Music Journal

Untrained Listeners Know More About Music Than They Think They know

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I used to do a little spiel in my beginner music theory class at university. I’d sit down at the piano and play a short bit of a well-known simple song, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and ask the students what I just played.

Of course, they’d get the answer right. But then I’d ask them a series of questions:

“What key did I play in?” (No answer)

“What’s the first note I played?” (No answer)

“What’s the last note?” (No answer)

“The highest note?” (Nothing)

“The lowest note?” (Silence)

And I’d go on, asking more and more questions about the music they had just heard. Most of the time, I’d get blank stares. I’d finish up the little demonstration by saying, “So… all you heard was the air vibrating, and by listening to those sound waves, you knew exactly what piece of music you were hearing.

The ability to compare one note to another (because that’s really what’s going on when we listen to music) is a very sophisticated activity that most humans can do, and requires no musical training. (By the way, if you can’t discern or process musical tones, that’s a condition called amusia. Most people who claim to be tone-deaf do not have amusia.)

And in fact, the part that will be most important to you as a songwriter is this: untrained listeners make up the vast majority of your audience, and they can perceive more about your music than they have the vocabulary to describe.

Based purely on their previous experiences with music — mainly, what they listened to growing up — they can tell when a song is doing a good job of displaying the basic principles of songwriting. They can’t be precise about any of that, because they lack the words, but they usually know when they’re hearing good music.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • They can hear music energy building as a melody starts low and moves high. Example: “Sweet Caroline” (Neil Diamond)
  • They can hear a chord progression starting with a chord that sounds like “home“, then wanders away and wanders back, trying to find that home chord again.
  • They can hear when the instrumentation of a song becomes quieter and more transparent, that a fuller instrumentation will inevitably return before the end.
  • They can hear that when lyrics start by describing a situation or a person, that the chorus is going to move to a more emotional kind of lyric.
  • They can perceive the notion of a song being a “complete musical journey” — that with good songs, the end truly sounds like the end, and they’re satisfied that they’ve had a complete musical experience.

Untrained listeners may not know how to write a great melody, craft a solid chord progression, or create a good song lyric. But most of those untrained listeners are good at knowing when they’ve heard something good. They just don’t have the vocabulary to express it other than to say, “That’s a great song.”

Books and musicIf I talk a lot on this blog about the benefit of keeping a songwriter’s journal, it’s mainly because a journal allows you to study songs in a way that typical audiences don’t do. By keeping a journal, you’re able to take an important step beyond the knowledge-level possessed by the average listener of music.

A journal will allow you to put your understanding of what good music is into words. Those words don’t even need to be the kind of words that music theorists or trained instructors of music use; you’re simply putting your observations down on paper in a way that allows you to compare one song to another.

And by doing that, your own songwriting improves. And it improves in a way that your untrained audience will notice.

In the end, your listeners still won’t have the vocabulary to know why your songs sound so good. They’ll simply know that they’re hearing something good.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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