How to Listen to Music

Enjoy Music More Through Active Listening

            Radio was my childhood's primary music medium. That wooden Zenith console tube receiver in our living room during my grade-school years frequently mixed music into our lives, along with babies crying, the sound of Mom's pressure cooker, and Tommy -- my chatty green and yellow parakeet who would land on the edge of my cereal bowl for a drink of milk. At any moment, any genre from pop to jazz to classical could be spicing up our ambience. We always had music going in our chaotic home.

            After growing up in such a musically-rich environment, I easily chose an elective course titled "Music Appreciation" in my Freshman college year to get a break from all the math, chemistry, and other technical matter. The instructor resembled Captain Kangaroo, the emcee of an early children's television series. He had that same look, with the bushy mustache, Navy blue sport coat with piping on the pockets, portly profile, and unkempt gray hair. I'll refer to him as "KC."

            This Musicologist would arrive in the classroom precisely 5 minutes late, and silently set up his portable phonograph on the desk while completely ignoring us students. With its stereo speakers detached, it looked like a tan, antique suitcase. When all was prepared, he would spin an LP record, unannounced. After a single cut, KC would stop the platter and turn to greet us and begin his lecture.

            What KC taught us in those classes was how to listen to music rather than simply hear it. The difference, he explained, lies in practicing a specific method to help understand the musical structures and to discern and savor the details and musical skills that define a given performance. He also helped us understand how social and cultural music is, by its very nature.

            KC occasionally twirled the ends of his mustache as he paced the room. He presented a survey of American musical history from it's roots in Africa, Ireland, and other origins, up until that mid-1960's era when I took his class. This new knowledge gave us some handles by which we could grasp our musical experience, both intellectually and emotionally. I soon realized I had never really listened to music and I didn't really know what it was all about, quite yet.

            That Music Appreciation course worked a spell in me as I moved from passive to active listening. I began to know and understand what I was hearing. Music came alive for me more than ever before. KC's course marked my entry into musical adulthood. With practice, my new listening skills evolved from awkward application of unfamiliar rules, to an unconscious and effortless perception. Ever afterwards, I experienced music at a far greater depth. I woke up to music in a whole new way and began to fully perceive the vibrant life of emotion it carries outward from gifted performers into our greater culture.

            This watershed learning experience ignited my Hi-Fi audio fascination. Though my future career unfolded technically, my life became permeated with music, the love of listening, and a succession of audio systems that grew smaller, yet sounded ever better, as the years passed.

            KC shared some key concepts and taught us how to use them to good advantage. He called this particular skill simply "active listening." As the music started, we were to engage our perception in a systematic way, attending to five defining musical attributes consciously, one at a time. It was a little like learning to spin plates on sticks like a Chinese juggler and to keep them all spinning. Once we had them all active, the idea was to keep them active for as long as we could. We would listen to the same selection until all plates spun for most of us throughout.

            With some practice, the perceptual juggling became like riding a bicycle -- automatic and unconscious. Then the intent of the composer and performers was being truly realized as the messages in the music crossed time and space to be heard yet again in a new audience. That magic of musical communication was performed with ease, clarity and accuracy that grew with each listening session that KC liberally commented.

            At first, active listening took effort but it was worthwhile because we became enhanced receivers of the gift that music bears. As my class grew in knowledge and skill, we also learned about a music that is uniquely American, a whole new set of genres that came about through the melting pot effect that shaped all else in our culture, including Jazz and Rock.

            This writing is meant to share ideas and skills that KC endowed us with. It's my tribute to his genius, sensibility, and generosity and to Musicology in general. It also celebrates the pure joy of music that each of us gains by learning to listen attentively and developing that "ride a bike" fluency in musical perception. With some pointers, you can achieve this readily if you're willing to practice it. Not all of us have performance talent but given functional­ hearing, we're all able to learn active listening. What would music be without a receptive audience to enjoy it?


