How to listen to everything

3rd April 2016 | Musings | 2 comments

I’m reading Ben Ratliff’s ‘Every Song Ever’, an intriguing guide to how to get the most out of the huge range of recorded music now freely available.

If I understand him correctly, he feels that there has been a shift from ‘the composer’ to ‘the listener’ at the top of the musical pyramid. Perhaps this is a similar shift to that put forward by literary theorists some years ago when they proposed that ‘the reader’, not the author, was the prime activist in the reading experience. This seemed to go hand in hand with authors agreeing that when the book left their hands, it took on a life of its own and was no longer ‘theirs’.

Now, because there are such vast swathes of music available for free, and because people have got used to dipping in and out of them, compiling extensive libraries of recorded music from cultures and countries across the world, the person with real power – even creative power – is the listener. They can listen how, when, where, as loudly or softly, as often and with whatever context they like. Of course nobody is trained in how to listen to all the world’s musics, so it makes sense to develop an open-minded way of listening and appreciating that can be applied to any kind of music.

I’m with Ben Ratliff so far. But as a trained classical musician I can’t help blanching when I read on p8 that ‘….understanding Beethoven’s or Bach’s use of melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color and compositional structure might have taught you how to listen well in 1939, when Aaron Copland published his popular book ‘What to Listen for in Music’. … It was an ideal of listening according to an imagined sense of what the composer would have wanted you to understand. But Beethoven and Bach, even combined – and great as they still are – do not prepare or condition you for the range of music that in 2015 is already, or could already be, part of your consciousness.’

I confess that my working life not only was, but still is guided by ‘an imagined sense of what the composer would have wanted me to understand’. I remember once, in a masterclass with György Sebök, asking him if it was ok to ‘make my own sense of’ late Beethoven – for example, by underplaying his extreme contrasts of soft and loud – if I didn’t understand what he was getting at. Sebök replied that by imposing my own limited understanding on Beethoven’s music I might prevent its full meaning from reaching the listener. I accepted this warning, and indeed as time went by I found that there was more to Beethoven’s music than I had been able to grasp as a student.

But according to this new way of placing the listener centre stage, the meaning that the listener derives from any sort of music is the whole point of the exercise. It’s hard to argue against that conclusion. And undoubtedly you can train yourself to listen so closely that any expressive effect – or even lack of expression – becomes interesting. Then it doesn’t matter what sort of music you listen to, because each is as potentially valuable as the next. Nothing has more inherent meaning than anything else. You can get whatever you choose out of anything.

Yet for me, there are limits to the ‘everything is interesting’ approach. I feel it’s also important to acknowledge that some music is more complex, reaches further, elicits a more profound emotional or intellectual response than other kinds. Maybe all music is interesting and enjoyable in its own way – but we need to know how to listen with discrimination, so that we don’t lose touch with exceptional value.


  1. Clare Simmonds

    I’ve now got to page 49 of ‘Every Song Ever’ since alighting on it randomly in a New York bookshop last week. I was really astonished to find, when visiting your blog by chance, that you were reading it too! I had the same reaction to page 8. However, I find some of his ideas thought-provoking. I am preparing a self-reflective essay on the need and use of improvisation, which from my experience, depends so much on acute listening. I agree with your point about the problems with ‘everything is interesting’. Yet at least Ben Ratcliff highlights the importance of association, recognition and trust, alongside a strategy of openness. In my own performances I am always surprised by how much alleged non-musicians (especially artists, strangely!) enthuse (more so than seasoned music-lovers) about music they hear that isn’t in a conventional Western language, eg Scelsi. I will read further!

  2. James B

    Music with ‘exceptional value.’ What a wonderful way of putting it!

    I can’t help but be uplifted by this statement and I almost do not want to reply to this post because I really cannot add anything. But I’d like to say that I was recently in Berlin for a concert and I arrived at the Philharmonie Hall a bit early so I decided to tour the museum of musical instruments. There are many instruments which you can listen to on the audioguide (free). One of them was Carl Maria Von Weber’s piano (an early 19th century instrument) and the piece performed was Schubert’s B flat Sonata (the wonderful final one). The sound was so utterly different to what I’m used to hearing, there were so many overtones and each register had its own character. I truly felt that I was listening to music of exceptional value.

    It made me feel, firmly, that music of such ‘exceptional value’ will not fade, as long as humans are humans. It made me feel that there is hope for the future, even amidst so many tragic stories which we read about everyday, because music represents such a greater (deeper) meaning to life when it has value.

    PS The concert was Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim performing Debussy and Bartok, but I was most uplifted by the marvellous Rachmaninoff encore, the Valse from his second suite for two pianos.


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