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Have A Listen

Have A Listen

I have a background in performing, recording, teaching, and writing music. To be fair, there's a reason why it's my background, not my present. Several of those around me call me an audiophile, and come to me with music-related questions, whether they be about the quality, science, or whatever of it. I am by no means the top source on music, or art, or anything, really, but I do know a bit about it, and have thought through this idea over and over again.

Well, Kenneth, since you're apparently so knowledgable (I hope none of that oozing sarcasm got on your shoes), what is music? How do you define it? To quote my music professor from many years ago, "Music is sound through a medium." Okay, that sounds good and technical, right? It does until you realize the car alarm that went off at 3am outside your window is covered under that definition, as is the baby crying in the pew behind you at church, as is your roommate's annoying laugh, as is the construction taking place outside your office...

You'd define each of those as music, right? I don't mean to say that those sounds can't be musical, or that beauty can't be found in such sound. But I don't think many would argue that this is not what comes to mind when one thinks "what is music?"

My copy of Webster's dictionary (yes, I still use a paper copy) defines music as "sound played through instruments or singing." Okay, this is a little more specific. I can dig it. We may be able to say this is better than the first definition. However, it still leaves out a very important part of music's aura. I would add to the the last definition that music is made with a purpose. Music is three things by nature: creative, intentional, and compositional. Whether you agree with this or not, humor me.

Music is also created for one or more of these four purposes: entertainment; to be the expressive outlet for thoughts and emotions; to typify and encompass key characteristics of a particular genre; and in certain contexts, for production qualities or values. I would go so far as to say the world's best music - across the board, not every single piece - is a combination of all four of these purposes. Though, there certainly is not an exact science to combining them. None of these purposes is more "valid" than the next, nor is any particular genre inherently better than another.

(And cue the debate on pop sucks, metal is stupid, classical is the best, jazz has the most soul, R&B is for old folks, bring back hair metal, country down to my roots, techno is annoying - just stop it.)

So what exactly makes music good? We haven't even talked about technical skill and artistry, or how well it sells. Obviously this is going to be a subjective answer, and my reasoning for not using entertainment and musicianship qualities is because if you don't have both you're not going anywhere anyway.

Two things first: 1.) every genre has members that represent it well, and members that don't; 2.) there's nothing wrong with music created purely for the purpose of selling records. Music doesn't have to be deep and inspirational to be good, and clearly not to sell.

Take a 1-4-5 pattern at 126 bpm for 3:30, a secondary dominant for the bridge, some type of vamp, and a four note riff; put it with a large label and BOOM. Platinum. Is this a compositional masterpiece? Not even close. I'm fairly certain all the great composers of the last few centuries roll over in their graves each time the next top-40 hit comes out. But, these songs do what they're meant to - entertain and make money. Of course this is all exaggerated, but you get my point. However, this is actually great for those in charge of pushing the music, and if nothing else it allows room in the market for the intellectuals to shine through.

Without going into the psychobiology of it, there's typically enough stimulation in my daily life that I tend to shy away from listening to upbeat music made to sell records. Nothing's wrong with it, I appreciate it, and on a boring day I'm all over it. But it's not my preference. I also don't have a habit of listening to music for it's fast-paced effects. Most often I listen to music for the enveloping experience it gives me.

This experience relies largely on the production quality, and listening to a piece in the way it was originally intended to be experienced. As pretentious as it may sound, I can't listen to something on $25 headphones or in a Honda and be happy about it. Others can, and I'm envious of their condition. As for me, that doesn't float. I don't have the top audio gear by any means, but I've acquired enough over the years to get the job done (thanks, Dad).

To give examples of the type of experiences I mean, I'm referring to songs with high production and instrumental tone qualities (vocals are instruments, too) that do well to convey a certain emotion throughout the duration of the track, while also demonstrating creative thought took place during the construction of the piece - relative to its own genre.  While I've studied every major genre and reasoning for creating a certain style, this is the type of music I feel should be listened to with the goal of improving the conscious state. Basically, songs that make one feel as if they're somehow in the middle, completely surrounded by the sound.

Other than composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim, modern artists who I view as regularly accomplishing this are:  John Mayer, Explosions in the Sky, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Florence & the Machine, Zac Brown Band, Justin Timberlake, Ellie Goulding, Alt-J, Mumford & Sons, Of Mice & Men, Macklemore, Fall Out Boy, Usher, Opeth, Snow Patrol, 30 Seconds to Mars, Dream Theater, Evergrey, Bone Thugs 'N' Harmony, Yellow Claw, Eminem, and Adele, among a multitude of others.

Obviously, the particular type of experience differs between genre. As a whole, those mixed in the sub genres of metal, rap, and electronic typically do not show this effect over the course of many singles and albums. Though, there are hundreds of hardcore, progressive metal, trap, hip-hop, house, electro-trap, dub step, and ambiance pieces that, for lack of a more technical phrase, just make ya feel good!

Notice all the descriptions in here are still rather vague guidelines, and I think that's appropriate. It's difficult to put an exact label on something with so much variety. This vagueness also allows for artists like Pogo to take sound samples of movies and daily activities and turn them into enjoyable listening experiences. Music has many purposes, and those purposes likely differ depending on who you ask. I've said those purposes are entertainment, emotional or thoughtful expression, to present key characteristics of a particular genre, and for production quality (or rather the shear experience of sound).

There's nothing wrong with making music for the sole purpose of selling records, much as the underground folks would disagree. And while I firmly believe that the best music that stands the test of time has a healthy combination of all four of the purposes listed above, I personally focus on and listen to music for the shear experience of sound.

I guess I'm a live-in-the-present kind of guy, or something like that. Sound is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Sound is like oxygen! Sound is a many splendored thing! Sound lifts us up where we belong! All you need is sound! To the four Moulin Rouge fans reading this, you're welcome. But in all seriousness, as regards the musical experience, I want to feel it in my very soul. Whether it be a blues-jazz fusion guitar melting my heart, a modified electronic beat drop perforating my chest, an island sound making me dream of sitting on the dock of the bay, or a rhythm and blues harmony sailing away with my spirit, I want to listen to music for the feeling it creates. In order for this to happen, one has to first make the decision to listen to music for this reason, and then that person must be open and vulnerable to allow an outside source to change their emotional state. I encourage you, be vulnerable. Tear down your walls!

Truthfully, I think we both want the same thing, or at least like the idea of it. I may be wrong. Maybe you just need a good 4/4 beat to keep you going throughout your day or a country twang to lighten your mood. There's nothing wrong with that.  But let me make a suggestion. Invest in a high quality set of speakers or headphones (no, Beats by Dre do not count), or keep it cheap and borrow someone else's.

Find a few songs that you know you already have an emotional connection to, and block everything else out with the sound of your favorites tunes through audio equipment producers might use to help them create the master track. I think you'll be amazed at how much of an experience can be lost between production of the master tracks and your iPod speakers. And I think you'll really enjoy that you got some of it back.

Music is entertainment, and can be so much more. I firmly believe that music as it is often meant to be heard can engross a person within a particular experience, and that if you allow yourself to be engrossed, you'll feel much better for it.