            An analogy to chemistry is helpful in understanding music listening. Most of the universe comprises pure elements, compounds of those atoms, and mixtures of compounds, according to basic chemistry. Elemental atoms join together into the molecules of compounds. Then compounds can be combined into mixtures, some of which are materials that make up everything around us. Elements and compounds can be recombined in new ways, leading to other compounds and to mixtures, and distinctly different, useful materials. So it goes with music. Simpler, little stuff combines and re-combines, creating bigger, more complex stuff.

            All music, no matter what style, or what culture it originates from, comprises the same set of "elemental particles," or musical attributes. These five elements interact in a given piece to create its characteristic signature, identity and personality. They are melody, tempo, rhythm, harmony, and timbres.

  • Melody -- this easiest-to-recognize attribute is the set of tones that occur in a signature sequence. If you want to identify "The Star Spangled Banner," you might hum a couple bars of the melody to illustrate it.
  • Tempo -- is the fundamental timing element of music. This "beat" is the basic rate at which a piece of music is played. This is often carried by percussion instruments. A dirge has a slow, unvaried, monotonous tempo and it's rhythm is quite regular.
  • Rhythm -- The tempo may vary in some regular way, such as having sequential emphasis on some of the notes or some of the beats may be skipped. Thus we distinguish a waltz from a lullaby or recognize syncopation in a jazz piece from other rhythms.
  • Harmony -- musical chords are units of harmony, the simultaneous playing of multiple compatible notes or interlaced melodies that may intuitively sound unified, mutually reinforcing, and aesthetically pleasing.
  • Timbre -- is the a characteristic tonality or "voice" that differs between the same notes played on one instrument versus another, say on an electric guitar as compared to a classical guitar or a lute. Timbres distinguish a clarinet from an oboe. Timbres can express various emotions or moods in voices and instruments alike. Vocal timbres made Sinatra sound like Sinatra.

            Defining these few essential attributes enables us to discover, describe, and distinguish different compositions or different performances of a given composition. Listening to well-known pieces, you can and pick out and describe these elements within them, one by one. You can break down any piece of music into these five elements that help define it.

            Music seems to be an innate ability in humans. Even infants learning to talk already know something about singing.  Every advanced culture evolves a body of music with the same five elements. Yet each tradition can sound quite different from most others. We can easily distinguish Nordic folk songs from Irish tunes or West African pop. What makes Chinese music sound "Chinese" is in these elements and their specific character and proportions.

            Music lives in our very bones yet it may need to be awakened. A music lover develops listening skill by analytically attending to each of these attributes. Listen to Melody, then Tempo and Rhythm, then Harmony, then Timbres, and also switch around between them randomly. Look for variation. Then you can add them together, one by one, until all five become conscious at once while you listen to anygiven composition. This is active, or analytic, listening.

            You can stop listening analytically any time it feels tedious and simply enjoy the music. But an interesting novelty soon becomes apparent. You begin to hear music more fully and enjoy your listening more, even when you're not working at it.

            After some practice, discerning the elements eventually becomes automatic and unconscious. Then, while listening, the trained brain discerns and enjoy the interplay of these elements as they unfold, without especially trying. Learn this listening skill, and you move forward significantly with music appreciation. Gaining this skill is an obvious advancement. It simply makes music listening a richer experience. To become skilled in active listening is to become a virtuoso listener.


            Active listening equips us with conceptual language to describe, distinguish and compare various pieces, or recordings, and also audio systems. The pace that one orchestra director uses for a given symphony may distinguish a particular recording from all others we might select as a favorite performance. We can describe the saxophone timbres that Stan Getz commanded and artfully applied to evoke moods in his performances and this can be a basis for a preference. We can distinguish what makes Balinese music sound so exotic to American ears.  We can express why we prefer one audio component, performer, or recording, as compared to another.

