So, let's start with listening. If you want to learn something about music, "listen to a lot of music" is good advice, and pretty simple. But really listening is one thing, and hearing is another. Listening is a willful act, a decision. Hearing is a different thing. Hearing is the perceiving and understanding. It requires more than will. It also requires skill, which comes from practice... and luck. I have listened intently to many songs and solos, and I still can't really hear what is happening-- and I don't mean that I don't understand all of the music theory of what I'm hearing, I mean I can't quite pick out the notes and sounds. This is an experience that is probably familiar to everyone, and so frustrating.
Let's pause here and do some listening. If you read the first entry in this blog, this will be familiar. If you didn't, it will still be familiar. Go listen to "It Don't Mean a Thing" (the 1932 version). Listen at least through the end of the first vocal section. (When I include a link, please use it for at least the first listening. This is because many songs were recorded in multiple versions. The Duke Ellington band recorded this song many times, but here I am talking about only one particular recording. If I tell you to just go listen to "It Don't Mean a Thing" you may find a different version.)
Sadly, this frustration in listening is always present to some degree. We can't ever absorb everything that is there in music. But that makes it all the more fascinating and rewarding. If we could hear everything the first time, would we ever listen a second time? Still, it is very noticeable how much more some people hear, particularly musicians. It can be startling how quickly a musician notices details that the average listener struggles to hear. This is evidence of two things: musical hearing gets better with practice, and hearing and understanding go hand in hand; it's easier to hear something that fits patterns that you know and that you have a name for.
So, you can't hear all of the of details music without understanding it, and you can't understand it without hearing it. It's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem. I have observed this in music classes I have taken, and in the one I taught, and it can be particularly hard with jazz, where there is so much happening at the same time. It seems that one of the hardest things for many listeners is to differentiate the sounds of the various horns. I certainly found it hard. So what can one do?
Well... let me pause here and say that I have no magical answers for anything. I am not an authority... on anything. But I hope that if you came here with an interest in jazz, you will leave here with more excitement about it, and with a very long list of songs and artists that you want to listen to. Anyway...
I think that a good way practice this type of hearing is to listen to music that uses the traditional trumpet-trombone-clarinet horn section. In traditional jazz, each instrument has a well-defined role. If one begins to understand that role, it becomes easier to pick out what each instrument is doing, even when the sounds begin to merge. This, in turn, sharpens your ear's ability to recognize each instrument simply by sound. This can be surprisingly hard sometimes-- for example, in a song with clarinet and violin. When playing together their sounds can merge almost completely.
The absolute best way to improve one's musical hearing may be to watch a live band. I don't think there is anything as helpful as closely watching one musician at a time, while listening intently. In this way, one learns what sounds each instrument is making, how it is making them, and possibly why-- how it fits in with the rest of the band. Understanding that fit by seeing and listening is one of the best ways to understand the structure and language of the music.
Another tool for hearing is duplication. If you play an instrument, try to learn the parts that you hear. You will quickly realize how much you didn't hear before, or mis-heard. With practice, you will find that you hear more and more accurately.
Finally, rely on others. If you read music, a transcription can be very enlightening. In all cases, reading written descriptions of music can transform one's hearing of the music. This type of reading can very dull, and very slow if you listen to recordings to understand what the writing refers to. But in my experience, it opens up entirely new ways of understanding songs and often reveals layers of sound that had been unheard. The books I have read about jazz have revealed to me so many things that I just never heard on my own. This is also why it can be great fun to listen together and talk about what is heard. The idea of "listening parties" may sound deadly boring, but it's a great way to hear more details.
So now let's go back to "It Don't Mean a Thing." My inspiration for this essay was my reading of Gunther Schuller's Swing Era. In it, he describes this 1932 recording, saying: "But perhaps the most felicitous touch on the entire side is Harry Carney's happily lilting baritone obbligato behind Ivie's vocal chorus." I read this and thought: "I love baritone sax. I love Harry Carney's baritone sax. I've been listening to this recording for 15 years. That can't be in there, because I never heard it!"
Well, it is there, and it's glorious. It's now my favorite part of the song. Listen for the exuberant baritone sax cascading behind the first vocal section, from 0:46 to 1:18. For me, it transforms this from a very good song into something unbearably joyful.
And that's today's sermon. Go listen. Then read and talk and listen some more.
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If you're still reading, I've got some bonus examples for you.
First, "Cotton Club Stomp." Ellington recorded two songs by this name. This one has long been one of my favorite recordings.
I was listening to this in the car one day, and I had a friend in the car with me. I mentioned how much I loved the baritone sax in this song (Harry Carney again), and my friend yelled "DUDE! I never heard that before! Fuck, that's awesome!" Yeah, that's the kind of friends I have. Anyway, she figured she must have always been listening to the trumpet instead, even though the sax is pretty easy to hear in this song. Hear it from 0:08 to 0:39. The other highlight of this song for me is the clarinet rising and then cascading down from 2:21 to 2:27.
There is also a pretty damn good performance of this song by a modern band, which will allow you to try watching the musicians, as I suggested above.
Finally, another song I have loved for years, and listened to hundreds of times. I thought I knew it pretty well, but in Lost Chords, Richard Sudhalter mentions the false start that Annette Hanshaw makes toward the end of the song, and notes how skillfully Eddie Lang leads her out of it. Again, I couldn't imagine that this was true and I never heard it. Again, there it is. At 2:13, you hear her start to sing and realize she is early.
If you made it this far, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed the music.