The Troubadour

music   It feels so natural to have sound around me during the day, that silence is shocking to my system. Isn’t that why it feels so good to live in the quiet of the hill country? It’s why I love coming back home to Boerne after a long tour. Months in the clubs, bars, and noise makes my thoughts cluttered and my head unbalanced. I take a stroll out in Cibolo or along the river during the week, and feel all that noise melt away. I believe my ears hunger for the sounds of a quiet life. But in this quiet thought I realize something else about our cultural barrage of noise, particularly music…. maybe it’s so prevalent we pay less attention than we should.
Music wakes us in the morning from a bedside radio, plays on our drives to work, or at the office. It’s always on when we shop, or in the background at a restaurant.
Music plays during commercials and our favorite TV shows. From iPods and phones, to tiny busted speakers in old buildings, elevators, and satellite corners in outdoor patios.
I think the only time we really notice the ambient music is when it’s not playing.
“It’s quiet… oddly quiet?” I think, in a store surrounded by the tapping of shoes, the shuffling merchandise, an eerie so quiet you can hear other people breathing… Or worse the silent bathrooms of awkwardness that keep eyes averted…  better or worse, Music’s constantly signing into our subconsciousness.
None of these however, having anything to do with actually listening to music. Not just letting it buzz around you, but focusing in. Absorbing. Far from just Audiophile, High-Fedility bravada, believe me when I say you really haven’t heard anything until you’ve listened completely.
Listening isn’t easy, but valuable things rarely are. A great recording is not just an artifact to be glossed over; it is a living emotion trying to communicate with you. At every level music is alive, and needs an active audience, like you or I need air to breath. Every note, every beat a unique interaction between itself, the music around it, and the listener. That is to say, this specific bass note, played along with this specific kick drum, cushioned by this keyboard, and sang over by this voice, played through this system, heard by your ear, at this specific time, is a unique living experience at a unique time. And if that reads like a mouthful, that’s because it is. Since this experience is so rich and dense, it deserves our full attention. That’s exactly why Music is powerful, why it can encapsulate a mood, feeling, time, or experience so well.
I really began listening as a teenager at nights when I couldn’t sleep, I have a very active mind at night. Putting on headphones, shutting my eyes, and getting lost in my favorite records. Trying to shut off thoughts in my head, and replace them with a cosmos of sound till 2 or 3 in the morning when I could finally drift away.
This made for some exhausting school days, but gave me probably the strongest foundation into understanding music, where it comes from, and how it works.
It’s that cooperative social interaction of pitch and rhythm that gives me my love of music.
When I meet people and they find out I’m a musician, they usually like to give me a run through of their favorite songs or artists. They also love to tell me what they hate. And people passionately hate some kinds of music, and adore others.  I’ve met a lot of people (critics and musician’s included) who are dismissive. What I mean is they’re quick to insult a piece they don’t understand with only a cursory listen. Quick to skip to the next track. Quick to throw into the dustbin of the mind. But music takes time to GET. You have to give back. Some music speaks to us on the first try, but most won’t be understood on the first, tenth, or hundredth listen. Some music we grow into, and some we grow out of. That’s not to say that they have to like everything, but no track should be judged until it’s been experienced properly.
Alright, so how?
First of all, you need Environment. A Space for listening, and Time. Maybe you’re busy and don’t have time for a full album but three to five minutes of uninterrupted thought for a song? I think we can manage that. Preferably a place that’s comfortable, with little distractions. I have a friend who swears by listening to music blindfolded, I still like to listen in the dark, but that might be extreme, so let’s just say with comfortable light.
Now that the mood is set, pick a song, anyone will do, it doesn’t matter, but maybe one you know well. I usually like to pick music to match my mood, happy, sad, anger, whatever, but that’s just me.
Note: my preferred method is vinyl but I’ll talk more about that next time. For beginners I recommend a nice set of headphones. It’s easier to submerge yourself than speakers. And requires less investment than a nice stereo and speakers.
A proper listen requires a few tries, but the first one shouldn’t be technical. On the first listen, go for mood, gut reaction and feeling. What does this song sound like? Where does it put you? Do you like it, hate it, feel confused or indifferent? Listen to the landscape of sound. What is in it? Where are they placed? If you imagine a physical space for every sound you well notice some to the left, some to the right, some in the middle, all with different depths and prospective.
This is known as ‘the mix’ and every song is mixed differently.
Listen to the interaction between sounds. How the different instruments play off each other to create mood and melody. How they dance, synchronize or propel each other forward.
Most importantly, and hardest of all, is to shut off our own thoughts. To let the music take over. To listen without injecting your own voice into your head. Feel. Hear. This will be hard but once perfected, a sublime experience. A chance to feel deeply into ideas and thoughts, that are beyond the scope of words and pictures. A part of the human experience that is wholly heard. Save your ideas and answers for after the track is done. When the final notes have faded into the beautiful silence. Let it absorb into you. One song at a time.


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