How to get the most out of the music in a world of distraction, where hearing is easy, but listening can change your life.
If you asked, I would say that I listen to a lot of music. But the truth is, most of the time I’m just hearing it. Much of my day is spent with music in the background while I’m working, driving, or just hanging out, a constant stream of aural inputs while I focus on the tasks at hand. Occasionally I will hear something that completely grabs my attention; suddenly my focus moves into the music, and I find that I am truly listening to it. I know that this is where the magic is, there’s nothing like it. When I’m actively listening to music, I can feel all reasons why I’m in love with it: it’s like coming home and transcending all at once. There is nothing in the world like putting on some headphones and closing my eyes, letting everything else fade away while my mind focuses solely on the intricate sounds of beautiful, deep, meaningful electronic music. But I don’t do this nearly enough.
Although we may hear a lot of music throughout the day, its ability to make an impact on our lives is connected to the time we take to really listen. I think that one of the reasons why electronic music connects so deeply to the lives of those who love it, is that intense listening comes naturally. To create an effective track, one that people can relate to and remember, requires the producer to be deeply entrenched in their music, with an intense focus on each individual piece as well as the combination of the elements and the greater picture it forms. As a DJ, active listening is vital to the success of a set. You have to listen to know how a track feels emotionally, how it connects, and how to use that to direct the mood of the room. Grabbing the attention of the crowd on the dance floor requires the ability to understand and control the energy that is within each track, and you can only do so if you listen.
The dance floor is an excellent example of how this all comes together for the audience, as well as evidence of the detriment of distraction, as it can take away from the magic and meaning of the music. When our lives are so filled with distractions, from the desire to continuously connect to our phones, to our own constant mental chatter about ourselves and others, the hypnotizing and transcendent experiences of electronic music can easily get lost in the mix. No matter how loud and encompassing the music is, it seems that there will always be people who are consumed more with their phones, and with their image, than in actually enjoying themselves. I admit, there are times when I have to remind myself to stop thinking about something else, to forget about trying to take a cool photo, and to just close my eyes and really feel what’s happening.
This is not just just an issue on the dance floor, but for music in general. In his article for the NY Times, Seth S. Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University states:
Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload. And yet we dare not lose it. Because listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the non-visual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills.
Even through the difficulties that keep us from accessing the true listening experience in today’s world, it is still possible to achieve anytime, anywhere, when you pay attention and tune in.
Hearing vs. Listening
To experience the greatest benefits of listening to music, it’s important to distinguish its difference from hearing. Although hearing is also vital (and if we listened to everything we heard we would be in a constant massive sensory overload) its purpose is quite different than listening. Here are some of the main aspects which separate them.
– A passive bodily process, the involuntary reception of aural stimuli.
– An inborn ability
– Takes place on a subconscious level
– An active mental process which involves analyzing and decoding sounds into meaning.
– A skill which can be honed, trained, and lost if not practiced.
– Requires focus and concentration
– Takes place on a conscious level
Listening requires us to make an effort in order to ascertain meaning from what we are hearing. Listening is what integrates the music into our consciousness, what takes it from a natural state to something that exists within our minds and souls.
Why is Listening Important?
Music is a delivery system of frequency to the mind – Barry Goldstein
Many studies have been done on how music enhances our well being, ranging from improving mood to reducing pain. Not only is this proven over and over again by scientists, but it is something that we natural feel within us, reinforcing the underlying reasons why we love it so much. Music’s ability to do a whole host of wonderful things for us is closely tied to how in tune we are with it. When actively listening to music, you are able to make a deeper emotional and psychological connection, one that can elevate your state of mind and help you access your inner self.
Here are some of the key benefits of listening:
– Stimulates emotions through release of hormones and neurotransmitters
– Creates a bridge between heart and brain
– Similar benefits as meditation
– Helps us connect to past memories
– Stimulates new neural connections to improve brain function
– Tunes our brain into patterns of the environment
– Activates and sustains attention
– Improves concentration
– Silences within deep listening sessions support brain/heart coherence
You can use specific music choices to enhance each of these benefits, when you utilize the science of brain wave entrainment. This is when the inner brain waves are affected by external brain waves, such as using Beta Waves (14 – 40Hz) for energy, or Alpha (8-14 Hz) and Theta (4-8 Hz) for creativity. You can relax, learn, or focus better by tuning your brain to particular frequencies within the music, if you really listen.
How to Listen:
With all of the benefits which come from listening, it’s valuable to learn how to practice this skill in our daily lives. Of course, for many electronic music lovers this comes naturally. When track searching, producing, playing an instrument, DJing, and dancing, you are actively focusing on and appreciating the music for itself. But it can be helpful to be reminded of the little things we can do in the mean time, when we find our attention wavering and the constant stream of distractions taking us away from the moment.
Play It All The Way
There is something special about the experience of buying music before cassettes or CDs were popularized, when passionate music fans would go to the record store and buy an album on vinyl, then rush home to put it on the record player, sit down, and listen all the way through. There was no scrolling through social media feeds, checking emails, or answering texts while the music was playing. You physically and mentally went through the whole listening experience, appreciating the music for what it was without distraction.
