Three-dimensional listening and other ponderings…

I had an interesting conversation recently with a young Russian-German journalist working in Berlin about the concept of active vs. passive listening.  This was an intelligent, thoughtful, mid-twenties person with considerable interest in the arts, and I was surprised that when we began to discuss what it meant to actively listen and how to do it, that one of her first questions was whether or not she would be able to return to her old way of listening and enjoying music on a surface level, fearing that it would somehow ruin her fun and destroy her “ability” to enjoy music passively.  Naturally, this was quite intriguing for me, and it is something I’ve now been pondering for some time.  From where could this kind of a fear possibly stem?  I’m certainly not talking about doing an academic analysis, but simply hearing the individual parts that make up a piece of music, which I believe is absolutely essential to not only understanding, but truly enjoying and appreciating a piece of music.

But how does a person without musical training learn how to listen actively?  I asked her to begin thinking of music as a three dimensional object, rather than a two dimensional one (though really there are far more than three parameters to be aware of).  The first step is to familiarize oneself with the tone and characteristics of an instrument, and what sort of a role they might play in a particular piece of music, starting with ensembles that have distinct colors such as a wind quintet, jazz trio, or rock quartet.  The trick then is to track one at a time, and focus your ears only on this one horizontal line.  This is perhaps the most difficult thing for non-musicians to do, truly isolating the individual parts from one another.  But only at this time are you able to re-assemble these individual parts and listen vertically, taking into account the interaction of the independent parts.

I’ve always had an interest in building things, even when I was a child.  Particularly things with complex, interwoven textures and layers.  So naturally, when I became interested in music at the age of 9 or 10,  this type of thinking was transferred to the music I was listening to (mostly 1960’s rock).  For the longest time, I wasn’t even able to listen to the lyrics because I was so immersed in the individual parts.  Ever since then I have had a great appreciation for the multi-track recording process.  Most Rock music is certainly not breaking any boundaries in terms of harmonic language, rhythm, exploration of sound or instrumental technique (though there are some exceptions), however I still feel that there is much we can learn from the other ways in which composition is explored through the multi-track recording process.

I particularly enjoy rock albums with complex layering, lush guitar tones, clear and rich mixes, powerful rhythm sections, and tasteful orchestration with superimposition of contrasting compositional ideas.  For years and years I was playing around with recording equipment, guitars, percussion, voices, and learning to understand this intuitive process which rock musicians, producers, and engineers utilize to produce these sorts of recordings.  I feel that now as a composer, this has given me a slightly different approach to orchestration, and I find that nearly without fail, even my chamber music is incredibly dense and textured.  I have realized more recently that this stems from the urge to reproduce the sorts of complex, interwoven orchestrational ideas applied in multi-tracked rock music that I listened to when I was younger (and continue to).  However, an orchestra or a chamber ensemble are both a radically different animals than the recording studio, and for me the big question remains, how to harness this energy with an acoustic ensemble (or if it is possible?)  I am beginning to come to terms with the fact that my compositional strengths do not lie in the realm of chamber music.  Of course, I am working towards a higher technical proficiency in this area and I feel like I have come a long way, but I can’t help but think that the limited forces available just do not align with the way in which my mind generates musical ideas.  This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on writing chamber music, and in fact I think I should write more because of this reason, challenging myself to work with more limited forces (and therefore am beginning a cycle of solo works) and relying on the strength of musical ideas and gestures rather than orchestrational color and tricks.


I just downloaded the first solo album of Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson, which some of you are likely already familiar with through his group Sigur Rós.  The album features arrangements by composer Nico Muhly, and I feel this is as suitable place as any to begin this discussion of “Three-dimensional listening”.  I think Rock music also lends itself well to this, due to the consistency of ostinati and various musical patterns that are gradually layered upon one another and sometimes varied slightly, which focuses the ear to be concerned only with tracking these layers.  Think of it like a pyramid or arch, where ideas are laid upon one another gradually, and then often also gradually taken away.  And in fact, I would go so far as to say this is what most good rock music is all about.  Below is the third track “Tornado” off the album “Go”, many of the other tracks are substantially more dense orchestrationally and I would check the following track “Boy Lilikoi” for an example of that kind of complexity/layering.  For the time being I am only concerned with the layering of simple, independent ideas and nothing else, so I’ve listed some of the more apparent layers below.

0:00: Strings; 0:06: Piano; 0:26: Voice; 0:53: Bass drum, second layer of strings; 1:12: Suspended cymbal roll; 1:31: Additional percussion hits, w/crash cymbal; 2:25: Synthesizers; 2:46: Snare Drum; 3:06: Backing vocals, additional percussion and synthesizers


On a somewhat distantly related note, but still highly relevant to this discussion, there is a great quote from Aaron Copland, who also authored What to listen for in Music:  “Most people use music as a couch; they want to be pillowed on it, relaxed and consoled for the stress of daily living.  But serious music was never meant to be soporific.”  And I think this gets at the heart of it.  See the thing is, most composers (and artists) are not interested in patting the listener on the head and saying that everything is ok, but rather punching them in the face, spinning them around, and telling them to look at the big picture, to question their surroundings, and to view everything from a perspective which they could not possibly be aware of without outside intervention.  In my humble opinion, this is the purpose of ALL art.  To encourage or inspire independent thinking, acting, and living, ideas which are invisible to us as individuals but become apparent through the lens of someone else’s mind.  This being said, that doesn’t mean (in my opinion) that there is not a place for beauty, but I believe that all great art and music manages to balance both, and often beauty can be found in the most unexpected places… If you know how and where to look for it.


2 responses to “Three-dimensional listening and other ponderings…

  1. Great post, Jason. The question of how to make deep listening accessible to non-musicians is an important one, especially timely in the context of failing orchestras and decreased interest in new music. I agree with your approach; but for me the pitfall is that is makes no mention of the Gestalt element of music, form. Observing the verticality and interaction of musical lines is important, of course, but ultimately I wonder if in-depth examination of colors and timbres would be that rewarding for a non-musician. For me, listening to that particular element is basically didactic; I assume that composer was combining colors to make a “big-picture” sonic portrait that is more deserving of my attention. What if instead (or in addition to?) directing the novice’s attention toward vertical listening, we directed it toward varying levels of horizontal listening? That, I think, would be more rewarding, if for no other reason than it provides the listener tools find a narrative in a piece of music.

    And that Birgisson track is sick.

    • Greg, I wholeheartedly agree with you, although I personally feel that the awareness of distinct layers and their role within a piece of music is actually no different than that of hearing form. I for one think of sectionalization in contemporary concert music, rock, or anything else nowadays as something that should be the organic result of compositional choices, and am almost never consciously taking form into consideration when I am listening or writing, unless I have a specific blueprint like a text that comes beforehand.

      Particularly in a piece like this, that is essentially static harmonically (ok, not completely, but you know what I mean), I feel that the layers are actually what dictate the form, not the other way around. I don’t get the impression that they said “ok, here comes the B section”, but rather “ok, this is where it FEELS right to add a bass drum”, etc. It isn’t so much an in-depth examination of colors and timbres, but even more basic, simply learning to distinguish say, a bass guitar from a bass drum, or a guitar from a piano, and then hearing that part independently from the others.

      I think we’re actually in agreement, and when I use the term vertical listening, I really am just talking about learning to hear multiple layers simultaneously.

      Thanks for the comment, I appreciate it!

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