Music is such a fundamental part of human culture that it likely pre-dates literacy, the invention of the wheel, and even the musical note itself. While people generally know what kind of music they like—and what they don’t—it’s possible to expand your appreciation by learning new ways to listen. Here are 11 tips for making this year’s song of the summer a little more meaningful.
1. Learn an Instrument
You might feel intimidated picking up a guitar or sitting down at a piano—but learning an instrument can help you better understand how a song comes together and what role a specific type of sound plays in the composition. Even if you don’t play, research has also shown that knowing chords eliminates the dissonance of an unfamiliar tune, therein making it a more pleasurable listen.
2. Read Up On an Artist
It’s certainly not necessary to grab your favorite musician’s biography in order to appreciate a good ditty, but it may help you better understand the context in which he or she wrote the lyrics or recorded a track. Researching backgrounds can also lead you to discover social and political influences at the time the music was created.
3. Single Out a Specific Instrument
Music is intended to be an exercise in synergy, with different instruments working in tandem to create a pleasing sound. The next time you listen, try to isolate the progression of a single instrument—where it comes in, where it goes out, when it stands apart, and when it supports another component.
4. Listen Live
While rock concerts in stadiums can be a sensory overload, listening to music in any live situation is a far different—and more encompassing—experience than listening to a recording. You can feel the vibrations of the sounds, focus on the concentration of the musicians, and hear something unfiltered by time or studio tweaks.
5. Or Imagine a Live Concert
The movement and effort of a live performance can often focus your attention on parts of a song you may have otherwise missed. So, the next time you hear a song—particularly a classical arrangement—try to imagine it being performed. Or, try to picture a scene (a thunderstorm, a race) that best fits the mood and tempo of the piece.
6. Understand How Music is Mixed
Recording the sound of voices and instruments is just one step in the song-making process. Mixing engineers are responsible for adjusting the volume of instruments and vocals or combining separate tracks to create a more pleasing sound. Understanding how music is arranged in a studio will allow you to keep an ear out for how the musicians and technicians want you to experience their work.
7. Consider the Original Recording
Music is distributed in a variety of different ways, but back when it was on a two-sided format (cassette or vinyl), musicians sometimes had good reasons for placing a track on the “B” side. Songs would sometimes mirror or complement the “A” selections in ways that may not be apparent when listening in isolation. Try tracking down the album’s original order and format to see if you might be able to put a piece of music in a new (or old) context.
8. Ask What Emotion is Being Conveyed
Though this method is recommended more for classical music without expository lyrics, you can ask the same question of any arrangement: What emotional tone is the piece trying to communicate? Listening with an understanding of the music’s “mood” can offer a new perspective on it.
9. Try Meditation
Meditation has been used for centuries to free the mind of clutter, but it’s only recently that university research displayed an increased response to music after a session. Participants reported being more engaged in what they were listening to during or after a period of “mindfulness,” concentrating fully on the music without distraction.
10. Listen for the Fundamentals
Music can take on an endless array of shapes, but the basic foundation remains the same: rhythm, melody, harmony, and color (how different instruments sound). By understanding how each component works and what it adds to a piece, you can isolate them one by one to examine how musicians play with conventional formats.
11. Listen to Everything
It could be hard to appreciate a warm day unless you’ve spent a winter freezing. Likewise, listening to music requires a contrast that helps you better understand how organized and harmonious it can be. Listen to—don’t just hear—common, everyday noises. While some may be irritating, others may have a melody all their own. Either way, you’ll return to a piece of music with a new respect for a focused, deliberate bit of sound.