Ways to Learn / Teach to Be a Better Listener


#1

Learning to Be a Better Listener

I believe that learning to be a better listener can significantly enhance your overall enjoyment and appreciation of this hobby in the long run. Now I can’t claim to be great at this, as I’ve just relied on instinct so far. But as I get deeper into this hobby, I can’t help but wonder if I can use a more informed and organized approach to become a better listener (and get the most out of my money spent).

Like taking a class on music theory deepens your appreciation for great musicians or playing a few years of sport increases your awe of elite athletes, learning to spot and understand the nuances of sound can help you to better know and love your gear. Another way to put this is: how can I invest in myself to improve the enjoyment of this hobby?

In a way, it makes sense. It would be silly to spend thousands on pro sports gear and expect to perform like a pro right away. Similarly, despite the fact that audiophile performance is far more dependent on equipment, there is a significant aspect of personal input that’s largely ignored. I would like to explore this aspect together.

What is Better Listening?

I believe this to be the combined package of everything that an individual can influence in order to improve their enjoyment, independent of the gear, the music, and physical capabilities. Our gear is constrained largely by budget and availability. Music quality is largely up to the creators (and also your budget, though cheap / free high quality music is becoming more available). Physical capabilities are down to genetics and your past habits, both of which you can’t really change.

What we’re left with are those things that we can improve with care and effort. These include:

  1. Time management
  2. Improving the listening environment
  3. Maintaining ear health
  4. Learning to listen for details
  5. Studying excellently mixed / mastered music (even if it’s not your preferred genre)
  6. Practicing

The first 3 aspects have already been explored at length in various topic here. It’s the last 3 that I feel warrant more discussion. I’ll go into each of them below.

Learning to Listen for Details

Tell me if you’ve had this experience before. You put on your favorite gear and play that one song that blew you away yesterday, but find that it simply doesn’t sound the same. You swear you heard more yesterday, and after trying again and focusing real hard, you are again able to pick out those sweet details. Why? You were distracted the first time around.

If you haven’t already, check out Apollo Robbins’ “The Art of Misdirection” on TED. He brings up something very interesting there, which is the concept of limited attention. He likens our conscious mind to a security guard named Frank, who has a whole bunch of inputs coming in all at once. Now Frank can only pay attention to so much at a time, and when Frank focuses on a few things, he ignores the rest.

I think that when it comes to being an audiophile, training our inner Frank can be very fruitful. So how do we train Frank to be more present with the music? A lot of things can contribute, like environment, background noise, stress levels, diet, sleep, energy, and more. I believe that those known to have a “golden ear” have to some degree trained their inner Frank to listen to music a lot better.

Now what goes into this training is up for discussion. Meditation can help. Preparation and warmup can work too.

Question 1: If you have a golden ear, what do you do to improve your presence and awareness?

I also believe this plays a factor in those of us (like me) who can’t easily spot the difference between mp3 and lossless audio in ABX tests. Maybe we haven’t learned to listen to the right things and are distracted by the wrong things. It’s like playing “Where’s Waldo” or “Spot the Difference” with sound.

Question 2: Those of you who are very good at this – can you teach what to listen for in these exercises?

Studying Excellently Mixed / Mastered Music (and, by suggestion, live music!)

Just like film study for movie buffs, listening to exemplary audio with an informed ear can be a great training for audiophiles. This flows from the previous step.

This just comes down to a list of songs with some guidance on what to listen for. A GREAT example of this is The Ultimate Demonstration Disc on Spotify.

Question 3: Once you know what to listen for, which pieces of music can you use to train yourself? Please share your suggestions

Practice

Getting better happens with practice. So learning to be a better listener also improves with focused practice. This is another area where I hope the experts can share their wisdom.

Question 4: Do you routinely dedicate any time towards exercises to improve your listening? If so, please share your regimen and experience.

Can you Teach Better Listening?

Question 5: And lastly, if this can be learned, can it be taught? If so, how can we put together great training resources?

Benefits of Training Yourself

Ultimately, I feel that I am able to identify and appreciate a lot more today than I was able to last year. I enjoy more types of music, better appreciate the music I already love, know a lot more about good sound, and can share my enjoyment with others at a deeper level. I want this pattern to continue, both for myself and others.

I also think this helps your wallet a heck of a lot. If you can learn to get more out of the gear you have now, you won’t need to spend thousands to get that little bit more. And if you do end up spending thousands, you get a lot more value out of it by being a better listener.