            Listening discernment empowers music lovers to also become audio lovers and to enhance quality of music reproduction in their spaces. Once you collect a given set of musical pieces that give your audio system a good workout, that set becomes a useful reference tool for comparing audio components. These days, you can carry that music around with you from one audio boutique to another as you shop by listening analytically.

            If you also attend enough live performances, you become skilled in recognizing the degree of convergence or divergence between live pieces and recorded versions played back through a given component or audio configuration. How much coloration is there compared to listening to the music as-performed? How would you describe the difference in terms of the Five Elements? How does one venue sound as compared to another? What furniture makes your system sound better? And so on.


            For audio lovers, there's advantage in developing deep listening skills -- you can enjoy music reproduction more than ever before. Assuming good auditory health, once you have developed sufficient listening skills, you will no longer feel much need to seek others' opinions on components or recordings. You'll be equipped to handle such distinctions independently, and your  decisions about audio systems, components, and recordings can then be based on the authority of your own expert perceptions and tastes. You become freed from audio-babble and sales flim-flam because you'll know what sounds better as well as how, and even why.

            This is how professionals operate in the audio business. An ounce of informed, attentive listening is worth more than tons of egoistic, opinionated, rightness-addicted bickering in online forums. It's an open question, philosophically, whether any two people ever really hear music "the same," anyway. To become an audio lover as well as a music lover, application of analytic, active listening skill is the key.

            If the ideal of Hi-Fi audio is to hear music as it sounds in real life, the degree of match we can hear through a component, recording, or system becomes our audio quality benchmark. The final conclusion is this -- to become a true Hi-Fi aficionado, you must learn analytic listening. Without it, you're lost in a sea of music lacking any compass. You also lack sufficient confidence to adequately direct your audio system decisions so you're an easy mark.

            We naturally prefer audio gear and recordings that sound good to our trained ears when they meet our informed preferences. Cultivate your listening skill with care and awareness and music will reward your every effort. So will your music playback systems. And your audio budget will become be spent.

DACs Rock

early Edison phonograph. image: pixabay, public domain

Physical media has enjoyed a 140-year run since Edison invented the phonograph. In technology time, that's an eternity. The audio industry has been way past due for useful innovation.

Millennials lately became the majority market segment. They want to do everything with their smartphones including listening to music. Many Boomers also have also been caught up in phone addiction. However we listen, people naturally prefer music that sounds realistic over music that doesn't, assuming they love music and have convenient access to high fidelity.

Digital technology swept into the sleepy audio market like a tidal wave. Rather suddenly, plastic media became as obsolete as a grandfather clock. So did the "front end" analog source sections that play them, no matter how costly, grandiose, and precision the mechanics may be. Hard media have been all about protecting IP rights ever since digital mastering gained dominance.

Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs) partly satisfy that need for technology update. They make that obsolete analog source section of an older audio system expendable by seamlessly marrying a common home computer, a smartphone, or a tablet, to any audio system's amplification and speakers. But be sure to verify a source device you may consider has compatible connectivity. Some major brands (Android) support music well, while others purposely corral you into a specific music distribution scheme that may not even stream Hi-Fi music yet (Apple). 

Clearly, all DACs are not created equal. But the DAC function makes higher-fidelity music far more accessible. With greater realism, music listening becomes more enjoyable. Digital sourcing from online streaming sites tremendously broadens one's available music catalog. Some now enable 16-bit resolution easily and cheaply (TIDAL and Qobuz.) Streaming at 24-bit resolution is waiting in the wings and 24-bit files can already be saved locally and savored later, offline.

Now that streaming media are so good and so affordable, so should audio systems be. This is a predictable consumer inference. Indeed, a high-value DAC can reasonably only cost a few hundred dollars any more. Above that amount, cost exceeds a point of rapidly diminishing returns and becomes difficult to justify. A $30,000 DAC is just right for someone whose Rolls Royce has solid gold wheels. Note that is one customer.

