How to Listen to Music

Some months ago, a good friend asked for advice on pipe smoking. It was clear at that moment that no top-level guide existed, mainly because most got stuck in a muddle of gear and preferences, but few mentioned the core of the practice: technique.

To smoke a pipe, you must master breath-smoking, filling the pipe, arranging the tobacco, lighting it, and using a tamper to “chase the ember” by directing air down the sides of the pipe bowl chamber. There is almost infinite learning in this alone, even if you use the same pipe and same tobacco blend for your whole life, and that is why no one will talk about it.

After all, that makes pipe smoking just like life itself. There are no interesting new quantities to explore like golden idols, figuring that if you buy the right pipe or find just the right blend, you will have that magical experience. No, instead, it is unequally equal in the way that birth is: you are given your lot in life, and must know your limits and where you can improve in order to find your niche. Few are born kings, and those who pretend to be kings end up being kings for a day.

That leaves only the intangibles. If you have self-discipline and can notice aspects of reality, you can adapt and thrive. You can develop your technique with practice, but that requires forcing yourself to do it better just about every time. You have to experiment, but you will converge on the same basic realizations and flesh out your knowledge of them. Technique is esoteric, meaning a tiered cumulative learning structure, so you get better, then plateau, then find a new dimension of depth to explore, and re-learn all that you know.

In my view, the same is true of music. There are twelve notes… we are analyzing patterns of those… the only wrinkle is the ability to set context (key, mood, mode, shape, counterpoint) and riff on that, such that new combinations of the same notes can mean something different. One note creates a certain expectation, then you play with that, and that sets up a pattern, at which point you can fiddle around with the difference between repeating the pattern and changing it up a bit. The contrast between these changes tells a story and creates a mood, and the story that most music tells is how to find a new space within an old mood where things make sense again. No matter how externally we direct it, music speaks to our own experience with similar things and our reactions to them, since music mimics the reactions and impressions in our minds, not the events themselves.

Listening to music is a technique like most other aspects of life. You can look for new quantities — the perfect stereo, music with a novelty factor, unique combinations of instruments, better production, even technical wizardry — but in reality, what makes music come alive is your ability to hear it, focus on the changing events, and understand from that the story being told. Like any other technique, it consists of several parts.

  1. Clear your mind. Perhaps the hardest and most esoteric of the music-listening arts, one must borrow a bit from the ancient Viking warriors who indulged in a ritual to purge the mind of all thought before battle. This cleared away the chatter of the ego and id trying to understand each other and replaced them with function. This is why warriors are silent when going into battle: they know that most of their war is in their own heads, and the rest is mostly luck. Similarly, a music listener needs to flush out those thoughts and concerns that are outside of the music, and focus only on the sound itself, not impressions of it, judgments of it, or what other people think, write, or say about it.
  2. Clean your room. Apologies to Dr Jordan Peterson here; if you are going to listen to music, you need to do it in a comfortable place free of visual distractions, discomforts, and glitches. You need a stereo system of some sort, even if just some decent computer speakers, and a player that works. You need a comfortable chair, bed, or place to stand. It needs to be a place for which you have neutral or positive associations. One of my favorite ways to listen to music is at a lake cabin I use sometimes, where I can crank up a decent 1970s stereo inside at top volume and listen from under a tree twenty feet away, with the sounds of the water, insects, birds, wind, leaves, and cosmic radiation to filter the music and create a kind of stochastic resonance that brings out the vital details and immerses the rest in mysterious chaos.
  3. Pay attention to cause/effect relationships. Timing is vital to music, and so is time consciousness, specifically in the sense of “what changed?” in every second of the record. You hear a pattern, then something else happens; when did it happen, what changed, and what effect did it have on your impression of what you are hearing? It helps to view music much as you would a conversation: one person says one thing, another responds, the first one asks a question in response to the response, and then the other responds and asks a question. Stories are told this way, as is music.
  4. Discipline your mind. Imagine a luthier making a guitar. At each stage of the process, total concentration is required to notice details that could signal problems, to get measurements exactly right, to place each part correctly, and to work with the natural variation in the materials. The same is true of music: you must make a craftsman of your mind, not so much noticing technical flash (who cares) but where any aspect of the music is used to communicate something. A bassline changed, and what effect did that have on your emotions and the story you see in your mind? Even an instrument becoming softer in volume, or playing a repetition an extra number of times, can convey a change in the story.
  5. If you are wasted, do it right. As someone who frequently enjoyed getting loaded to listen to music, I can say that this can be a valuable experience because it has a stochastic resonance of its own like distortion or room noise, but “can” does not equal will. If you are going to get wasted and listen to music, make sure you are still in possession of your mind, because there is a natural egomania with being wasted — after all, you have just made an echo chamber of your mind that is now more interesting than the world around you — and this leads to projection, or figuring out what meaning you want something to have and inferencing that by finding data to match the thesis, instead of a thesis to match the data.

Most people “listen” to music while they are watching videos, talking to friends, studying, or at work. Maybe that works for you; there are few absolutes in life (“there are no truths, only interpretations”). However, it makes sense to me to reduce the distractions. If you are playing a mindless video game or driving, this often provides the best context for listening, since the body-affiliated parts of your mind are kept busy and therefore not intrusive on the rest. But this varies with each individual.

