Monday, 25 June 2012

Making, playing, listening to and hearing music...

In the opening chapters of Professor Jeremy Begbie's authoritative book on Music and Theology entitled 'Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music ' the author makes the distinction between music making and music hearing (p40). Whilst that may seem obvious, he then goes on to expand this further (pp 41-46) by initially pointing out that there may be a prior stage, composition, to the essential elements of performance (making) and listening (hearing). However, let's look at two additional discussions which have expanded the making and hearing aspects of music in line with Professor Begbie's theses.

Bruce Springsteen – playing versus making music:

On his We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions / American Land Edition [CD+DVD] Bruce identifies the difference between performers who simply play music and those that make music together. As the interview progresses it is clear he is referring to the way some players are not content to just interpret a music score (or chord / tab chart) but have the inherent gift to gel together with their fellow musicians such that a new plane is reached where communication is instinctive rather than reactive. The group of players effectively become one and feel the groove enabling co-ordinated variations and improvisations with no pre-meditation.

Historically it is clear when either musical conventions are challenged or there is an 'ethnic' re-imagination then substantial musical developments occur. In relatively recent times we have seen the advent of Jazz, the worldwide success of songwriting bands spearheaded by The Beatles and the Punk explosion. Equally the international popularity of Reggae and Gospel Music on one hand and the UK folk music's crossover into the mainstream with groups such as The Fishermen Friends with their repertoire of traditional shanties. There is a potential division between classical and popular music performers that disappears when they have both the grace and desire to side step such differences. This can achieve a performance and response that transcend any where the artiste could have chosen to stay either entrenched or simply played safe. This was a revelation to cellist and composer Philip Sheppard when working with the late Jeff Buckley which I explored in this post. Clearly there are a vast number of additional parameters that come into play; social, geographical and chronological and this gives more to discuss and unpack to move toward a less generalised explanation of the above.

Nick Coleman– listening versus hearing music:

This former NME journalist and music lover's entertaining yet deeply moving memoir, The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss , describes how his world was changed forever when he was diagnosed as having the condition Sudden Neurosensory Hearing Loss, a combination of partial deafness combined with thunderous tinnitus. He effectively has to re-learn how to hear and for some time during his recovery it is his encyclopaedic knowledge of pop, rock and classical music that sustains him as he psychologically engineers a way to replay his record collection from memory. It is only when he realises that he needs to learn how to listen to what music is saying to him that a sense of hearing is partially restored, albeit accompanied by great physical pain and discomfort. So he concludes that he has to develop a new way to listen, one that is active rather than passive.

If I may suggest:

This provides a clue as to why listening and hearing are different. For example, one method I employ when trying to check something subtle but potentially troubling during a recording session is to play the piece back whilst making a cuppa when I'm not in full close up, focus mode. This synthesises the moment someone hears your work for the first time and corrections can then be effected if there is, indeed, actually an issue anyway. In a similar way there are songs that stand out on the radio as we are driving along, at times I've even stopped the car to catch who the artiste is (so annoying when the presenter doesn't say?!). My proposition is that is an example of when a piece 'speaks' to us, provoking us from a hearing only to a listening intently mode. This endorses what Coleman concludes, that hearing is passive whilst listening is deliberately active.

It is therefore safe to propose that the more acute hearing of most musicians enables them to listen better than someone less musically gifted, and, when playing in an ensemble, engages that ability to promote those special moments of making transcendent music together.


1 comment:

nevell said...

It's an interesting one. You're right to say we are more receptive to what rally grabs us, when we're not actively "listening" - as with something jumping out from the radio; it's an effective filter, and we only start really listening in an analytical way at a later stage - if at all.It's clear that some people can't really anylise music they enjoy-they just know what they like.
A song-writer/composer needs, at the same time to see the components of his work, whilst having that distance that allows him to "hear" his work afresh. This is your "making a cuppa" moment. I would suggest another way is to put a day or 3 or (much)more between yourself and your music (recording/draft), and then come back to it. What do you think about the genious composer who apparently "hears" the music as he writes (was Mozart, for example such a one?) and so is truly doing both at once? Is this, in fact a case of the brain being unconsciously, actively productive faster than the composer can think, or is there still room left for true inspiration? (I'd like to think there is such a thing :-) )