Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What I Listen For In Music

I am an educated musician, but I am also an avid listener and fan. Ever since I discovered pop music, one of my favorite pastimes has been buying a new album, taking it home and listening to it for the first time. Of course, what I look for in a record may be quite different from the average layperson. As is the case with many musicians, I am an active listener. There is no such thing as "background music" for me.
I also feel that actively listening to music can be almost as creative as the act of making music. Listening to a piece of music I love opens up new avenues of creativity. It challenges me to create something that will surpass it! For me, this is not competitive. It is an act of admiration for the artist and composer. When I hear a great piece of music by another composer, I want to understand how they felt when they created it!
Of course, there is also the possibility of seeing the seed of an idea in the work of another artist, and taking that idea further than they could have imagined. That technique reaches far beyond art, for it is the cornerstone of invention. Thus, active listening may at times fall under the category of "research."
Over the years, in my own acts of research as well as creativity, there are a number of things I have searched for. One of my goals, for instance, has been to push beyond the accepted boundaries of music. This is done in a variety of ways, but the following have been of most interest to me, both as a listener and a composer:
  • Fusion - Combining elements of different musical styles and traditions, as well as the use of nontraditional instrument combinations. This also extends to the fusion of artistic mediums.
  • Tonality - Modal, atonal, polytonal, microtonal music, or any other method of moving beyond the major and minor scales.
  • Challenging the traditional definition of Music - The genesis of this idea was in the work of the great John Cage, who was interested in stretching the boundaries of what can be considered music. The use of nonmusical sounds in composition has especially been of great interest to me.
  • Elements of Chance - This includes improvisation, as well as effects or overtones caused by note combinations (especially in drones.)
In other words, I am often most interested in music which thwarts convention in one or more ways, no matter how subtle.
Now, don't get me wrong, I still love a catchy melody, an interesting chord progression or riff, or a groove that makes you tap your feet. However, if you combine that with one of the elements in the list above, you have pure magic, as far as I'm concerned.
How about you? What do you listen for in music?
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