A common question I am asked as a musician usually concerns what I listen to and how I find the music that I enjoy. I assume people ask because they think I must have a sixth sense for finding top-notch tunes of all styles due to my experience with music theory. Although there is slight truth to that helping me appreciate music from styles I do not necessarily enjoy, my personal playlists are all dependent on my taste just as someone who has never touched an instrument. Recommending music to someone is always fun for me since I try to figure out something they’ll actually like from what I know. I could save the effort and give some general answer of how I “just like music with a good groove”; but that would just come off as a cop out and we can’t have that. As I’ve dealt with this a lot more these days, I’ve been thinking about what I did to discover the hundreds, if not thousands, of songs I love that have inspired my playing.
How much time do you spend listening to music? If you think about that question long enough you’d likely realize music can be difficult to avoid on a daily basis. Whether over the radio in a store, backing a program on television, or from your custom ringtone when you get a call from mom; we are constantly surrounded by music. Now, take a moment to consider how often you truthfully listen to any of that music, including the music you put on for yourself? There is a crucial distinction between the passive listening anyone can take part in and the intentional, active listening. Take one of your favorite songs and listen closely for the different aspects you enjoy most. Maybe you like the overall tone between the instruments, a singer’s voice, unique progressions in the harmony, or the rhythmic structure. Now move on to other songs you love from other artists and see if you can start drawing connections. It won’t be long before you’ve established a musical profile for yourself; but what can you do with this knowledge to expand your listening library and discover something new?
Take a step back now and see if any of your favorite songs are “one-hit wonders”. Not in a typical sense of that phrase, but instead a song that comes from an artist you’ve never explored beyond that single. Sometimes, you’ll find a new song or two that hold up to that single; other times you may discover you were missing out on a goldmine of your kind of music. If you’re using a streaming program, then take a look into related artists and sample out some hits. You’ll notice now that it doesn’t take long for you to decide if a song catches your attention or not. From this point you can enjoy getting lost deeper and deeper in a void of lovable tunes just for you.
I cannot stress enough that you should avoid relying on ‘hot 100’ lists to dictate your music library. You’ll only be drug along by trends and your ear’s palette will lack any form of definition. By all means, if a hit happens to strike your fancy then that’s a good sign you’ll be hearing more from that artist in the future. Just remember that those hits get the big numbers because they have the funding for exposure and a celebrity’s reach is far and wide in our culture, not necessarily because it’s the music you should be spending your listening time on. This is just an example, my point is that you should not let anyone tell you what music you should consider your favorite; that’s only for you to decide.
Now we need to address those of you who are struggling to figure out what about your music you like hearing. You were saying something along the lines of: “but I don’t understand any of that music schoolboy stuff!” Perhaps what you are listening for is the message of the music. For instance, many Christians exclusively listen to music from the Christian music industry and at times they will limit that even further to ‘worship’ music. We’ll cover the reasons another time, but worship music is kept very simple and straight-forward. In this instance, the lyrics take the forefront for the audience’s taste to the point the listener is a fan of religious poetry more than music composition. And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and as someone who gets distracted by the lack of creativity in religious music I envy those who find such joy from that style. Back on topic, if you happen to be someone who listens to their music as more of a ‘poetry fan’ than a music fan, I fail to have much advice for you since I’m just writing from the strategies I used. Many of my favorite songs have the dumbest, outlandish, random lyrics imaginable; and don’t get me started on how cheesy the lyrics are in countless jazz standards. At least I helped you identify that part of yourself if you didn’t know about it already and I imagine you can still take a similar approach to finding some new tunes out there.
Anyway, I hope that these thoughts gave you some ideas on how to listen to music in the future. For those of you who partake in the playing of music, I plan on writing up some more posts on how to take your listening habits and apply them to your playing; but first let’s establish a good practice of listening!