by Daniel Diaz
Music is a universal part of human culture that dates back to at least 40,000 years ago in the history of our species. That means music is much, much older than money, older than the written word, much older than agriculture itself!
Both the technological developments in musical instruments and in our modes of consuming it have radically changed throughout the years. However, while we are voracious consumers of musical entertainment, many of us don’t always have the tools to appreciate the art form fully.
Here are some things you can do to improve your music-listening experience:
Make music-listening an active experience.
The formats of music-consumption have changed drastically since the turn of the 20th century: from live performance, to the phonograph, to the radio, to vinyls, to tapes, to CDs, to MP3 players, to internet radio stations.
Each of these changes radically revolutionized the way we listen to music. During the vinyl era in the U.S., people often held gatherings centered on putting on a brand-new record and listening together over some finger food. Before the rise of the Walkman and subsequent portable music-listening devices, listening to music was relegated to live performances, domestic consumption, and the airwaves. Back then, you couldn’t walk around with music in your pocket.
Today, music is largely a portable commodity.
So many of us often listen to music while doing something else: sitting in the car, going out for a run, or doing chores. Portable music has helped us add a soundtrack to our lives, but may also make us passive music listeners, consuming music as a product rather than observing it as an artform. The beginning step to improve your music appreciation skills is to try sitting down and putting music-listening at the center-stage of your activities. It’ll sound different. You’ll be able to focus more deeply on other aspects of the music — from the instrumentation to musical qualities like textures and dynamics.
Pay attention to instrumentation.
The technological and performative circumstances of musical groups have shaped the kind of ensembles people put together. Centuries ago, when European royal courts held outdoor events, musical arrangements often consisted of a brass ensemble, not only out of a need to project louder volumes in an outdoor setting, but also because they could afford to. Brass instruments can be pretty loud and overwhelming indoors. By contrast, during more intimate indoor events, ensembles would often consist of stringed instruments and/or piano. This later came to be known as chamber music, named precisely after the intimate venues in which these ensembles played.
Similarly, today rock music and electronic music would not be possible without the advent of electricity. Technological developments in instrumentation both expands the types of music genres that are possible and freezes the genres’ idiosyncratic sounds over time. Here’s a great example: there was once an instrument that preceded the piano called the harpsichord, which today is largely relegated to Baroque music and doesn’t really enjoy much play outside that genre. In a way, the instrument froze in time and is largely associated only with Baroque music. Knowing how technology has influenced instrumental arrangements and genres helps us appreciate music more deeply.
Listen for musical qualities.
Incidentally, no matter how soft or how hard you hit the keys in the harpsichord, the strings would be plucked with about the same loudness. When the piano came along, those tiny little hammers could strike the keys really loudly or really softly, which is how the piano gained its name. Part of the reason the piano became so wildly popular was precisely because of its wide range in dynamics, or the changes in the loudness in the pitch of a musical track.
Dynamics are one aspect of music that give an emotional flow to a track with its crescendo — an increase in loudness — or with its decrescendo — decrease in loudness. For example, in Jeff Buckley’s unparalleled cover of “Hallelujah” you can hear a back-and-forth wave of loudness and quietude throughout the track that can give a chilling effect. Other songs like, “Sometime Around Midnight” by The Airborne Toxic Event have a constant crescendo throughout, where the layers of instrumentation are added slowly as the track gets progressively louder toward its passionate end.
The way that these layers of instrumentation complement each other is referred to as musical texture. When all the parts of a song play the same notes, the texture is considered monophonic. Polyphonic textures are those that contain two or more melody lines that are relatively independent from each other — e.g., in this section of “Stars and Stripes Forever”, the flute plays a separate melody on top of the main one. The most common type of texture in popular music is homophonic texture, in which there is one main melody accompanied by a chord structure. Here’s a good graphic example of the melody “Ode to Joy” played in three different textures.
Whatever music you listen to, I hope you can take these principles with you and rediscover not only your favorite music, but also new unfamiliar genres with a new depth. I like to think that, ultimately, “music” is more about an expectation to find beauty, than it is about finding an objective beauty “out there”. Thus, as we hone these skills of active listening, we also become more ready to find beauty everywhere and also learn to tune in more attentively to the world around us, to that Divine orchestra hidden in plain sight.