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How do you listen to music? Do you focus on the beat? The vocals? The lyrics? Or is it just background noise?

Several years ago my music teacher introduced me to an exercise that changed the way I hear music. The exercise is simple, but it's benefits are vast.

As I've reflected on it I've realized it's a practical and fun way to develop certain non-cognitive skills (aka emotional intelligence). Emotional intelligence is a "hot" topic  at the moment (see Unselfie book, VR and Empathy, Emotional Intelligence skills) as we are starting to recognize and quantify it's vital importance in life success. And yet emotional intelligence topics are alarmingly absent from a traditional school curriculum, and if you're an adult, you're on your own to figure it out.

The challenge with non-cognitive skills is there isn't a formula for teaching them. How do you teach someone creativity? Taste? Focus? I've found that certain exercises can be used to hone non-cognitive skills. This music listening exercise is one  of them.

I classify non-cognitive skills into two categories: practical and influential. You develop the practical skills by doing the exercise. For example through this music exercise, you'll develop skills like listening and focus. Influential skills are indirectly influenced by this exercise. You don't practice these skills, but doing the exercise influences their development.

Take creativity as an example. Creativity isn't something you train. It's a result of your experiences and influences. Doing an exercise that allows you to recognize and appreciate someone else's creativity influences your own creativity "muscle". By experiencing an influential skill you see what's possible. Your mindset is altered and your collective experience allows you to build on it and apply it in your work.

This listening exercise will impact different influential skills for different people. For me, this exercise influences my appreciation for nuance, taste, and creativity. And the  cool thing is I've been able to apply these skills to many other facets  of my life.


The exercise

So what is the  magic exercise? The idea  is simple. Pick any song, grab some headphones and play the song. While the song is playing focus on one instrument. For example if you're listening to a Beatles song, start by focusing and listening to only the drums for the entire song. Hear nothing  else, just the drums. Then replay the song and listen to only the guitar. Then the bass guitar, and then the vocals.

The idea  is every time you listen to the song, you focus on a single instrument. Analyze the tone. The part being played. For the repeating section of a song (verse 1 versus verse  2, chorus 1 versus chorus 2) does the musician play the part exactly the same? Or do they embellish it? You may find musicians will add slight embellishments throughout the song  to keep things interesting.

As you're doing this you may find it to be meditative. You'll need to focus in on specific  parts and block out external noise. Focus on the instrument. If you generally focus on vocals and lyrics when listening to music, this will be a very rewarding exercise.

Here is an example of things I notice when listening to a song in this manner. I've found well-produced pop songs tend to work really well for this exercise as they are engineered to perfection. One of my favorites is Savage Garden's "To The Moon And Back". Here are some things that jumped out to me while focusing in on the different instruments.

On the 3 pre-choruses, notice how the vocal harmony only occurs  in the  3rd one (3:27). It was not part of the first (1:08) or  second (2:18). Why did the producer decide only to do a harmony on the 3rd one? One idea is that the first and third  pre-choruses share the same lyrics. But the harmony in the 3rd one keeps it different from the first. So now each pre-chorus is unique. You'll find the great musicians are all about adding slight variety to keep things interesting.

The lead vocal remains at dead center of the mix throughout the song. This is nicely juxtaposed by the second vocal just before the chorus. Notice how the second vocal is audible in both the Left and Right channels and  sounds much wider. It's mixed to give a nice contrast and lead you the listener into the chorus.

Check out the keyboard lead  that kicks of at 0:14. Engrain that sci-fi melody in your mind. Now jump to 2:18. Can you hear that same melody being played in the background? It's slightly buried behind the vocals, drums, and  guitars, but it's there. It was introduced  at the beginning of the song and is layered  throughout the pre-choruses to maintain the song's cohesiveness.

The bass guitar is the ideal instrument to focus in on in this song. It's not very prominent, and you have to really focus to hone in on it and block everything else. I bet you may have not even noticed it before, but it does a lot for the song! The bass is most prominent when it's first introduced at 0:31. Notice the cool syncopated rhythm it's playing. The bass goes silent at 0:42. It's back at 1:00 but it doesn't do much, just plays whole notes. But it's there to build the listener to the chorus, and once the chorus hits, the bass starts grooving! Check it out at 1:22.

The guitars have a ton going on. The primary thing to notice is you have the lead guitar in the Left channel, and the rhythm guitar in the Right channel. You can hear this at 2:07 and 2:17. Notice how in the  Right channel you have  a pulsating "clean" guitar rhythm (very U2-esque), while in the Left channel you hear the electric lead guitar play a few lone notes. It's never too much, just a little a bit to keep things interesting. Why did the producer decide to "sprinkle" those little guitar leads in those sections? Nuance, taste, flavor.

