Listening Through

Does anybody else do this?

I’ll be listening to a piece of music, something I’ve heard plenty of times before — frequently it’s a track from some film score, though other kinds of music can do it, too. Then suddenly, my ears shift focus, in much the same way I imagine those “magic eye” pictures resolve from meaningless noise into meaningful shapes (I actually can’t see those worth a damn). I find myself listening through the music to a layer I never noticed before.

I don’t know if that makes any sense. It would be easier to explain in person; I would put a piece of music on and wave a hand in the air to illustrate which harmonic line I’ve switched focus to. (It’s always a harmony; the melody is what I’m listening past.) Not infrequently it’s something the bass elements are doing, because they more often provide the foundation or embroidery to the melody in the treble — but sometimes it’s a high counterpoint I never really noticed before, or something in the middle registers that was somehow tucked away inside all the other things I’d heard before.

(I sometimes wonder if the way my brain processes music qualifies as synaesthesia. I often conceive of it in spatial or kinetic terms, and I was annoyed when I found out that “texture” didn’t mean what I wanted it to, musically speaking. Individual sounds have texture, goddammit, although it isn’t the same as the texture I feel with my fingertips. I guess I mean “timbre,” but my brain insists that no, if it mean timbre it would say timbre, and what it said was texture.)

In other words, I shift my attention to an instrument or line I hadn’t noticed before — but it really feels like I’m listening through to it. As if the rest of the instrumentation was the reflection on a glass window, and I just now managed to look past that into what lies behind the glass. It just happened to me a moment ago, sparking this post — “Pageant,” from the Cirque du Soleil show , for anybody who’s curious; there’s a bass counterpoint that suddenly leapt out at me — and if you can do the trick, Michael Kamen’s score for Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves is a lovely, lovely thing to listen to, especially the track “The Abduction and Final Battle at the Gallows.” That’s the first piece that ever refocused for me, and I still love to close my eyes and follow all the different layers as they come in and out.

But yeah. I’m almost certainly not the only one who does this, but I sometimes wonder, and isn’t that what the internets are made for? I’d love to hear how other people experience music in general, whether you process it in terms of other senses or whatever. Tell me I’m not alone in being weird. πŸ™‚

0 Responses to “Listening Through”

  1. joisbishmyoga

    *wanders in from edenfalling’s flist* I’ve done that before, and I’m not even audio-inclined. (“Not audio-inclined” here meaning “can barely parse my own language without visuals”, not “unmusical”.) I always figured it was just something that happened because I was an alto in high school choir. The altos almost always get the hardest-to-hear middle line of the harmony. But the mental shift to hearing harmonies feels an awful lot like the shift that occurs when I finally figure out the lyrics to a song without using a text. Only usually it’s good instead of “oh my god the singer’s saying stuff that trite and stupid?”

    • Marie Brennan

      I suspect the alto thing is relevant, because I chalk it up partly to my years playing French horn (which occupies a similar role). I learned to listen for the horn line in orchestral pieces, which led to listening for buried lines in general.

  2. starlady38

    Oh yeah, all the time. This is one of the things I like about listening to music loudly in cars, because the volume helps me hear things I haven’t noticed before. I blame it on playing in an orchestra for years and years; every piece is a very complex machine with all the parts working together.

    In terms of how I perceive music…hmm. I tend to think of it as a bunch of layers smooshed together, I suppose, though I tend to hear both the whole and whatever particular line I’m paying particular attention to simultaneously. I don’t know, again, I’m sure my perception has been influenced by being a musician, in ways I don’t fully realize myself.

    • Marie Brennan

      I strongly suspect that playing in an ensemble fosters it, yeah. You gain more awareness of the different threads that make up a composition because you get to hear them independently in rehearsal.

  3. Marie Brennan

    Huh — I don’t think I’d call it architecture, but I think that’s because it’s moving in my head. It’s definitely three-dimensional, though. And maybe that counts as synaesthesia.

    • tooth_and_claw

      It absolutely is synethestia, though ill studied. It’s one of the things I did a little research on when I was looking into my own. I agree with what the poster said above about architecture, expect mine moves, like yours does. I also get physical effects from center sounds. goosebumps, like everyone else, and also feeling of being lifted physically or having my stomach drop.

      • Marie Brennan

        I used to think it was just a consequence of being a dancer from a young age — I also get choreography in my head — but I suspect the movement associated with the sound gives rise to the choreography, not the other way around.

  4. jenstclair

    You are not alone. I do the same thing. I can’t think of the last one offhand, however; it’s too early in the morning.

  5. green_knight

    For optimum listening pleasure I reccommend a) good speakers (they will give you a wider range of frequencies) and b) good recordings. The BBC Concert orchestra manages to make the overture to Don Giovanni sound flat and boring, which is a feat – but many recordings by lesser orchestras tend to lack the full-bodiedness of more experieced ensembles and conductors.

    I think it’s a lot like writing – some decent writers will give you one line of thought to follow, skimming over the surfact – while others will give you depth and undercurrents and every time you read their book there’s something new in it.

