Deep Listening

How the pandemic provides an opportunity to truly listen to the music we love

The COVID-19 pandemic provides us with opportunities to do and experience things that we haven’t done or seen before. Whether it’s understanding new rhythms of the home or getting used to doing meetings over ZOOM, we’ve all had to adjust in some way. Learning new things almost always carries with it some discomfort; having an authentic experience with new music is no different. We can all remember the beginnings of our musical tastes, usually as teenagers, having listened to certain styles of music in our home and on the playground, influenced by parents, family friends and those closest to us. Sometimes, as was my case, our musical tastes form part of our teenage rebellion, with kids often taking a liking to music that will make their parents upset or angry. Growing up in a conservative evangelical home, as I did, I was taught that music that isn’t explicitly Christian is inherently bad music, whether its lyrics or musical style is benign or not. I know this doesn’t describe everyone who grew up in a Christian home, but it does describe my own experience. I like heavy music today in part because I was rebelling against my parents in the only way that I knew how. Other parts of my musical journey have nothing to do with home life, and everything to do with being a high school band geek. Learning to play the trombone from Grade 7, being quickly invited to join the high school jazz band, and discovering whole new styles of music that I didn’t know existed, mostly jazz, early rock n’ roll and some early RnB. Starting in grade 8, I was a mainstay of the concert band, taking over the 1st Chair Trombone spot sometime in grade 11. There I learned about classical music, the symphony, and played popular Disney songs, despite having never seen the relevant movies, which is a conversation for another day. I credit my band teacher, Mr. Dan Hearty, with teaching me how to really listen to music, to take it in, to feel it in my bones. Before we played any composition, he would put it on the record player, have us close our eyes, and just listen. Every once in a while we would have a class where we would primarily listen to music, taking in the sounds, and appreciating them within the historical context, and also within the context of what we were playing as a concert band. I appreciate heavy symphonic and melodic prog and metal today in part because of my experiences in concert band.

Our musical tastes, then, at least in my experience, are made up of influences from when we were young, combined with our own exploration of the sonic universe. Many folks don’t go beyond pop music, much of which is designed to hit all the pleasure spots in our brain, in part to keep us hooked and buying. Others find one style or band and stick to it – how many times have you heard from superfans of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis or Iron Maiden, who are insistent that their band is the epitome of musical creativity.  A minority of people become audiophiles, obsessed with a wide range of music, some of which stretch the very definitions of the art. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, there is always something new to learn about the kind of music you like, its influences and how it came to be.

Of course, truly listening to music isn’t something that’s done while in the office, the radio on in the background while you compile the quarter’s TPS Reports. It’s something that requires time, energy, and a commitment to fully listen. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of Deep Listening lately, an idea that is being increasingly lost in our go-go-go world. In my view, much of pop music is being made for commercial purposes, with little attention being paid to the artistic contributions of those making music. Having grown up on rock music, I have a tough time understanding how computer-generated sounds programmed by one person and given to another to sing, only to be autotuned in post-production can count as music, though I suppose that is just my own prejudice; I’m fully aware that the electrification of the guitar and the introduction of the Moog synthesizer were necessary to the development of rock music, let alone heavy metal. Without innovation, music remains stagnant. In any case, I genuinely worry that the art of Deep Listening is disappearing.

Pauline Oliveros, the composer who coined the concept of Deep Listening describes it “as a kind of “radical attentiveness … [to] differentiate to hear and to listen. To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.”” Chief among the benefits of Deep Listening is a desire to connect with the self - music impacts us at our core, and when we hear sounds that are familiar or near-familiar, we have positive internal reactions because of the dopamine hitting the pleasure centres of the brain. Indeed, when describing the purpose of Deep Listening, Oliveros notes that bringing all the various sounds and notes to our attention allow us to be intentional about certain forms of self-care, like meditation. “The practice of Deep Listening”, she says, “is intended to facilitate creativity in art and life through this form of meditation. Creativity means the formation of new patterns, exceeding the limitations and boundaries of old patterns, or using old patterns in new ways.” Additionally, Deep Listening can also be a way of prioritizing the artist over yourself, allowing yourself to be taken by the little things that the artist felt important to include.

Of course, doing this kind of listening to new music, and especially to explore new genres, is hard on our brain. As I noted above,

“…when a specific sound maps onto a pattern, our brain releases a corresponding amount of dopamine, the main chemical source of some of our most intense emotions. This is the essential reason why music triggers such powerful emotional reactions, and why, as an art form, it is so inextricably tied to our emotional responses… But when we hear something that hasn’t already been mapped onto the brain, the corticofugal network goes a bit haywire, and our brain releases too much dopamine as a response. When there is no anchor or no pattern on which to map, music registers as unpleasant, or in layman’s terms, bad.”

Lately I’ve fallen in love with the analysis of heavy music by professional composer Geebz from the Key of Geebz YouTube channel, who looks to put the ‘pure listener’ first in his reaction videos. His ability to boil down complicated musical theory into concepts that the average music listener can understand is something I just haven’t seen in other Reaction videos. Unlike other YouTube ‘experts,’ I’m struck by Geebz humility – he’s not interested in showing off his knowledge, he’s simply interested in sharing his natural excitement about music with other people, in a genre of music that many people consider to be ‘just noise.’ He started off with Tool and expanded from there, taking on all kinds of prog rock and metal, sometimes churning out three and four videos a day. While I know that my brain is releasing all of its happy chemicals, Geebz does a good job of breaking down what’s going on behind the scenes, whether musically or on the engineering side, to make my brain respond. I’ve included here his reaction to the Nightwish song Ghost Love Score, in which he has his first ‘Floorgasm.’

I’ve enjoyed his channel so much I thought I’d put together a list of 10 songs that I’d like to see him analyze, whether for their musical complexity or for their awesome power. I’ve also included a bonus list of 5 Epica songs about which I’d love to hear his analysis. After all, Geebz seems to have a thing for psychedelic polyrhythms and for melodic heavy music created with orchestral arrangements, which is right up my alley, so why not? See Part II of Deep Listening for the list!