Carrying on from last week’s post, I want to talk about listening. For me, listening is a fundamental element of musicianship and, judging by what’s written elsewhere on the internet, it is for many others too.
I was recently reading an interview with Primus bassist and vocalist Les Claypool where he talks about his bandmates having ‘big ears’. It’s a phrase I love; I imagine a huge pair of ears hungry for sound, sucking in the different strands of music from the air around them. For me, this is the first and most fundamental step towards musicianship, simply being aware of what is happening around you. A simple example is something that I’ve heard said in different ways over the years: “If you can’t hear the tune, play quieter”. Simple advice, maybe, but something that makes a huge difference to a performance.
Listening, though, is just part of the story – we also need to be able to understand what we’re hearing. This includes understanding what’s happening with melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics and goes beyond that into texture, form, mood and emotion. It means being able to decode the different elements of what we’re hearing into a something that we can use to inform our own playing. It can be working out a chord sequence by ear, or noticing when a another musician is trying to affect the mood of the music.
As the ABRSM definition says, thinking in sound includes imagination. This is where the magic happens, imagining the sound we want to hear and producing it with our voices or instruments.
When our imaginings come in response to what we understand from attentive listening we have a profound impact on the music that we’re making. When we notice our fellow performer trying to change the mood we have an opportunity to contribute, to add our own imagination to theirs and create together.
This cycle of listening, understanding and imagination; this constant interplay between the individual performers, is for me what raises music-making from a craft into an art.