Friday, August 7, 2020

How Can You Listen To That? | Music Think Tank

The new frontier

Before the pandemic, I made a point to catch at least three live indie music acts a month. Much of the time, I was not too familiar with the bands I was going to hear. It’s an experiment of sorts to give myself the opportunity of a direct experience without any mediation. A friend of mine became quite critical of me because he could not understand how I could go to a show without even knowing what I was getting into. How could I listen to two divergent genres of music within the same week? He needed time to hear the latest album, internalize the songs, and let it all sink in. The live show was a way for him to recapture those experiences and build new bonds with the group, as a fan. I do this as well, and as I suspect, you do, too. Seeing your favorite group play live is probably the most rewarding way to connect with them. However, if this is your only way into music, then you are keeping yourself away from new musical frontiers. And you don’t need to do that.

Get out of the house on a Tuesday night

In the city where I live (Philadelphia), there’s a great assortment of venues that host live indie music. The shows are generally between $12 to $24. That price range is not going to break the bank, whereas, going to any one arena show would kill my concert budget for a half year. Plus, (and I realize this is not the case for everyone, depending on where you live) there are shows every night of the week! Get away from the commercially successful (arena) bands for a moment and go to the indie shows. Whether you get into the music or not, you’ve connected to your local indie music community. If you go to shows often enough, you will see familiar faces and make connections. This is a much more intimate vibe than an arena concert.

The strategy

So how do you decide what concerts to attend? I check the listings and choose shows that interest me. How do I know if I’m interested? I don’t know. I look at what’s in front of me: the press picture and a brief description (usually written by the promoter). From there, I go to Spotify and listen to a couple of tunes but not too many; I just want to get a sense of their music. In fact, I have often skipped the pre-listening part to just rely on my initial reaction. That’s the entire map of the basis of my decision to go see a show. I don’t care if this is the comeback tour, if the lead singer broke up with his girlfriend, if the band now only plays harmonicas, or if the drummer finally got clean. I’m going with my gut instinct and with the intention of going to a show to learn something and maybe, just maybe, become a fan.

Ways of listening

If you’re exclusively into a certain genre of music, then how are you going to expand your range of listening? How can you listen to jazz and then head over to a speed metal show? To be clear, there are folks who have been listening to Bob Dylan their entire life and they will continue to do so. They get into a certain type of music at a certain age and it just becomes the music they listen to. It’s part of their identity. It’s a beautiful thing and it can calcify a whole generation’s way of life. If you are interested and willing, you can expand the breadth of your musical scope by changing the way you listen to music at any age. It’s that simple and yet the mental hurdles appear to be difficult. Weirdly, in my experience, I have found that one can learn to listen to new (or different music) very quickly. Using the strategy above, puts you into an unknown space and will free up your expectations.

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” — Steve Martin

Sound chaser

You bridge the gaps in your listening habits by stepping outside of your comfort zone. If your habit is to listen to music that has “good” lyrics, you can open up by excluding that parameter and replacing it with another. Focus on the sound. What instruments are being played? Do you like the overall sounds and textures? What do you like about them? Notice the differences between lo-fi and highly produced (polished) recordings. Does noise bother you, or does it bring you into the recording? Spend some time checking out the Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify. Or, start with a band that you like and get into the Fans Also Like tab. Conduct a random sampling of some of those groups. Save the ones you like to your library.

What’s the story?

It’s fine to get into a group by knowing their story, the story of what makes them who they are. In fact, the story is what drives promotion. Some music writers don’t write so much about music as they do write about that group’s story: how they came to be, what they do, what they eat, and how they reek of patchouli. For this, you can do some research or read music publications like Pitchfork, for example. You’ll find that all of the writing is about the story. There’s not too much gushing over how the melody for this really catchy tune uses a descending minor third to great affect.

The architecture of music

If you do want to go deeper than the story, refocus on how music is made; how it’s built. When you notice how music is structured, you begin to hear it differently. This is especially true when bands compose music that breaks the normal songwriter’s form. You don’t need a degree in music theory. Just listen (and re-listen) to a song and see if you can visualize the structure. Try to find the verse and the chorus. Is the guitar player using the main melody to structure their solo? You’ll begin to see how a tune is made and can extend that new, deeper, mode of listening to other music.

The proof is in the pudding

At the end of the analysis, you want to hear good music. You want to like what you are hearing even if you have listened to all aspects of it (the form/structure, the words, the story, the sounds). You want to be moved. What’s really interesting about this whole process is when you actually get into a group’s music, based on their live show. When you go back and sample their other tunes on Spotify (or on the vinyl that you picked up at the merch table), it re-ignites the experience of the performance. Of course I don’t like the music from every indie show I’ve been. However, I always learn something and bring that back with me into my own music making. It could be something as simple as how the drummer holds the sticks or how the guitar player only plays with 5 strings. Listening to different music is a dose of good medicine to open your ears more than you thought you could. As a result, my collection of music, and my ears, have grown bigger.

John Merigliano is a songwriter and composer. He writes about music and the creative process. You can learn more by going to or


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