Many new audio component types have appeared since digital audio started gaining precedence. Some are more worthy than others. Listeners may struggle to sort them out and decide what they want. Confusing or misdirecting marketing messages don't help. They simply raise suspicions. But there's hope for navigating this landscape well.

The best musical results have always followed choosing components that play well together in a system and that each support authentic music superbly for an affordable cost. This mantra survives the digital tidal wave. We can trust it. When you find a component that verifies its superb features and specs as you listen, you're onto a winner. Trust, but verify by ear.

The music we love is the sound track for our lives.

-- Joseph Riden


D2 DAC available on, an authorized Audioengine Dealer. Wireless DLNA Wi-Fi connection, optical converter / link. Play music conveniently from your laptop from anywhere in the room or house at up to 24/192 resolution. $399. All you need to set up is included.

D2 DAC available on, an authorized Audioengine Dealer. Wireless DLNA Wi-Fi connection, optical converter / link. Play music conveniently from your laptop from anywhere in the room or house at up to 24/192 resolution. $399. All you need to set up is included.


How Is an Audio Component Like a Pet Door?

A great product is its own best marketing. A simple description is all we need to hear. Image: Balcony Pets

A great product is its own best marketing. A simple description is all we need to hear.

Image: Balcony Pets

In my previous post, I emphasized how any product is its own best marketing and how a simple disclosure of the facts tells you what you need to know. The following example from an unrelated industry illustrates how a great product markets itself better than any ad.

An exceptional woman friend of mine recently achieved something that Seth Godin considers virtually impossible in a recent blog post. She invented an entirely new product type that deeply satisfies an unserved need in a hot market. It resolves an issue that annoys millions of pet owners worldwide. And it grabbed big traction quickly when offered on Amazon.

Trust me briefly and I'll show how this is relevant to audio shortly.

Folks who have one or more cats or dogs, and who live in any sort of rental, anticipate relief when they discover Nancy Carson's Apartment Pet Door™. Their first reaction is predictably recognition, as in, "My cat (or dog) wants to go in and out constantly. This annoys me. This new pet door invention resolves my issue instantly for a low cost." Their second thought is usually, "Why hasn't someone offered this product before?" And typically, next comes, "Why didn't I think of this?"

This product brings instant gratification to pet owners who rent. The door is affordable at around $145. It drops into a typical sliding glass door setup in a couple minutes. No tools, skills, or modifications to a landlord's property are required. It's lightweight, adjustable to fit any height patio slider door, and portable. There's even an optional carry bag so you can take it along when you move or travel with your pet. And this door's styling looks like it belongs in a glass slider opening. 

When a pet owner rents their dwelling, and they have been living the life of a doorman, or leaving the slider open, they read the simple description and their interest is piqued. No extreme adjectives or adverbs are required. Plain English tells the story because the value is inherent in the product. It's easy to see why the Apartment Pet Door sells faster than Balcony Pets can make them. The backlog is being filled as Nancy brings up large scale production to meet the pace of sales. In other words, it's a hit.

What audio product vendor would not want that kind of response to a new product introduction? The way to create a suction-like audio market response is to satisfy Music Lovers' pressing needs and wants in a way they instantly realize they simply can't pass up. To do that, mix marketing magic into the very bones of a product by giving it features and functions that neatly satisfy customers.

Audio companies can discover design magic by listening receptively to Music Lovers and putting their needs first. To discover self-marketing products, they can let go of lucrative past strategies like offering snobby products to audio snobs, who are a dying breed. They must make products that New Music Lovers greet with delight. Then, if they simply provide the details, no sales pitch is necessary. Calling up secondary motives to push sales figures would simply arouse suspicion where trust should be earned and fostered. Don't even think about snob appeal. Superb audio is for everyone, not only the rich.

The DAC is long since invented. Streaming is going high-res . . .

Audio Industry, what else you got?

The music we love is the sound track for our lives. Make it the best it can be.

-- Joseph Riden