We can create a similar experience today, by setting aside time to put on an album or play a DJ mix and just listen to it. No working, no multi-tasking, just singular attention to the sounds. Allow yourself to take a pause from the outside world, focus on the music, and experience it in its fullest wonder. It will be worth it.
Disconnect from Distraction
The constant desire to engage in distractions seems inevitable. It is difficult for us to be singularly focused on a task without reaching for our phones, checking our notifications, searching for something else to do at the same time. The amount of times I grab my phone while in the middle of doing something else is pretty terrible. It always takes me out of the flow, like an internal resistance to just being present with the task at hand. It’s a detriment to productivity and keeps me from truly appreciating what’s in front of me.
We tend to think that we’re good at doing multiple things at once, but multi-tasking is truly impossible. You can only really focus on one thing at a time with your full attention, and if you want to get the most out of music it has to be your only priority. Sometimes it requires a little force, a little extra will power. Put your phone in another room, close the door and tell no one to disturb you. On the dance floor, force yourself to keep your phone in your pocket or your purse. Turn off notifications. Put it on airplane mode. Just listen. Just dance. Most of all, allow yourself to let go of the desire to be doing something else, and to just enjoy exactly what you’re doing, right now.
Study the Sounds
To really get deep into active listening, use the sounds themselves to pull you in. There are many elements of music that you can draw your attention to, and by studying each one you can unlock its different effects on your listening experience. You can hear something completely new depending on how you shift your focus. On their article on how to better analyze music, Splice.com provides some excellent guidelines on active listening:
Take note of each individual musical element in the following list, and write down your observations for each category. What do you notice? What do you like or dislike?
Melody – the tune of the music
Harmony – the chords and chord progression
Rhythm – the beat and groove of the song
Form/Song Structure – the different sections in the song
Texture – the number of layers of music going on
Tempo – the bpm
Timbre – the different qualities of the sounds used
Dynamics – the ebb and flow / musical arch of the song
Mix – the sonic qualities of the song
Focus on two or three of the individual elements in the first pass that stand out to you. Answer the following questions:
Why did these elements stand out?
What is it that makes each of these elements unique?
How is each of the elements used in the song?
Can you determine their functions?
Are any of these elements repeated in the song?
Can you determine a pattern?
Switch your attention from the musical elements to the sonic elements of the mix, and answer the following questions:
What are the sonic colors of the mix?
Dark, bright, dirty, muddy?
Are there any particular sounds or samples that stick out to you?
How is the balance in the mix?
Is there an instrument intentionally louder than another?
How does that affect the perception of the song?
Discover Something New
New music challenges our brains in a way that familiar music isn’t able to. Our biological appreciation for music is tied into our ability to recognize and appreciate patterns, one of the many reasons why electronic music feels so good to us. The anticipation of the build and the expected breakdown releases dopamine into the reward circuit of our brains. When introduced to something that we haven’t heard before, our brains take the extra effort to search for that dopamine hit, to analyze the patterns and discover what we are subconsciously looking for. By introducing new music into our world, it requires us to pay more attention on multiple levels of consciousness, while inspiring awareness, focus, and mindfulness.
This is another reason why electronic music fans make for good listeners. With the constant flood of new tracks and new DJ mixes, we have the endless opportunity to practice our listening skills. FRISKY itself has over 50,000 exclusive DJ sets, and is adding more everyday, so you can really put this idea into good practice over and over again.
Experience Your Emotions
Beyond the sounds themselves, there is a deeper level which we can use to help us listen better: emotions. While listening to music, just let your emotions run wild, and observe them as they work their way through you. Does the music make your heart start racing, release endorphins, or make tears well up in your eyes? Does it make you feel heart broken or full of love? Where in your body do you feel these emotions? Listening means using more than just your ears, it’s a mindful practice that requires extra sensory awareness. To detach from your emotions and be a witness to them is not only helps you experience the most out of the music, but is a key to enlightenment. Use your emotional responses to connect yourself to the sounds you are hearing and to yourself. Quiet your mind and feel the music.
Feeling the music is never more relevant than when we are on the dance floor. We are born to dance; the natural tendency to synchronize to tempo has been shown even in infants. Dancing gets us in tune with the music’s core energy and purpose, it activates our motor skills and enhances our communication with each other. To be able to drop the distractions and focus on the way the music makes us feel is the only way to truly experience what dance music is all about.
Try closing your eyes. Feel the rhythm vibrate below your skin. Dance without judging yourself. In fact, don’t think at all. Let go and let the music move you. The key to everything you could want out of the experience – feelings of joy, love, connection, presence, elation – they are all there for you if you listen, and just dance.
It’s wonderful how underground electronic music provides us with so many opportunities to practice and enhance our listening skills. From the production of a track which requires a discriminating ear, to the DJ who listens deeply to the tracks they select, each stage requires a discernment of energy, a discovery of distinctive sounds. Listeners experience the music on an emotional level, choosing to listen not because it’s popular, but because it inflames their passion. Every element of electronic music comes together to enhance our lives, and it’s always there for us, when we choose to listen.