Someone asked me how I approach listening to music. I suppose everyone has their own method but for better or worse, here’s mine…
As a culture, most of our listening these days is done at the song level, rather than album or long form work. In fact, the term music itself is pretty much limited in discussion anymore to the song. Downloads of individual songs and YouTube videos focus us on only around 3 minutes by a particular artist. Some studies say that people are generally only listening to the first half/two-thirds of that three minutes. That’s for a whole other discussion. Often, however, the song is reinforced and made better in our experience within the context of the other songs on an album. (I still tend to use the term album not only because I grew up in the world of the vinyl LP, but the word album connotes the entire collection rather than individual songs.)
Franz Schubert (among others) used to group songs that told a complete story or songs that were set to a particular post’s words. These grouping called song cycles are usually more interwoven than modern albums, but this is the direction I like an album to aim. Even if the songs are not related, however, an equality of songs in quality, construction, etc. is something I look for. A disjointed, fragmented album is hard to digest. Don’t misunderstand- the songs need not be similar or repetitive, but presented with equal effort in order to get the maximum communication from the song to the listener.
When I listen to an album of songs for the first time (songs, rather than a long form piece – symphony, concerto, etc), I try to wipe my mind clear and let the music fill the space. When that clearing doesn’t happen, current circumstances can color the music, rather than vice versa. For me, it’s best if I listen through headphones in a private/semi-private space. I do believe you can listen with varying intensity levels. Some music demands concentrated, focused listening in order to go where the music leads. Other music requires nothing of the listener. We likely need some of both in our lives, but the former gives much more back in the long run, in my opinion.
A good album will capture my attention in some way from the start. Starting with a high powered song is great, but the rest of the project shouldn’t tail off in energy. Sometimes, interest can be piqued by packaging before the music even starts. As the music plays, I love to read the lyrics and credits. It helps cement the ideas behind the songs and accentuates some of the lyrical thoughts as well. It also helps me keep a stream on the session musicians- who plays with whom, which sessions, etc…
I tend to listen to lyrics first and then how the music supports and/or plays against them. I appreciate when songwriters take the time and say what they have to say in thoughtful, unique ways. This is one shortcoming of most digital services. Reading the lyrics while listening to the music is critical. Too often the lyrics are unavailable with a digital download/stream. Even humorous/novelty songs can be (and often are) well crafted. The sad ones are the ones that are intended to be taken seriously but are so poorly written they can only be taken as jokes.
Let’s be real. We don’t talk about very many things in music. We talk about the same things in different ways. Love, death, joy, grief, seasons of life, etc. are very common whether told in metaphor or story or whatever. A song that tells of lost love but in some new way is very valuable. This is what makes a song like Lucille work, for instance. Next time you hear it, catch the story, the perspective of the narrator and the outcome. It’s multi-faceted.
Musically, I suppose it’s a very similar thing for me. A three chord song is fine- especially if there’s a need to be sure the lyrics aren’t in danger of being covered by too much activity- but I love subtle, unexpected chord changes. Uses of 9ths (adding a D note to a standard C-E-G chord, for example) and secondary dominants ( e.g., a D Major chord in the Key of C) and other elements add some spice to the standard fare. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with what I just said, it’s just a way to explain what you hear. If you hear it & it causes you to cock your head (in a good way), that’s what I’m talking about.
Very few albums weave a specific character(s) through the songs and make a complete concept album, but many have overarching ideas of love, grief, home, etc. that pop up repeatedly. I try to listen for those things over the course of the songs. Those albums that have great overarching themes and intriguing characters are, to me, the best. (Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim and Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger are the first to mind).
So, how does that translate into what I promote, write about, or play on air? If a song or an entire album moves me in some way, I can’t wait to put it on someone else’s radar. I want to see if it affects them similarly or in a different way. I also want to talk about the things mentioned in the song. Whether is an affirmation of truth, statement of faith or a lament of despair, I like to talk about the character in the song as much as I do Jean Valjean in Hugo’s novel (to pick just one), though there may not be as much to say.
When a songwriter experiences or sees someone else experience something in life (or perhaps imagines the sequence) and takes pen in hand to try to communicate/convey the story, who can say what the impetus is? They may seek to ‘report’ the story, teach a lesson from it, engage others in the spirit of the song, or simply to share a ‘snapshot’ of life. I suspect it’s often a combination of things, some of which may not be readily communicable.
Ultimately, I’m looking for things that speak truth. That may be in a positive, declarative statement, a story or in a negative example.
Regarding what I play on broadcast shows:
Because the shows I currently anchor are, by design, focused on one genre of music that is only 75 or so years old, I’m able to explore nooks and crannies as well as new projects as they come out. It also means that can I play some superficial things occasionally without pressure to play them over and over ad nauseum.
A friend of mine, RS Williams, posted a quote by Annie Dillard yesterday that relates in some way or other to this:
“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”
― Annie Dillard, “The Writing Life”
Trying to write, listen to & play the things that matter most…. which, every now & then, are the silly things that make us laugh….)
Soli Deo Gloria