In my view, if people actually listened to music, they would be more intolerant of most of it. Some albums you can crank forever, like for me Sepultura Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation, and they improve as much on the 500th listen as on the fifth. When you get to know music intimately, you get over the “first impressions” — wow that’s a cool riff, what a neat sound to that fret run, cool vocal here, or the pure sonic intensity hammering you — and start to take apart what you hear. You translate the album into a language, and then reconstruct the story from that.

Most of our society and its three demotic influences — popularity, purchases, and politics — emphasizes novelty, egomania, and singular focus instead of the big-picture view that cherishes esoteric technique, but listening to music requires pushing aside the former to make room for the latter. A really good album will last you a lifetime if you let it, but that starts with disciplined, creative, and focused listening.

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17 thoughts on “How to Listen to Music”

  1. What ritual did “vikings” do to clean their minds before battle exactly? I have studied Medieval Norse history, culture and religion for years and I cannot recall anything of the sorts. Is this real historical info or pop culture-infused bs?

  2. the left is the truth says:

    It’s too easy to fall asleep without distracting your mind. I’ve fell victim to this problem with even the most chaotic of music

  3. Thrash is better than Black or Death says:

    As a teenager before the internet, I would listen to albums like Game Over, Master of Puppets, Thunder in the East and other classics by myself in my room over and over and over again. Having little money and slim selection forced me to just devour albums. picking up little nuances in the music that escaped me the first time. Who has time to do this anymore? I often did not like some albums at first such as ACT III, but later loved them after numerous listening sessions. Now , due to the pace of modern society bands either impress me at first listen, or I tend to cast them aside. In a lot of ways, the internet has ruined the thrill of the hunt for all but the most obscure music out there. If you told me back then you’d be able to download a band’s 30 year discography in about eight minutes in the future, I would of been incredulous. This instant access whether through streaming or torrents has taken a lot of what was special about music in the first place, causing music itself to be devalued except to sell product.

    1. colonel parker says:

      True. The industry structure was an integral part of the power of music back then, much as we would like to think otherwise. Truth is there is better music now but bands cannot become famous or even have a career due to internet democratization so they do not exude the same star power as bands used to. Devoid of this it is harder for to be invested in it. Taste was always to some extent political. Even in underground music we are in thrall to personality – e.g. Varg, the Norwegian scene. There was a star power to all of it. Nostalgia for this period is more about nostalgia for the industry – when it had a power to create the illusion of meaning, to create our own parallel version of stardom – than for the music itself.

      1. I disagree. There was a higher filter on the music, imposed more by technology and finance than the industry itself. Labels love this chaos for the same reason that big corporations like regulations: it keeps the little guy down. Sure, occasionally some person gets big on YouTube, but for the most part, if you want to make it big, now you doubly need the labels to have the promotional power to get noticed in the unending stream of feces.

        1. Only trends are real! says:

          Labels and other actors will inflate numbers to make things become “trending” through click/stream/content farming anyway. Discernment of quality has gone out of the window.

      2. Svmmoned says:

        Varg was treated that way because he was perfectly symbolic: difficult idelogy, action and profound art miraculously united in one person. It was simply impossible to ignore. He also wasn’t a latecomer or outlier but a co-creator and innovator of black metal if not it’s most important and best artist. As for other bands, they were perceived as entities rather than, well, bands or jest collectives of musicians. They were of course full of characteristic individuals, but it simply cease to exist when you are dealing with any facet of their art from the best period and it applies also to its most external and visual part.

    2. The same is true of books and publishing. The more we democratize anything, i.e. make it easy to access and easy to produce, the more we drown in absurd neurotic feces.

      I’m on the flip side of this end of scarcity, having been a prolific music downloader just to hear stuff (the digital equivalent of tape trading), and now the scarcity I find is anything I want to hear again. Lots of interesting stuff, most of it irrelevant.

    3. Svmmoned says:

      Yes, people definitely should listen to less and dedicate more time and a proper state of mind in order to establish that intimate link with the music. Listening to music in meditative state helps to discover intrinsic qualities in often very “basic”, unexciting metal, whereas normal listening leads to judgements made on basis of more expressive and obvious ways in which music tries to communicate its meaning.

  4. dmu commentator says:

    Thanks dad

    1. Are ya winning yet, son?

  5. Fish says:

    I really like Infester and Demilich, their best albums have somewhat similar covers. They reek of other dimensions, which is really refreshing.

    1. First Incantation has the same feel to me, as well as Demigod. A sublime and surreal venture into darkness in search of meaning so that one may escape The Matrix created by The Enlightenment,™ basically a neurotic egotism submerging the id in a well of chatter and self-image.

  6. Harked Back says:

    I have realized that high volume is not essential in the experience of truly listening to music in recent years. With other people living with me and understandably not sharing my interests in music, I have learned to find a little but comfortable space for me and whether through headphones or my old stereo, I always manage to get my fix and immerse myselfe in the sounds I cherish,

  7. fume says:

    “. . .there is a natural egomania with being wasted — after all, you have just made an echo chamber of your mind that is now more interesting than the world around you — and this leads to projection, or figuring out what meaning you want something to have and inferencing that by finding data to match the thesis, instead of a thesis to match the data.”

    That shit is fucking brilliant, mate.

  8. Skull Scavenger says:

    Effigy of the Forgotten is my favorite album. I wish I was eloquent enough to say something insightful about it. If all else fails, this one will last for a lifetime.

  9. Penis says:

    Undeath are the kings of death metal. Way better than anything Suffocation ever did.

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