Those are some examples of things that jumped out at me. There is much more to discover in this song, and in your favorite songs. I hope you'll find this exercise interesting and helpful.

Happy listening!

Earlier this year a friend introduced me to Groupmuse. It's "an online social network that connects young classical musicians to local audiences through concert house parties".

After you register for a free account, you can RSVP to attend a Groupmuse. If the host accepts your RSVP Groupmuse will charge you $3 (think of it as a reasonable convenience fee). Then once at the event, you will be encouraged to donate $10. 100% of your donation will go to the musician(s). The host does not make any money from hosting a Groupmuse.

The event format is straightforward. Arrive at the hosts home, socialize with the other attendees (typically 15-30), and then enjoy 60-80 minutes of music (broken up by an intermission). I've found the hosts to be hospitable, the musicians superb, and the other attendees friendly and diverse (it's not just a room full of musicians).

I've attended 3 in Brooklyn and each one was a memorable and moving experience. One Groupmuse I attended took place on a rooftop in Fort Greene. On a warm summer night it was quite a stage:

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I have a vivid memory from this performance. A few seconds into their first song, the cellist's cello case tips over and falls on her. Only slightly fazed, she doesn't stop playing and the music continues. By the end of the piece it was as if nothing had happened. And by the end of the performance most of the audience had forgotten that it even happened.

Musicians have a high standard for live performances. No matter what the issue (equipment failure, stand with sheet music tips over, string breaks) you keep playing. In the face of adversity, keep playing. Because in the end no one remembers the challenge you faced, they remember the music. And if you don't make it seem like a big deal, then the audience may not even notice.

As a musician it's a standard I've held when I've performed live. And I've been trying to apply it in other facets of my life. For example at work, in those moments when things seem to be falling apart (the cello case is falling on me), I stay the course and keep playing. I don't stop the performance seeking acknowledgement for the predicament I'm in. My colleagues saw the case fall, they know it's hard. They don't need me to tell them that, they are their to hear the music.

Don't make excuses when things get hard. We know your situation is hard, because in some variant so is ours. Instead of reminding us, just keep playing.

Have you wondered why when you go on vacation, or when you visit a place you've never been before, time seems to slow down? It could be as simple as visiting a new part of town on a Saturday afternoon, to traveling thousands of miles to a different country. Somehow the memories and feelings of those places are more vivid and powerful than the ones from a typical work week.

Your typical week follows an expected routine. Your morning routine, the commute, the job. Each component follows an expected routine. Your brain knows what to expect, and it switches to autopilot to navigate it. And yet when going somewhere new, your brain doesn't know what to expect. There is no routine because you haven't experienced it. Your more aware as you absorb the new experience. It's an elevated sense of wonder fueled by a break from the routine.

People often ask me why I left Southern California for New York. California doesn't typically fall in the list of places people are itching to get out of. And yet after 15 years, I was ready for a change. I was deep in a routine and I needed disruption.

When I first arrived in New York everything was new. The city, my apartment and neighborhood. A new job and title. New colleagues and friends. New furniture and clothes. A new commute. A new lifestyle. I was living with an elevated sense of wonder. Every experience and encounter was new, and I welcomed it. I welcomed getting bumped in the subway because wow, I'm here in New York taking the subway! I welcomed the snow because wow, I'm here in New York and it's snowing! I was comfortable saying hello to a stranger because wow, I'm here in New York talking to a New Yorker!

When you've just arrived in a new place, everything seems forgiven because your new. Talking to a random stranger? New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new. Pausing to admire a building and taking a photo. New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new. Walking alone without any plans on a Saturday night, New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new.

An elevated sense of wonder eliminates any self-doubt or apprehension. It's OK because I'm new. My sense of wonder makes me comfortable with spontaneity. I'll try that. Yes, I'm interested.

And yet after some time the wonder begins to fade. A routine emerges. The it's OK because I'm new excuse no longer works. That's not what a New Yorker would do hinders spontaneity. I'll try that becomes I'm not sure. I'm interested becomes I don't have time. When I firsts arrived to New York I didn't have to work for an elevated sense of wonder. It was a byproduct of the new environment. I just went along for the ride.

But as a routine settles in, and the sense of wonder flounders, I have to work to maintain it. I have to find the moments in the routine that are wondrous. The moments that stand out and make the typical days feel different. I have to create those moments. Instead of going straight home on the same train after work, I take a different train to park, sit on a bench for 30 minutes and then walk home. Even the smallest change can make a difference. Anything that breaks me from my typical routine path. It's the break, the new experience that reignites the sense of wonder.

