Active listening is the difference between a Taco Bell burrito and a burrito from a hole-in-the-wall joint where someone’s abuelita is in the back frying tortillas. The fast-food burrito is probably warm and convenient. But it’s also bland, predictable and safe — you don’t run the risk of tasting anything you can’t identify. The hole-in-the-wall burrito may require more effort to find. It requires more effort to order, since it isn’t compulsorily filled with textured meat protein and overly-golden “cheese” product. It requires more effort to eat, because there are many tastes and textures that take a moment to identify. Is that cumin? What the hell is cumin? Is it as naughty as it sounds? ¿And what is it doing in my burrito?
While I’m a designer and developer much more so than a musician, I find this topic intriguing enough to make it the subject of my first post. The above bit of wisdom (excluding my numerous edits) comes from one Jeff Fitzgerald, head columnist for All About Jazz magazine. Don’t hit the back button now if you don’t like jazz — this post isn’t about jazz. It’s about what happens when the world’s most sacred art-form falls into the hands of folks like me: people who have stopped listening actively.
I don’t know when I stopped listening actively, or why, but it really bothers me. You and I have had this line fed to us for so long — that listeners should be perpetually comfortable with what they listen to — that song itself is becoming homogenous. No, I’m not talking about the $17B pop-music industry. I’m talking about the musicians and listeners of today. We’re stuck in a mold where VI/IV/I/V is the only chord progression that dilates our pupils, and the cathartic release that is music’s power — primal as it can be — is more like the effect of tobacco on a chain-smoker who won’t admit to addiction, but can’t have it any other way. This isn’t the fault of industry X or genre Y. It’s a fault of our own negligence and habituation.
However, it doesn’t do me any good to nudzh and kvetch all day, so I’m proposing a simple, ground-up solution: the Active Listener’s Manifesto. It’s stems from the premise that music doesn’t need to change, but its listeners can. I’m committing myself to the Active Listener’s Manifesto for the next few weeks, and I invite you to do the same (please let me know how it goes). Without further ado:
1. Listen as an appreciator of art, instead of as a consumer of goods.
2. Put on one song by an artist you’ve never heard of every day.
3. Read about a few musicians you respect… and some you don’t.
4. Listen to artists who offer professionally-produced songs for free.
5. Change your listening style. Pay attention to lyrics one day, instruments the next, and chord changes the day after. Feeling adventurous? Try the overtones. (“Is that cumin I hear?”)
6. Don’t listen to artists just because they’re celebrities or because other people are listening to them (the only don’t in the list.) This is not counterculture for its own sake — this is musical self-efficacy.
7. Turn on the radio while driving, and pick a station at random.
8. Share music with friends who don’t necessarily share your tastes.
9. Listen to music in different formats. It may sound crazy, but always play the vinyl instead of the MP3 if it’s available.
10. Make music, even if you don’t consider yourself a musician.
There may be ten items in this list, but these aren’t commandments of any kind — work within the manifesto in whatever way is best for you. Music is about the experience, not the method. But remember the bit about burritos: the more diverse your tastes and textures, the richer your experience will be! Ultimately, if you and I make a conscious, concerted effort to listen actively — and share this goal — music’s future may begin to realign itself with music’s purpose: expression, naturally. ₪
Questions? Contentions? Corrections? Please do say hello.
October 24, 2012