Importance of Listening To Music

For non-classical musicians, the best predictor of whether a student is going to succeed at learning an instrument is whether or not they listen to music played on the instrument they want to learn.

There are several research papers which use computer analysis of recorded music over several decades to conclude that the peak of musical complexity was in the mid 1960s. Musical complexity can be measured in terms of how many notes are used in the melody, how many chords are in the progression, extended chords versus chord triads, whether it modulates, etc.

However, we don’t need computers to tell us that popular music from 1960 to 1990 was more complex and varied than today’s formulaic four-chord treadmills. A typical pop song today has soft verses, loud choruses, six notes in the vocal melody, and no instrumental solos.

Many kids who want to learn guitar don’t listen to anything except loop-based, computer-generated music, or kids’ music. The problem with this kind of music is that it usually isn’t performed. Instead, it’s created by copying, pasting, looping and rendering.

If you haven’t heard a lot of music on the instrument you’re learning to play, then you’re going to hit a brick wall. When you start music lessons, it’s a good time to also broaden your musical horizons as a listener. Learning to play authentic styles starts with listening for the nuances which make that style of music unique, and then learning to imitate those nuances. The best way to learn a particular style is to learn songs in that style. The best way to do that is to play with recordings.

When I tell students to “play musically,” unless they have heard music played on real instruments, they have no idea what I’m asking them to do. Rap, loop-based music, game music and kid’s music almost never use real piano, guitar or bass. None of this music informs the sense of musicality that students need if they are going to refine their playing. People who don’t have an informed sense of musicality aren’t going to maintain an interest in playing an instrument, even when they have an obvious knack for it.

Students aren’t going to stay interested unless they have an affinity for real music. I’m not criticizing the music you’re listening to, or new music in general. We’re living in a golden age of songwriting and music production, if you know where to look. Unfortunately, there usually isn’t much worth listening to on AM or FM radio anymore.

Broadening your musical horizons is a chicken-and-egg problem. It’s a scientific fact that people tend to like music they have had a lot of exposure to. If you haven’t had the exposure, you probably won’t care about music. We don’t need research papers to tell us this, but they do.

Parents should ask themselves, “Who is deciding what my kids listen to?” Most kids just listen to whatever their friends listen to. Their friends are listening to whatever people are marketing to kids. You wouldn’t want your kids eating only food that’s marketed to kids. But that’s what’s happening with their musical diets, unless there’s some other influence on what they listen to.

The main predictor of success is listening to music that isn’t loop-based, quantitized, or over-produced, and which preserves the subtleties and nuances of real instruments. Serious modern musicians should be familiar with music that draws on elements of established styles, most importantly, the styles that emerged between 1940 and 1990.

You can also include all of the great electronic music that emerged starting in the 1960s. Switched On Bach started a revolution in electronic music that led to Rick Wakeman, Oxygene, and eventually to Enya. Your sense of musicality can be informed by good music played on “non-literal” instruments.

You should have some basic idea of how modern music is put together. A rhythm section is made up of guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. Some songs use horn sections or string sections. On many songs recorded since the 1980s, the horn and string sections are synthesized.

You should know the sounds of acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar, piano, organ including Hammond B, C and M series organs (you don’t have to tell them apart). You should learn to tell the difference between electric pianos like the Fender Rhodes and and the Yamaha DX7. The DX sound has a signature bell-like chime that’s instantly recognizable. You should know the sound of a Moog synthesizer.

You should know what a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat and cymbals all sound like. You should learn the differences between a crash cymbal, a ride cymbal and a splash. On the snare drum, you should recognize the sound of a side-stick, rim-shots, brushes and rods. You should also know the sound of electronic drums like the Roland TR-808. Even though you don’t play all of these instruments, you should learn to recognize them by sound. If you’re listening to music played on real instruments, you can usually distinguish between the different instruments.

With Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube, young people have access to the best that music has to offer, past and present. They should be more involved with music than any previous generation. However, the young generation today is, on the whole, less educated about music than the previous two generations before it. The public has just lost interest in music.

In reaction to some of the lofty pretensions of rock music from the super-group era, there was a trend toward dumbing-down and infantilizing music starting about the 1980s. Disco is an example of how music started to lean more toward harmonic simplicity, a lighter mood, and more glossy production.

Today, much of the music young people listen to is generated by computers. Even instruments like guitar, bass, saxophone, violin and flute are often synthesized in the recording studio. For many music producers, the traditional recording studio has been replaced by a PC connected to a microphone, speakers and a keyboard synthesizer for playing virtual instruments.

These Spotify playlists are great place to start:

KZEW 98 FM DALLAS – A recreation of Dallas radio station KZEW circa 1977, and earlier. This playlist features the best of the period from 1973 to 1977, including the emergence of acoustic rock, soft rock, and women artists.

KERA 90.1 FM DALLAS – A recreation of music programming on KERA FM in Dallas from 1986 to 1992. A boldly eclectic, international mix, featuring many important women artists.

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug