An untrained listener’s guide.
During my hour-long commute home from work, when I’m too tired to even listen to podcasts, I listen to music. More often than might be healthy, I listen to Lana Del Rey, as she cycles through her doomy refrains about how her life is over, she’s filled with poison, she’s running like mad to heaven’s door. With their frothy melodrama, Lana’s songs tend to match my postwork mood so precisely that it doesn’t feel like listening at all. I don’t have to concentrate or pull myself in. I am already there. Listening, for most of us, doesn’t feel like doing anything. It’s more of a sensation than activity, a dreamy, ill-defined feeling stretching through us. We’re often not aware we are doing it, or even fully conscious. We literally—when we forget to shut off the television or our Spotify playlists—do it in our sleep.
But sometimes I wonder what would happen if we listened harder, or better, or more rigorously. This might seem exhausting. Am I incapable of relaxing? Probably. But music scholars insist that if we listened to music the way a musician would, understanding how notes trigger feelings, how tones take on their own textures and meanings, then we might experience something more visceral and expansive. We could push deeper into every song.
I reached out to various musicians and music scholars to gather some insights about how nonmusicians like myself could select and listen to music more intentionally. Below is a quick, beginner’s guide to what I learned.
Listen to Different Genres
As any Deadhead or Belieber will tell you, music tastes are etched deep into our identities. They are more than just preferences. They signal who we are, where we see the world from: either from the edges or from the duller, denser centers. Music tastes tend to bind social groups, draw lines around them. The fashion, language, and even mannerisms of our favorite musicians often slowly, unconsciously, become our own.
Ben Ratliff, author of Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, says that finding new music starts with overcoming our prejudices. “The sticking point is often around what appears to be objective intellectual criteria,” Ratliff explains, “How can X music be good if it doesn’t have ‘meaningful lyrics’ or has little harmonic movement or isn’t played by acoustic instruments?” This line of thinking, he says, cuts us off. We become genre-stuck. But if we are able to move past our own pretensions, we might discover that not all enjoyable music adheres to our personal rigid criteria.
But be patient. It often takes several listens for us to ease into a new sound. Linda Balliro, author of Being a Singer: The Art, Craft, and Science, explains that when we hear new music, our auditory cortex is too busy processing it for us to fully enjoy it. She suggests seeking out music that falls just outside our preferred genre, or that blends two or more genres together. Cue the approximately hundred thousand remixes of “Old Town Road.” For classical music, start with a time period you enjoy and then try the one right before or after it. For those new to classical, she says, start with contemporary classical, such as “Dead Man Walking,” which has a complex rhythm and language more in line with contemporary music.
Listen in Motion
Since all music is in motion, Ratliff says, listening while moving helps us better connect to the sounds. We pay deeper, closer attention. Arnie Cox, author of Music and Embodied Cognition: Listening, Moving, Feeling, and Thinking, says that listening while exercising creates a composite experience as our listening energizes our movements, and vice versa. Our body feels lifted, heightened, and so does our listening.
Dancing, unsurprisingly, also enhances what we hear. When listening to a song, Cox explains, we immediately feel around for a way to move or sing to it. We rarely simply hear the music, he says. Instead, we comprehend it in relation to movement, either that of the performers or our own.
Cox also suggests listening while driving, especially on a more scenic route. As the visual stimulation combines with the movement and music, the views can (quite literally) color what we hear. The colors, contours, and textures smear across the chords, so that we hear them through the filter of our environment.
Listen to the Rhythm
When listening for the rhythm, Ratliff says to listen to the sounds of the percussion first. That’s the floor of a song. He suggests starting with Max Roach of Bud Powell’s group, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, and Ziggy Modeliste of the Meters. He also recommends listening to music with three or more percussionists, like Cuban rumba or Brazillian samba.
Balliro says to pay attention to what happens during the repetition. Organic drummers naturally vary the pattern, says Aaron Fast, a music teacher in Brooklyn, while electronic musicians tend to repeat the same information again and again. Composers of classical, Balliro says, seek out rhythmic patterns that surprise us. Pop gives us more of what we expect. Brooding, more emotional music has slower, more drawn-out rhythms, stretching notes to sustain the feeling.
Listen to the Tone
Ratliff believes that tone is where the humanity lies, where the emotion sneaks in. The tonal quality that a musician places around a note reveals something about them. It’s a confession: this is how I’m feeling right now. To understand tone, try blending your senses, seeing, feeling, and even tasting the tone. Ratliff suggests imagining the tone as a physical object. How close are you standing to it? How big is it? Is it fat or thin? What is it made of? Wood? Cotton? Melted chocolate?
Again, Balliro suggests sampling different genres to broaden your awareness. Listen to songs that are more emotional such as blues or jazz, rather than techno, whose tones are reiterative. Symphonies often blend several different tones in interesting waves and patterns while singers like Billie Eilish exhibit exquisite tonal shifts in a single hiss.
Listen to the Lyrics
To truly take in lyrics, listen for what’s beneath them. Don’t get too caught up in the logic. Daniel Godfrey, a composer and professor and chair of the music department at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media, and Design, describes lyrics as the vehicle for music, rather than the other way around. We don’t even have to make out the words of the lyrics (and we often can’t) for them to invoke something mystic and unknowable, a sensation beyond reason.
Lyrics, Fast says, often drift in and out of coherence. In his slacker anthem “Loser,” Beck deadpans: “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey / butane in my veins and I’m out to cut the junkie / With the plastic eyeballs, spray paint the vegetables / dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose.” While the words may not cohere into narrative, we get the emotional impact of their meaning: life sucks.
But if you truly want to get to the crux of a song, Dustin Cicero, a musician and instructor of electronic music at Emory University, says to focus on the chorus. The chorus is our way into the story, revealing its overall meaning and intention via catchy repetition. In the chorus of “Loser,” for instance, Beck shoots straight to the point: “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” The droning verse sums up the song but also an era, the unease and disaffection of an entire generation collapsed into a single lyric.
Listening intentionally might seem like a by-product of our obsessive need to optimize. Is listening really a skill we need to hone? But like any other pursuit, such as dancing or oil painting, deeper listening becomes easier, even instinctual over time. It’s a process of immersion. We slowly get closer to the sound. After a few weeks of listening to Lana with a keener, sharper focus, I could listen further, and with more clarity, as if in a higher resolution, without even realizing I was listening at all.
Rachel Ament has written for the New York Times, NPR, Oxygen, Teen Vogue and Paste Magazine, among others.