Getting more out of music

June 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm (Editorials) (, )

For me, there are lots of different types of songs. Songs that I can have on repeat day after day. Songs I can only listen to in certain moods. Songs that I overplay. Songs I would never listen to, given the choice. Any given album will come with all of these songs, and you have to deal with the good and the bad. First impressions are often the deciding factor, but they’re often deceptive. I’ve assembled a few points here that I thought were important in getting the most out of all of the songs on any album that I get, physical or otherwise.

1) Listen to the entire album in order.

It really is far too easy for us to pick favourites from an album and just brush off the rest. These tracks are probably the songs that fuelled our wanting the album, and likely were released as singles so we’re more familiar with them. The thing is, not every album is jam-packed with catchy singles from front to back. If it did, it’s because it’s a compilation album. Singles are chosen for promotional reasons, and likely have a strong hook to catch radio listeners. But a strong hook is not what makes a good song, much less a good album. Album tracks and interludes are just as important in making a solid album, and their status should not make us perceive them as any less than a single track. Interludes play crucial roles in setting moods and atmosphere, and album tracks are simply the tracks that are less radio-friendly. When put together in an album, they together move through a pseudo-narrative of sorts that bring a listener to a variety of scenes or imagery, something not easily achieved by a single track alone. Utada Hikaru’s First Love is not fully appreciated by the common Hikki fan, due in large to the fact that people look at it and see it only for “Automatic” and “First Love”. The rest of the songs sound boring to them. I was definitely one of these people until I decided to listen to the entire album start to finish. There is a reason that it is the top selling album of all-time in Japan, and that is it. Everything in it works really well to be a cohesive album that moves smoothly from one track to the next.

 2) Turn it up / Put everything down

A lot of people like to listen to music passively; perhaps while they do homework or cook or surf the web. But when you do this, you’re not getting nearly as much out of the music as you may think. I’ve grown up in a generation where everybody thinks they are capable of multitasking, but it’s an illusion. For me when I listen to music while engaged in something else, at most my brain will register the main vocals, the beat, and the lead instrument (sometimes. Most of the time I can’t even recall what I just listened to). This leaves out many of the more intricate parts of tracks, like underlying bass, background strings, synths, background vocals, etc. They’re all part of the song, and together they make the song work. It isn’t just the main melody or the beats that make a song. At the very least on the first few listens of the album, I try to give it as much attention as I can. You’d be quite amazed at how much of a song can go by without you noticing when you don’t know it’s coming. And don’t be afraid to turn it up, so you can hear all these juicy bits.

 3) Engage yourself

In Daniel Tammet’s Embracing a Wide Sky, he speaks briefly about what the cerebellum (a part of the brain that mostly governs motion) does while you listen to music. Essentially, it tries to guess the next beat in the song, and feels good when it does right. Not that I’m a psychologist, but I can imagine this would be part of the reason people tap their feet to a beat. It feels good. But it doesn’t need to stop there. Learn the lyrics, sing along, air guitar, or whatever. It really helps give a new dimension to the song, and it helps you appreciate things that you only get out of being part of the song. There are plenty of songs that I don’t really understand, and I never look up the translations for them, but when I sing along to them, it becomes an intense emotional trip. Although, I might only recommend you do this when you’re alone and the door is shut.

4) Make short playlists

I know a lot of people (myself included) who categorize their music by means of inordinately large playlists. That’s fine, but don’t use them too regularly. Why? Because chances are you spend all your time on them, and you make choices based on your “mood” and whatnot. The thing is, not every track gets categorized, and so a lot get left behind. As well, that’s not really the point of a playlist. If I make playlists, I keep them short and put the same thought into it as producers do when considering album flow. This also works for when I don’t like a particular album flow. After all, the producers are only human. Rearrange the album myself, and throw in tracks that I might feel fit better.

5) Watch live performances / music videos

They’re there for a reason. Especially with my limited Japanese, it is often tough to get into the songs that are more subtly emotional and appealing. But in music videos and live performances, I can more easily appreciate the atmosphere of the song, and it of course gives me something to imagine when I listen to the song. A good example of this is Onitsuka Chihiro’s “call”, which seems like a light and airy track but in reality deals with a lot of pain and longing. Watching her sing live really shows the contrast between sound ad subject matter, and transforms a fairly simple boring track into one with a lot of emotional depth.

6) Revisit / Give it time

This may seem obvious, but it tends to be overlooked I think. A lot of songs are grower songs, and that is simply their nature. But I think in the end these songs tend to have a better lasting appeal and are harder to overplay. Onitsuka Chihiro’s “everyhome” is a good example of this. The melody and song structure is not run-of-the-mill by any means, but once I had familiarized myself with it (and that took a LONG time), it became one of my favourite tracks. I understand now why many critics call it a timeless track. I can’t imagine ever tiring of it at this point, but I wouldn’t have reached this point had I dismissed it early on (and I definitely wanted to).

7) Buy music

Especially physical copies, as much as they might take up space. Actually, it’s hard to say this outright because there are a lot of psychological intricacies about justifications and how they affect perceptions. But generally (very generally), you’re more likely to enjoy something if you pay for it. For psychological reasons, not the obvious “well you’re stuck with it so you try to make the best of it”. Not that that isn’t a valid reason either. But this point is more important for

8) Use a CD player

With iPods and media libraries, the usage of traditional CD players and walkman’s have gone down drastically, as can be expected. Maybe it’s just a psychological thing too, but there is something quite magical about popping in that CD and turning up the speakers. Sadly, this only works if you have physical copies (but I guess you could always burn the music. Dunno if that has the same effect). It can be a bit unwieldy at times what with space and storage, but your parents did it. So can we.

9) Make a playlist for all of your unfamiliar songs

Helps more when you have a preexisting library of songs that are unfamiliar and in a sense take up a lot of room. Just throw them all there and give it a listen every now and then. Take out songs once you are familiar enough with them. Alternatively, just put your entire library on shuffle for a day. Good way to bring back old neglected memories.

10) Talk about it

I find that sharing opinion tends to help renew interest or shift it to something new, or at the very least open up your perspectives. You can do this by joining a forum or even just reading reviews. I personally am on JPop central, but find one for yourself that works. I know how hard it is to find people in real life who also listen to J-Pop…

Obviously this is not a sure-fire list of points that will get you to enjoy all of your music. There are a lot of songs that I simply don’t like and will probably never warm up to, and it’s a matter of taste. I have recognized though many great songs that I almost missed, and these methods helped me discover them. Give it a try, let me know what you get. Hope I didn’t sound patronizing.

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