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The Good Listener: When You Hear Music, Are You Really Listening?

Jan 24, 2013

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We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the reminders that interest rates have never been lower is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how our love of music competes with the gnat-like attention spans of modern humanity.

Mimi Epstein writes: "You have to listen to and critique a huge amount of new music. What do you do while listening? Is it background noise? Are you giving it your full attention? What's your recommended way to really listen?"

There are almost as many answers to your core question — "How should people listen to music?" — as there are music listeners. But part of my job is to cast around for discoveries, to dig through an impossibly gigantic heap of new music in search of songs that animate and excite me, and that takes a certain measure of concentration.

It's perfectly reasonable to throw a gigantic iTunes playlist on shuffle and see what breaks through enough to enter my field of consciousness, and to assume that the great stuff will flick me behind the ear and announce itself. But it's incredibly rare for me to find songs I love without actively looking for them. Passive listening is fine when I'm trying to drown out Bob Boilen's gong and get some work done. Active listening, and engaging with the work at hand, is how I'm able to wrap my head around a piece of music enough to write about it.

As for recommended ways to listen, I'm eager to pull out new music in any context that calls for mindlessness in solitude. For me, this usually means commuting, which in my case generally means driving; my minivan has 160,000 miles on it, and I often joke that I'll never bother to replace it until the CD player gives out. For others, it can mean long walks, exercise, doing the dishes ... heck, I often wear headphones at my neighborhood grocery store, where automated checkout generally means I never once interact with another human being.

Finally, when I'm judging whether or not I like a piece of music — or deciding what to write when inspired to do so — it's difficult for me to comfortably experience a new song in the company of other people who aren't my kids. (And even they inevitably interject with their opinions; my 8-year-old daughter once piped up from the backseat to announce that Sufjan Stevens' holiday song "Ding-a-Ling-a-Ring-a-Ling" is "the most annoying song anyone has ever written.") I most trust my own opinions about music when they're not influenced by the judgment of others.

Darrell Ford writes: "How does one prepare an interesting soundtrack that doesn't overpower conversation for a small (four to eight guests) dinner party?"

Before I get to the tone you're trying to set, let's start with volume: The surest way to overpower conversations, whether you're a dinner-party host or a bar, is to blare whatever you're playing at a level loud enough to rattle fillings. As someone who invests a lot of personal vanity into song selections — "Love my music, love me!" — I have to remind myself that guests aren't a focus group chosen in the hopes that they'll validate my handpicked playlist. Whatever you play, play it loud enough to be heard, but not louder than any given non-secret conversation.

Rather than fussing over trying to sequence a perfect playlist, I recommend simply selecting an album that suits the occasion. My go-to picks for dinner-party soundtracks — and here's where I admit that I only throw one dinner party per year, and it features a fried-chicken-eating contest in lieu of music — are albums that I love in their entirety, but aren't overly familiar to any given person present. The Best of Chet Baker Sings, Shuggie Otis' Inspiration Inspiration (which is about to get a deluxe reissue), or just about anything by Edith Piaf ought to work great, with the added bonus of making you sound like the sort of suave sophisticate who listens to that sort of thing.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

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