for years (and years are an incredibly long time to a child). It persisted not only in conversation and play but in written stories (sometimes done for class assignments, where appropriate), and dreams; we called the never-ending process of bringing forth this world “writing”.

It was really like entering a space of myth, creating stories not for “entertainment”, but fundamental narratives by way of which we could interpret and make sense of everything around us. Nothing really contradicted what adults took to be the physical world, it was more a dimensional concatenation or superposition; a mythic space. Fictions not for escape but for gaining a much deeper understanding and even sensitivity to truth. Needless to say, most adults from teachers to parents were horrified by this, as it meant they could no longer control the narrative…

All this collapsed in an instant when we moved. I found myself at an awful school where I couldn’t connect with anyone. On top of it I was made to skip a grade, and found myself completely occupied with social challenges. I quickly forgot most of the details of that world, as if it never existed or mattered. The new thing was simply to fit in and I failed miserably, was horribly bullied. Also collapsing was this kind of dreamy, collective consciousness in favor of the pointed, awake consciousness of an “I” – the modern ego of which we’re all familiar – that was even worse than being bullied. (I wonder if this is the true meaning of a telepathic consciousness, that this meaning only becomes twisted into pseudoscientific nonsense, or becomes itself an amphibology when forcibly re-interpreted in modern sense of action-at-a-distance between egos already posited as separate.) Needless to say, I became basically like everyone else, except sad, lonely and alienated.

Crazy as it was, I owe so much to this experience. Everything we did was basically in the form of how I understand the creative process today, not in terms of invention, but in terms of disclosing or uncovering new worlds. To take the covers off and expose what was already there. Or un-forgetting things … something really close to the ancient Greek conception of aletheia, which was of course their predominant idea of truth, not the Roman veritas or truth-as-correspondence which persists to this day. Our imaginary world felt so real, so true precisely because we did not invent anything. We just channeled it, all action was just about being receptive to whatever thoughts arose and maybe shaping it a bit, to make it make sense. Dreams were remembered as much as we could and taken as authoritative, and my friends’ dreams shared many common elements with mine. The process of dreaming was also called “writing”, basically both fused into a single concept.

Almost 40 years later I guess that experience has deeply affected me, but not only in how I think about the creative process. Rather than creativity being motivated by wonder in my case, there’s always a sense of longing, a sense of wanting to recover lost time, a sense of being haunted by the absence of worlds, by the absence of a mythic space. I think a lot about this too in a historical sense, how the remnants of forgotten worlds still haunt the margins of language; that in language itself there is always a possibility of reawakening it, of taking the covers off.

I guess with that, I’ve found out what I really wanted to write about…


#20

Thank you for reminding me that we did something like this as well, between the ages of about 9 and 20. For us this metadimension of mythmaking was a strange pastiche of our own fantasies blended with every science fiction and fantasy narrative we were fond of. We were samplers of a sort.

The oral storytelling evolved into many different forms over the years, some of them became musical as well…

When we did all of this I think we were convinced we were the first kids ever to construct and inhabit such a rich and vivid imaginary alternate multiverse. Now I realize how amazing it is that it isn’t so uncommon at all.

All those universes dancing in our heads…