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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!