So there you are. You've finished your product/song/art/book/creation and are ready to share it with the world. You tweet, write blog and Facebook posts, and invite people to like your creation. But the results are lackluster. The world doesn't stop to pay attention to what you built. The world keeps moving and your creation is left behind.

I had a taste of this when my band finished our album in 2012. I packaged all the songs into a ZIP file and sent the link via individual private messages to 100 Facebook friends. I added a personal note to each message to make it more personal. And yet only a handful of people downloaded the music, and even fewer listened to it. I wasn't asking them to buy the music, I was giving it to them for free. And yet only a handful took the time to listen. I didn't recognize it at the time, but I had created too many blockers between my audience and the product.

To hear the music you first had to download a ZIP file. Most people read the message on their phones, and so they couldn't take action when I had their attention. In Facebook the message was marked 'read', and so they would have to remember the next time they were at their computer to reopen my message and download the file. I had multiple people tell me they forgot about the message after first opening it. For those that did download the ZIP file, they would have to unzip it, and listen on their computer. Or they could transfer the songs to their iPod/iPhone and remember to listen to them at a later time.

I could have greatly simplified things by just sending a link to a YouTube video of the full album. One experience has a large barrier to entry, and the other has almost none.


Remember, people are busy. They are on an express train heading to their destination. Paying attention to your product is an unexpected stop. And it's hard to unexpectedly stop an express train.

If right now you messaged me your band's music in a ZIP file, I probably wouldn't listen to it (because of all the steps involved). I have an overflowing to-do list and I'm currently not accepting any new additions.

By not thinking through the steps I need to take to experience your product, you set yourself up for failure. You're putting trust in my time management, in my organization, in my level of interest, in me. And I'm not trustworthy when it comes to trying your product.

Given that, it's your responsibility to make it as easy or timely as possible for me to experience your product. Whether it's clicking a link and starting (easy, note it's not clicking a link and making an account, that's hard), or getting your link when I have 5 minutes to kill waiting in line (timely). It's your responsibility to set me up for success.

I'm paying the price of allocating my time to your product. You pay the price of making it as easy and tension free for me.


Say you just released an app that would help me discover trending podcast episodes based on my interests. With the proliferation of podcasts this is a product I would be interested to use. Your responsibility is to think through all the possible scenarios that would lead me to trying your product. It's not enough to just launch in the app store and write a blog post. Even though I have the "pain" of finding a timely podcast episode to listen to, the pain is not big enough to warrant me to search for a new product in the app store. I'm not going to hit the emergency break on my express train to go search for your app.

Assume the best case scenario that I do see your app on Product Hunt, or I do see it in the app store. Will I have time at that moment that I will be willing to allocate to try your app? Will I identify with the problem at that moment? If I don't, is that the last time I'll hear about your app? If I don't hear about it again, I wont use it.

But if the app  keeps appearing on my radar, eventually it may resonate. The thing that resonates is different across people. To one user seeing the app trending on Product Hunt may be the catalyst. For me it's typically hearing someone I respect talk about it. If they rave about it, describe how it's had a positive experience on X because of Y, I'll connect with that. I'll realize how my life can improve because I've now realized I have the problem your product can solve.

Creating your product is only one step in the long unpredictable journey for builders. But once you have it, make as much noise as you can about it, and make it as easy as possible for someone to try it.

Set us up for success.

If you got here first, check out the introduction, part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.


I ended part 3 expressing my dread for recording the final guitar takes. Hard to believe I wrote that part 5 months  ago. Life got in the way and I indulged every excuse to procrastinate recording.

But I'm happy to report that guitar recordings have wrapped!

Part of the reason for the delay was prioritizing a block of time to setup my recording environment, get my guitar and playing chops in shape, and then do the actual recording. The time to set and warm up would not warrant the 20-30 minutes I would then have available to record. So I finally set aside time during two weekends and was able to finish recording.

I took a different approach recording this song compared to the recording process on Legacy. With that project I recorded by section, until I had takes I was happy with. For this song, I played the full song multiple times and recorded each time as a separate take. I then edited together the best sounding sections from each take to make the final track. In other words I may have used Verse 1 from take 2, Chorus 1 from take 1, etc. This approach allowed me to spend more time focusing on playing, and less time on trying to get a perfect take on a certain section.

One of my biggest challenges while recording is playing the role of engineer. The simple task of starting and stopping the recording on the computer can throw off my momentum. Plus when I hear the same section over and over, it becomes difficult to discern the good takes from the bad. Playing the dual role of musician and engineer is also part of the reason it took me a while to get these recordings done.

The next step in this project is to find other musicians to collaborate with on this song. At a minimum the song needs drums, bass, and vocals. I may add some additional instruments later, but that is still to be determined. Once the missing parts are recorded, the song will need to get mixed, mastered, and then it will be  ready for release!