    Comparing different recordings of the same piece will often bring out a lot of qualities that you might not have guessed were in it. I particularly like Leonard Bernstein as a conductor – I don’t always _like_ his interpretations, but he brings unique visions to things.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oddly, I seem to do it more with film scores than actual classical music — but that may just be because I listen to so many of them.

  6. mastadge

    This happens pretty frequently, both with concert music and film scores.

    Sometimes there’s another step, too: often when I first play a new piece of music, it’ll just be noise to me, and I won’t much like it at all. But after I wait a few days or weeks or months, if I play it again, my mind in the interim will have figured out the shape of the piece and it will have magically gone from a noisy jumble to a piece of music that has a structure that makes sense to me.

    As for the listening through, that happens too. Often, of course, once I have listened through to something new, I become fixated on that level and have difficulty focusing on the elements that used to define the piece, if that makes sense. There are some cues that have moments that would blow me away when I got to them . . . and then if I happen to listen through, I may have difficulty even noticing those moments anymore unless I’m specifically listening for them.

    • Marie Brennan

      E.S. Posthumus’ album Unearthed was sort of like that to me. Not that it was “just noise,” but the first time I listened to it, I only really liked two tracks, and the rest were meh. A little while later, I realized the situation had reversed; two were meh, and the rest I adored.

      But yeah, once I hear a particular detail or line, it can be hard to un-hear it enough to get the old effect. This is especially true of a French horn harmony, which tends to overtake the actual melody in my head.

  7. wishwords

    Yes. I do this all the time. I love being able to do it.

  8. joyeuce

    This is so familiar that I hadn’t even realised I do it until I read your description! If I’d thought about it, I’d have put it down to being a semi-classically-trained alto.

    • Marie Brennan

      Based on other’s comments, I think having musical experience that frequently put you in the harmony position fosters this quite a bit.

  9. gryphynshadow

    Joining the chorus here, I played French Horn through middle, high school and college, and I totally listen for the different lines in music. I can pick out various instruments, and, yeah, they are different uhm… textures? Some are light, and some are heavy, and some are bright shiny, some dull… It’s a weird cross between texture and color/intensity of light. French horns are bright, mellow and, I feel silly for saying it, bronze. Baritones are navy and darker, less smooth than Horns. Trumpets are gold and brassy, sharp at the edges. Flutes are birds (and, yeah, I just jumped all the way to crazyville there…)

    Tympani are fun, because each drum is unique, and they work together to make a new whole thing. For that matter, each bit of music does something different as a whole which is totally different from what the parts do.

    This is Simple Gifts from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copeland: And the way it builds! the layers! I swear there’s something in the middle that is bird song, and it’s got this drive, impelled by the harmonies, and when it all comes together, I just want to cry from the beauty…

    So, yeah, you’re not the only one.

    • Marie Brennan

      “Sharp at the edges” — yeah, that starts getting into what I mean by texture. Clarinets are round but hollow, and I don’t mean the instrument itself. Bassoons are kind of like a nail (not a criticism; I like their sound). Saxophones are flattened and raspy like split wood in the higher registers, but become more 3-D in the lower. Insert lots of hand-waving here as I find words failing to express what’s in my head. πŸ™‚

      • gryphynshadow

        I think I see the sounds more than feel them, tho there is an element of feeling the texture to them too. And yes, clarinets are hollow, and bassoons are pointy, but not too sharp (and they’re mustard yellowy like light on swamp water. In fact, they’re very much like swamp water…)

  10. stfg

    I remember listening to a lecture on Mozart’s string quartets (Teaching company, Robert Greenburg.) Apparently, one of his innovations was to make the four parts in the quartet equally important. It really started me listening for the viola and cello parts. I find it adds richness when I do that.

    I did also play bassoon in high school orchestra, which help too. πŸ™‚

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. Makes me think of Frank Ticheli, whose pieces we played in junior high and high school; I loved him for actually giving neglected instruments like French horn and euphonium and bassoon interesting things to do. πŸ™‚

  11. diatryma

    I always liked harmony better than melody. Pity I’m a soprano.

    I do that. I once got the weird drum part from Phantom’s “Masquerade” in my head– boom, tish, very spaced-out but I hadn’t heard it before.

  12. Marie Brennan

    My family used to go to a “Messiah sing” each Christmas, with a small choir that would perform some of the arias/recitatives/etc., and then the audience would join in for the chorus pieces. Because I have no high range, the tenor part is actually the most comfortable for me (and ditto my mother) — but the tenor section was invariably so weak that we ended up singing the soprano part or whatever was the most audible, just in the octave we could reach.

  13. houseboatonstyx

    As if the rest of the instrumentation was the reflection on a glass window, and I just now managed to look past that into what lies behind the glass.

    Yes, exactly!

    In music, offhand I think I see the faster, smaller patterns as in front, and the longer patterns as behind them. (Shallow vs deep?)

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