Monday 13 April 2015

Ruth, on: listening to music with the left ear.

Marc, in our last blog post, wrote about spending eight months without listening to much in the way of music, at least, new music.

I've been lucky enough to have avoided this, but I've found something else happening to me since taking up musicianship on a "serious amateur" basis.

Until I started in Moss & Jones, although music was a huge part of my life (in terms of hearing the stuff; I rarely walked anywhere or got on a train or 'bus without my walkman/CDman/iPod/iPhone on) I rarely sought out new music; it kind of found me. I'd hear a song on the radio I liked and buy it; someone would recommend an album and I'd log into iTunes to download it; an artist I already liked would release an album and... well, you get the picture.

Also until I started in Moss & Jones, I never really thought about how the music made it from the band/musician/orchestra/soloist to my speakers. I suppose if I'd ever been asked I would have just guessed that they played a song, and someone pointed a microphone, and that was what happened. I never really paid much attention to arrangements and dynamics either; in fact, despite even having played the violin in an orchestra, so being well aware of how many different instruments can be involved in a piece of music, and how they can be introduced one by one, played at different times and so on... I never made the leap from that, to thinking of a composer, sitting down and adding all the parts together, arranging and slicing and making harmonies and so on.

I heard the music, but I never really listened.

Then I started going to open mic nights. In fact, this was pre-Moss & Jones; I'd been going to poetry open mics off and on since I was about 19 and reading my own work, but it was only when I met someone who convinced me my singing voice wasn't that awful (the Jones of Moss & Jones, in fact) that I learned some unaccompanied folk songs and sang them live instead. Obviously, in order to learn songs I had to find them and listen to them, and so began my interest in folk music, folk singers and folk bands, which expanded as time went on. My knowledge of folk started as being dimly aware that there was a bit more to it than Steeleye Span's version of Gaudete, to looking up Roud and Child Ballad numbers for songs, knowing the difference between a jig and a reel, and boring people to tears by telling them how the instrument most people associate with 'folk' (the acoustic guitar) is actually a relatively new addition, historically speaking. The more I learn about folk music, the more I realise I don't know, too, which is a heady mixture of thrilling and disconcerting.

Of course, nothing gets you a knowledge of the grass roots local music scene faster than 'touring' the local open mic nights and as such I started listening to many more local musicians than I ever had in my life. I started attending more and more gigs, and not epic sold-out arena gigs but small gigs by musicians that were well-known locally but barely heard of elsewhere. I discovered music via Soundcloud and Bandcamp which didn't have a hope of making it into the top 40 (or the top 200) but suited my tastes down to the ground.

But as time went on, something else started to happen too. The more I started to write music for Moss & Jones, and certainly after we visited Catalyst Studios for the first time, the more I started to notice what other people were doing in their music. I could no longer just hear a piece of music; I listened, too. I heard the arrangements in addition to the notes; it was like I had some kind aural equivalent of x-ray vision, where I could not only hear the flesh of the tune but also the skeleton it hung from. I was listening to the strings, for example, but also the point where they came in, how one violin would come in first, then another, then another in harmony, and so on, and where they'd leave, either suddenly, or one by one. I'd feel excitedly jarred by a surprising chord progression, and wonder what the musician had done. I'd get ideas; often for ways I could change or add to our own songs, but sometimes things I definitely didn't want us to do, too.

At gigs, not only would I be enjoying the gig and the stagecraft - I'd also be learning. I'd see how they got the audience involved at a certain point, and would turn to Marc and say, "we should do that", or occasionally, "we don't do that... do we?"

And it is still like that, now. I cannot listen to a piece of music without an ear to how it's been put together, and I can't go to a gig without applying it to our gigs; even if the genre is vastly different to our own. Even listening to the trance music I danced to in my early twenties, I analyse how it builds up and think of how that could be applied to a song or two of ours, for example, and there has been more than one occasion on which I've been listening to an indie tune I loved in my youth and thought "this should really be shorter. The last minute is just filler. Let's not do that with our songs". At the same time as I've fallen more deeply in love with music, I've also become a little more critical too.

But for all this, my love of music is never spent. It's just that I seem to be enjoying it in a far more analytical way than I ever did previously. I've even looked a little into the neuroscience and philosophy behind music; never too old to learn! Although I can no longer just hear and enjoy music without thinking about it, I certainly appreciate it an awful lot more, and am in awe of musicians even more than ever. I realise that "left brain versus right brain" is a false dichotomy, but for illustrative purposes, it would be fair to say, I'm listening now much more with my left ear.

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