How To Listen To Music

Is there a ‘proper’ way of listening to music?

It’s a question that shouldn’t need to be asked, but one I have found myself confronted with on more than one occasion.  Especially because of my straddling the line between pop and metal, I have become acutely aware that fans of different genres of music approach what they hear in very different ways.

Pop fans tend to listen to music from the top down, with the vocal melody being the most important thing.  Without a catchy hook, the rest of the instrumentation can’t hold up as a legitimately great song.  This approach appeals to people who use music as more of a background attraction, as it’s easier to focus on just the one aspect of the song while doing other things.

In the rock, and especially metal world, the emphasis is reversed, and music is listened to from the bottom up.  The pounding rhythms of the drums are the foundation, then the guitars, while vocals are treated as a nice accent, but not nearly as important as the rest of the stew.  I have had fans tell me that listening to the vocals is the ‘wrong’ way of listening to metal, because everything is based on the drumming.

Which of these approaches is the ‘right’ one?  Neither, of course.

Music is a personal experience, and it follows that the proper way of listening to music is to focus on whatever aspects most appeal to you.  If you’re a singer, it’s natural that you would focus mostly on the vocal lines to define a great song, whereas a fan of relentless heaviness would instinctively gravitate towards the drums and guitars.  

Where people go wrong is in assuming that other people experience music in the same way they do.  Just because you might be fascinated by the timing of bass pedal strikes in a 5/8 time signature doesn’t mean everyone else will feel the same way.  Music is the driving force of some people’s lives, and is a side-note for others.  Neither approach is right, no matter how much we are inclined to side with our own experiences.

As for myself, both from my experiences starting out as a fan of pop music, and as a songwriter myself, I am of the mind that the vocals and the melody are the most important part of a song.  They are what define the difference between a musical idea and a song.  Songs are bigger than rhythms or riffs, which is a notion I feel gets lost when the music doesn’t give sufficient attention to the vocals.  Without that vocal, most songs are recurring segments of repeating riffs and beats.  That, to me, is not interesting enough to listen to.

But that is my opinion, and I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong if you focus on another aspect of music.  It means we’re going to have wildly different opinions of bands like Meshuggah, but that’s the point of discussion.  We learn about how music is a nebulous entity that lives beyond ourselves, and how the different ways we interpret what we hear is akin to the different ways we see the world as a whole.  Music is a smaller metaphor, which makes it easier to understand.

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