The Importance of Critical Listening — Part 1


Enjoying the Hi-Fi

As I typed the title phrase Critical Listening I thought to myself “Why do I need to include the word critical?” Why not just title it “The Importance of Listening”?

I guess I added critical for the younger generations that may not have grown up with the idea that a home stereo could be something that you sit in front of like a computer, TV, or book. I felt that if I would have just used the word listen, some people might think “Sure, I listen to music every day- in the car, at the grocery store, when I’m walking across campus, etc… What’s the big deal?”

Of course that is exactly the opposite of what I am talking about. When I think of “listening to music”, I think of sitting down and focusing on what I’m hearing just like I would focus on the page of a good book when I’m reading it. I guess that I could have used the phrase “focused listening”, but that’s not entirely accurate from a musician’s point of view. A non-musician most likely focuses on music in the same way they focus on a movie, but as a musician we should take it one step further and actively critique what we are listening to. This comes naturally to most musicians which, ironically, usually makes them the worst audience members. It can sometimes be hard to turn that off and simply enjoy a live performance without thinking how they would have played differently, but that’s the topic of another blog post.

Why “Critical” listening? Critical listening is actively listening to what is being played without multitasking.

Dr Funkenstein

The Brecker Brothers are the horn section!

When I was growing up (cue folksy American music) I was lucky to have parents that were into music. We had a decent stereo, lots of LPs, and I had a childrens portable record player in my room with a bunch of 45s. My dad showed me how to use the adult record player when I was probably nine or ten, and I would sift though the recordings of Santana, Parliament, The Ventures, BB King, Booker T and the MGs, as well as my moms Beatles and disco recordings. I was also fortunate to hear a lot live bands, starting with my dads band (dad was a guitarist).

electronic quarterback and baseball

Early neanderthal “video” games. ca 100,000 b.c.

Why did a nine year old spend so much time with a stereo? Easy. When I was growing up in the 1970s there were only four TV channels to choose from! If you wanted to watch a movie, you went to the theater. There were no computer games like we have now. He had these cheesy little hand held electronic things that controlled little red blips on a screen. In short, I actually spent quite a bit of time listening to music.

Fast forward to college. I didn’t get into jazz until college, which was when I started playing the acoustic bass. My parents record collection was devoid of any “real” jazz, though I knew what jazz was. Luckily our college had something called the Materials Center, which had a HUGE record collection. Every day I would slip down to the Materials Center, grab a few LPs from the shelf and slide into a little cubical that had a pair of headphones, a Teac headphone amp, and a Technics turntable. I would just sit there and listen. There was nothing to look at but the spinning platter. With nothing to distract me I could really absorb what was going on in those grooves.

After college, I hit the road with a few bands. I spent nine months with Buddy Morrow and two years with Maynard Ferguson. By this time everything was on CD, so I schlepped over 100 CDs with me all over the world in a Case Logic CD carrying case. I even converted my Sony Discman to run off of D cell batteries, which would last longer than AAs. Back then RadioShack was actually a useful store!

Anyway, I would spent HOURS sitting on a tour bus doing nothing but listening to music. I’d fall asleep with headphones on, wake up when the music stopped and drop another CD into the player, then listen some more. To give you an idea of how much time I spent doing this, I played at least one gig in all 50 states, and we drove to each of those gigs (with the exception of Hawaii and Alaska of course)!

Okay, so what. I spent a lot of time listening to music. Why is that important?

Are you a musician? Do you want to get better? Okay, good. So how much time do you spend sitting down sitting down listening to music with ZERO distractions. Have you ever listened to a recording from beginning to end without stopping once?

Forget YouTube. YouTube is an amazing resource, yes, but it hits a different part of your brain. You need to get rid of the visual elements and feed the aural side of your brain. The saying goes “You have a good ear for music”, not “You have a good eye for music.”

I’m guessing that most people these days spend less than 50 hours a YEAR listening to music. 30 years ago the average non-musician probably spent more time listening to music than most current music students. So, as I asked before, why is this important?

Music is a language, that’s why.

Allow me to use a non-music analogy. Let’s say you’d like to learn Italian. What do you think is more useful? Reading a bunch of books about the language or living in Italy and hearing it spoken every day? Could you learn a language by simply listening to it while your driving? I’m sure you could get something out of that, but how serious are you about learning the language?

Obviously the best way to learn the language is a combination books, having a teacher, and hearing it spoken. However, if you take away the books, you could still become fluent in the language by having a teacher and hearing it spoken. That’s exactly how we learned to speak as a baby and most of us became pretty darn proficient in only three or four years. If you decide to try and learn how to speak Italian ONLY from books (without the aural i.e. hearing the language spoken), you will most likely be a very crappy speaker of Italian.

I think we can all agree with this in principle, but now ask yourself what the percentage should be between aural and visual learning when it comes to a language. Having had experience in both learning Italian and learning music, it is my opinion that a healthy 90% of your study should come from listening. Critical listening!

I can tell you right now that I am the player I am today because of the thousands of hours I’ve spent listening to music. Listening is every bit as important as practicing, therefor you should be spending an equal amount of time doing both!


For part 2 of this topic, I’ll dive into the gear possibilities to make your listening an enjoyable experience. Having the right gear is important. Why? Well, as musicians we tend to model our tone and playing after our heroes (at least initially). If everything you’re listing to sounds small and midrangey because your music source is an iPod, mp3s, and Apple ear buds, well, you’ll most likely start to sound small and midrangey when you pick up your instrument and play. THAT will be the sound that you have buried in your brain.

The rear tonearm is for stereo, and the grey tonearm on the right is used for mono LPs.

My baby

STAY CALM AND CARRY ON. This does NOT mean that you have to run out and spend $10,000 on a stereo to get a good sound!! I’ll recommend a handful of super-burget friendly and great sounding gear for your listening enjoyment. Remember, the important thing is sitting down in front of your stereo and listening, not collecting gear. We are shooting for acceptable sound quality, not super rare audiophile “sell your house” components (though I’ll talk a little about that as well 😉