I would really like to hear your thoughts on this aspect of “Audiophile Personal Training”, whether they are specific answers to the questions above or overall thoughts on the matter. I am especially keen to learn from those that have the access to and experience with TOTL gear, combined with excellent listening skills.


#2

I know you said, “independent of the gear, the music, …”; however, since most of the commercially available recorded sound happens to be recorded music, I would add:

5.5. Studying music theory, composers, performers, and performances of interest

I’m challenging myself to do this as well. For example, in addition to all that you said above, being a better listener of jazz music might also involve understanding that the medium is often a conversation among the performers. How do they interact, respond to each other, and what are they trying to say? How to listen for the typical chord progressions and to notice when the performers intentionally deviate from them. If you’re an expert at jazz performance, I’m probably not using the correct terms correctly, but hopefully, the idea I’m trying to get across makes sense.

Same holds for virtually any style of music from chamber to dubstep. Learning as much as you can about the artists and their art will change how you listen to recordings of their music, process what you hear and impact your level of involvement in the listening experience.

I hear audiophiles often say that “it’s all about the music.” That’s mostly chest-thumping B.S. If you’re an audiophile, it’s usually all about the sound and sound quality if we’re being honest with ourselves. :slight_smile: But since there are only so many steam locomotive recordings that we can listen to, we should consider taking the time to better understand and appreciate music if we’re serious about becoming better listeners.


#3

I’m working on a document on vocabulary used, which would Help. I’m also listening to This is your brain on music
Which I think was recommended by @I_want_all_the_tacos if not it is something that I think would be up his alley.


#4

That’s actually a very interesting point, one that I hadn’t considered. Having intimate knowledge of the music / musician does change our expectations for what “sounds good.” A good example of this is the raging debate over which is the best mastering of Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ album.

But to that end, does that make one a better musicologist or a better audiophile?


#5

Addendum:

Learn to play a musical instrument. This results in:

  1. Better awareness of how sounds are produced
  2. The NEED to distinguish between subtle differences in tone
  3. The opportunity to manipulate sounds and learn the effects of other equipment on the end product (e.g., pedals, amplifiers, software, etc.)
  4. Vastly improved sense of audio synchronization (i.e., both hands work together with a guitar to produce a sound exactly when needed, and then do it dozens of more times)

I took up 15 minute/day electric guitar several years ago (with no experience and no particular talent). This led to:

  1. A great loss of respect for the skills of many pop musicians (famous songs often aren’t very hard to play…just a few brief passages repeated…and many songs are 80% carried by the singer…)
  2. The ability to distinguish between playing talent versus production (e.g., guitar pedals, sampling, layering)
  3. A far better ear for notes, timing, and harmony when listening to other music
  4. Zero tolerance for compressed solid-state amplifier distortion (i.e., for hard rock; you’ll understand once you compare to non-compressed solid-state and tube amps)

#6

Wow, this is something I didn’t quite expect, but it totally makes sense! One of the best ways to appreciate creation is to be a creator.

Can you explain this point more? How exactly does learning to play an instrument improve the ability to spot subtle differences?

This is something I have been considering. What’s a good and cheap way to start?

Are you talking about guitar amps used for recording or the headphone amps used for listening?


#7

Oh! Thats easy for me . Steve Hoffman . I love the man’s devotion to the artists. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:
I know. A little off topic, but I couldn’t help myself . :crazy_face:


#8

“Both” to me.


#9

Musicophile/Audiogist?.. :wink: audio-geist? lol


#10

I’d highly recommend songexploder, a podcast where musicians and producers “take apart their songs piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.”

It’s full of insight on the tiny details that artists obsessed over-- and being able to notice those things: background breaths, strange samples, subtle instruments are a big part about why I love having good gear.


#11

This is a fascinating thread and full of great talking points. It’s really got me thinking. I think that when everyone starts the ‘Audiophile’ journey, speaking from a non musically trained perspective, it’s not long before you’re looking at music in a totally different way. I mean once you’ve started to developed a few listening skills no matter how untrained you are, I know that I cannot listen to my old favourite tunes in the same way. You start to notice just how badly put together some of it was.

I spent my teenage years listening to the music of the early Eighties. Consequently I have a soft spot for Eighties music. Listening to my collection of said music can be a real eye opener through a decent set of gear.

I have broadened my musical tastes greatly whilst chasing good sound, in ways I would never have thought. I am now listening to a broad spectrum of music from classical to folk to jazz to rock and acoustic. So far it’s been a great journey.

