The lost art of listening (Part 1)

Brian Madigan

Brian's company, Madmusik, has been providing music for dance/drama education since 1992, supplying thousands of schools, colleges and independent practitioners throughout the UK and now - thanks to the internet - across Europe and North America as well.

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In your work as a teacher, how often do you come into contact with music? Maybe you are a music specialist, in which case the answer might be ‘all the time’. Perhaps you work in dance or drama and see music as integral to your work there. You might incorporate songs within your teaching to help students better understand another subject altogether. Or perhaps you run an art department and have music in the background to engender a mood or atmosphere. Whichever might be the case, can you say that you actively listen to the music you are using? What does it mean to listen actively?

We have become ever more accustomed to hearing music in our daily lives, more or less as environmental noise, whether it be accompanying breakfast-time news bulletins, underscoring urgent advertising messages or simply from a radio left on to provide ambience at home or in the workplace. In the context of film, television or computer gaming, music has become an essential ingredient, sometimes at a frightening rate of decibels. It’s rare to encounter a public space where music is not present in some form or other and many web sites also use music to underpin a message or signpost a particular sensibility.

In spite of - or perhaps because of - all this exposure to musical sound, it seems that we are spending less time actively listening to music; engaging with its content and exploring its contours. There is a danger that we are failing to pass both the habit of listening and the appreciation of how to do this effectively on to our children. Therefore a whole generation may be missing out on the enjoyment and fulfillment of really experiencing music on a conscious level. Let’s take a moment to indulge in a little nostalgia: it may help us to find what we have been missing.

It’s possible that I’m a little older than one or two of you who are reading this article (‘surely not’ you cry...) but perhaps you share with me the distant memory of the thrill of encountering a new album release. My own recollections stretch back to the days of vinyl, when the packaging itself was something to behold. As a child and into my teens, I would scour the artwork for hidden messages or hints of a deep artistic statement. I would then listen to the whole album from start to finish, often reading lyrics at the same time as listening, sometimes gazing at the artwork, but always focusing on the sound.


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The first listening would be an exploratory one and generally quite a heightened experience, as it would serve to determine how thrilled or otherwise I was with my new acquisition. I’d note the impact and mood, make mental comparison with previously held expectation (especially where this was a follow-up from a known artist) and begin to build a mental reference library of highlights. Usually a second listening would follow immediately, during which I would consolidate my opinions and perhaps start to listen more deeply to the structural elements and/or lyrics within the music. Then on the third audition, I would generally be able to sit back and enjoy the album, having assured myself that it was OK/good/great (or not).

Ring any bells? Was that just me? Well, I have to confess that over time, I too have lost the habit of really listening to music, particularly albums. Certainly it’s much more rare for me to take the time to listen to anything more than once at a single sitting. I suspect this will be the case for many of us and it has to do with a number of things. Clearly as one gets older and accumulates different responsibilities, it becomes harder to justify such seemingly passive use of our time. Culturally, the album as an art form has arguably been displaced by individual downloads, playlists and a general thirst for ‘choice’. And most of us will default to a form of recreation that is provided via a screen of some sort, so that even where music is present, as discussed, this is not our primary focus.

So here’s something you can try out for yourself and could also set as a task for your pupils. Next time you sit down at the end of a hard day at school and reach for the remote/keypad/power-switch of your preferred entertainment medium, just pause and take a deep breath. Think to yourself “no: today I’m going to unwind with some music – now what haven’t I listened to in a while?...”. Dim the lights, perhaps light a candle or two (maybe not for younger pupils!), find a comfortable listening position, block out any extraneous sound sources and really LISTEN. I think you’ll be surprised. You may even rekindle a passion for music you thought had gone for ever and you might awaken something in your pupils they never knew was there. Why not set this as a homework task and get your pupils to report back to the class afterwards? Perhaps they can bring in examples of anything they found particularly inspiring (maybe they’ll discover some rare vinyl in the attic!).

Let me know how you get on and next time we’ll take a look at how to really get inside and start to understand the music more deeply.

Happy listening!

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