Listening in Layers

Before finishing high school, my friends and I would occasionally spend listless Saturday nights just driving around, not yet being allowed into bars legally. Late one night, with the windows down to let in the summer breeze, we cruised the back streets listening to the Radiohead album OK Computer. Paranoid Android is my favorite track, and we got to the part where the song shifts from a kind of heavy rock to that slow and mellow section. The guitar now strums acoustically and more gently, while two voices sing wordless harmonies above it. This is repeated and repeated and repeated, adding a new layer each time, building and intensifying. By the time it transitions back into the rock feel, I always feel like I’ve been crying. It feels full of pain somehow.

I skipped the disc back to the beginning of that slower section and cranked it up. I started talking over the music, telling my friend to listen to each new layer as it came in. She got so excited! She had heard the song dozens of times but had never listened to it like that. ‘Do it again!’ she asked. And so I did. And then again with another song.

I have never been able to learn the lyrics to any song (unless I try really hard) because I don’t listen to the words. My ears constantly move around the different layers of the song. I listen to the chord progression, I listen to the bassline, I listen to the backing instruments (like the brass or strings in an Earth, Wind & Fire song), I listen to the melody, I listen to the drum-kit (and even there I will sometimes listen just to the different instruments in the kit, like the snare, cymbals, hi-hat, or kick drum.) That’s how I enjoy listening to music. Much of the time I don’t do it consciously, my ears just gravitate to whatever is most interesting in that moment.

A fantastic example for you to play around with is this Little Fugue by Bach.

The first time you listen to it you will naturally jump to whatever is ‘most interesting’ at that moment. You will naturally be listening to the whole thing at once. But if you want to have some fun and experiment a little, why don’t you focus on just one voice in a single listening. So choose a color at the beginning and then only follow that color with your eyes and see if you can focus in and only listen to that voice, almost ignoring the others. If it is the first time you do something like this, it may be a big revelation! 

Ok, so having said and done all that, most of us don’t sit around dissecting our sensory information. When we eat a fabulous Spaghetti Bolognese we don’t think, ‘there’s the tomato, there’s the meat, there’s the basil and oregano, etc.’, we just taste the Bolognese. We don’t see individual branches, we see a tree; not single bricks, but a wall. In the image I selected for today's blog, we see a great swirl of beautiful color, and only afterwards might we selectively look at one or another of the separate ribbons.  

As a conductor, though, I have been trained to focus very carefully on distinct lines within an orchestra, to hear the specific as well as the composite whole. It is necessary for me to be able to do both.

With the great range of sound-colors that form the orchestra, you have an almost endless number of places your ears can explore. You can listen for the lushness of the strings, the power and warmth of the brass, the homogeneity and uniqueness of the woodwinds, the articulating impact of the percussion. 

You can also listen for how the composer uses combinations of these different groups in what we call ‘orchestration.’

Ask yourself why a composer chose that particular instrument to color a part of the music in that way. What would it sound like in a flute instead of a trumpet, a tuba instead of a violin? How does that instrument give a specific expressive character to the music at that moment? How does it make the music feel? What mood does it create?

This is yet another way to transform your concert-hall experience into something more powerful and meaningful and uplifting. You participate in the performance as an active listener, rather than passively receiving. It is for the audience that musicians perform, not for themselves. Your indispensible contribution is your energy and attention, without which it is simply another rehearsal.  

Kirsten Hicks