I also really want to better train my listening skills through practice and research.

OP i love your thoughts on how to learn to become a better listener. Some great points and ideas. Thanks.
-Paul-


#12

2nd for SongExploder. I work in audio and learn new stuff from that podcast all the time, and appreciate the insightful creative anecdotes, even about songs I don’t particularly like.


#13

Oh wow I really love this kind of material, and I’ll be sure to check it out. I’ve seen that learning about how something is put together inspires deeper appreciation of the end product. Thanks!


#14

This is a huge aspect for me too. I started listening to Jazz and electronic music only because of this hobby, and I’m really thankful for it.

I’ve experienced informed listening as a deeper way to appreciate music. Though you’re right that sometimes, it’s hard to get past the audio quality of a recording and just listen to the music. As useful as it is to learn to listen for details, it’s equally important to be able to turn that off and just lose yourself in the music.

The best ways I’ve found for that are while driving, traveling, or even just cranking the volume up a bit. Some of my favorite songs and albums are not very well recorded, but there’s joy in ignoring that and just taking in the music.


#15

Yes those are some good tips. It is difficult sometimes when I just want to listen to tunes and chill. But being able to switch off is as important as critical listening. Critical listening is fatiguing. I can only concentrate for so long (few seconds at a time) hehehe, but trying to find a happy medium is the key to enjoying this hobby I think. I feel if you have to stay switched on to such an extent for long periods then the enjoyment would quickly go.

With regards to jazz, I had never listened to this genre much before getting more into headphones and audio gear. But now I get some playlists off Spotify and chillax. Classical too. In fact I can listen to most genres apart from bass heavy stuff. I just can’t get on with it. But each to their own.
-Paul-


#16

Thanks for the tip, that was the point I was going to make - but you covered it. Take the concept of music appreciation courses taught in school, and apply that to modern day composition, learn of the previous influences that may have led to the style, as well as production involved which is an art unto itself. Appreciating music is a lot more complex today and incorporates an understanding of technologies and how they are applied to make the creative idea come to life.


#17

Call me a bit old school (despite being in my early 30s), but I find it a bit difficult to emotionally relate to the timbre of a lot of music these days. Electronic and synthesized music, especially with vague lyrics and “cool” effects, while cool, don’t elicit much of an emotional response.

Are they not meant to? I feel like music in the past was built to be listened to and remembered for the music itself, whereas it seems a lot of modern music is built to accompany some other activity like dancing or working out or doing other things in general.

It’s like the music doesn’t elicit the emotion in and of itself, but you connect to the emotion that you felt while doing something that happened to be accompanied by that music. Not sure if l am making sense.

And this isn’t a knock on newer music. It’s incredibly complex, and a lot of effort goes into it. And I really would like to learn to appreciate it better. Maybe studying it will help?


#18

Dude-- you need to drop whatever you’re doing and listen to this episode of “Revisionist History”. I mean, maybe you should finish what you’re doing, but it speaks directly to your point here.


#19

I agree with you about music today compared to previous styles, and for myself I most enjoy listening to live acoustic music, well recorded because the thrill for me is the magic that happens when people connect; the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That said, there have always been composers who have been greatly appreciated for the brilliance of their composition and the almost pure mathematical genius of how their parts go together. For instance - to me - J.S. Bach variations on first listen without context are cold and largely devoid of emotion with a timbre that is a little grating. But as people have more understanding of how those parts go together and all the “rules” that are applied to that esthetic they come to appreciate the genius and perfection. The late Ted Greene, a genius guitar teacher and player, explained how the ideas (“rules”) explored during that period are applied even today - you could start YouTubing with Ted Greene Baroque Improv if this is of any interest. So anyway, I guess my point is every genre has aspects that can be enjoyed for its technical foundations as well as the emotional impact it may or may not have.


#20

To be fair, I think that music is all about where/when you experience it for it to have meaning to you. What your emotional/mental state at the time of hearing a song will exponentially change how you experience it, and how you interact with it. Also what it will mean to you. I’m in my mid-late 30s and I have a lot of reactions to new music but there are tracks that I can go back to from the 90s-all of the 2000s that will transport me to a place and time due to it being in the background of that moment, or it spoke to the feelings of that moment for me. You won’t know until a couple years later how tracks/songs will speak to you, because currently we are in those moments :wink: I also have songs that remind me of people (parents, siblings, etc) that aren’t necessarily songs I am particular to, but will listen to because they remind me of someone.