Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Do you hear what I hear?

Have you ever tried to think about how you listen to music? I mean, not when you're trying to analyze something about it or pay attention to a beautiful bridge that a friend wanted to share with you, but just when you're in the car, jammin. What is it that you hear when you're not listening for anything?

Is it like Ratatoille? When you hear a song, do you get dancing colors in your head? Does it read to you like nondescript physical motion? Or do you see in your mind's eye each musician playing each instrument?

I was in late high school or possibly college before I started to have what I would consider to be an appreciation for the complexity of music. I couldn't distinguish instruments audibly... or maybe I could have, but the idea had never occurred to me. And I sang Alto in high school, but it irritated me because the notes were all wrong. Why couldn't I sing the song the way it was supposed to sound, like the Sopranos? It wasn't till I was in choir in college that the harmonies started to make sense to my ear and I began to be able to pick out the lines even without music. The opposing yet complimentary layers of recorded songs I'd known since I knew how to sing at all suddenly popped out at me for the first time.

And then of course, I had friends like Joseph and Patrick and Ashley and Zach and Rubbo and so on and so on who would blast music in the car on the way to Steak 'n Shake at 1AM and go, "Listen! Listen, do you hear that? Oh my gosh, it's beautiful!" And I'd be like, "Yeah!" thinking to myself, hurry up, what is it that they're hearing?? And like the harmonies, I started to hear other things too. The incomprehensibly fast drum beat. The height to which the singer soared but with such ease that you could miss it.

Still, I usually only heard it when I was consciously listening for it. I've always assumed I just had a lazy ear. I just hear music as a unit. That's why alto didn't make sense, why I never heard individual instruments, etc.

I put on Dark Passion Play on my way back from Columbia Sunday evening and found myself picking apart the music. All through the first song, I just tried to hear what was what. Trumpets, violins, electric guitar, full drums, piano, and more. And when you start to listen to one part, this whole new song pops out at you from a song you'd listened to dozens of times already. The song within the song that was written just for that one instrument. By the end of the song, I was composing this post in my head and had gone on to the question of how I hear music. By the way, it's really hard to pay attention to how you do something naturally.

How do I hear music? It's like a blob. No, it's not visible. It's like a sense of movement. No, that's not it either. I hear the music as a single unit and the singer as another unit, even if there are multiple parts making up the vocals. I only hear it split if another singer is "vocalizing" something entirely different or singing a subordinate or duet line. The music, that blob of meshed notes, it reads to me as emotion. More than that, as an experience. It doesn't move but it's a driving force. It doesn't speak but it tells a story. And I don't mean like, "You can hear how the composer is imitating the sound of falling rain." A story composed entirely of feelings. Of life.

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