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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Ask Charlie...

Hearing, Listening, or Both?

March 2024

Hello Troubadourians! Is music a hearing art or a listening art? Or is it both? And how does the answer apply to musicians? We can hear music without actually listening. Think of the piped-in music in department stores and coffee shops. Unless a song comes on that we like, or if the music is rather loud, most of us tend to ignore the sounds around us—including music. Our subconscious, however, is listening, listening for environmental clues that we might need to react to and, in doing so, often alerts us when a familiar song starts playing. When this occurs, we can choose to actively listen, passively listen, or go back to ignoring everything. It’s a different thing when we’re singing or playing an instrument, or at least it should be. Obviously, we have to hear ourselves. If we can’t, it is very difficult to perform. But it is at least equally important that we listen to ourselves, to others performing with us, and even to the onstage environment.

Actively listening to ourselves during a performance is how we stay in tune, in time, and within the dynamics of the performance. Deeper listening creates the opportunity for nuance in a performance emotionally, technically, or as a vehicle for improvisation. In low-volume or acoustic situations, listening is what separates a great performance from a mediocre one. It also enhances our enjoyment of the performance as players or singers. In louder situations, listening ranges from difficult to nearly impossible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against loud, I happen to like loud. Loud can be a tool to explore an entirely different type of creativity. Things happen when it’s loud that simply can’t happen at lower volumes, and those situations can be a lot of fun. Sound tends to get “blurry” when it gets louder, especially in small spaces. The larger the space, the less blur there is. However, as the size of the space increases, the sound tends to decrease or gives the appearance of doing so. An amplifier that is obviously very loud on a small stage can virtually disappear on a large stage, and with no change in the actual loudness of the amp itself. The volume of the room envelops the loudness of the amplifier. Big rooms and big stages require big amplifiers and also big sound and monitor systems, just so that we can hear ourselves. Yet with all the above taken into account, loud takes an entirely different way of hearing and listening, and one that most of us won’t need to develop. So, let’s leave it right there…

There is another concept of hearing and listening that I’d like to explore, which is more personal. Whether we’re talking about playing or singing, the sounds we generate begin in our bodies. A player’s hands are where their “tone” is generated. A singer’s vocal chords are where their “voice” is generated. And yet we can acknowledge that we have—or can develop—significant control over our bodies and manipulate how our hands and voices create sounds and tones. Certainly, the equipment we are using has some influence on the final sound that is created and, as stated above, the physical environment also impacts the sound, but no matter the gear or the room we all sound like ourselves.

But what if you want to change how you sound? While our sound is definitely created by our hands and throats, it actually begins in our heads. You have to hear it in your head before your hands can play it and before your ears can hear it. I’ve used this story before, but it bears retelling here. Steve Vai recounted in an interview that when he first started playing in Frank Zappa’s band, Frank once took him aside and said, “You know Steve, I think you’re a really good musician, but your tone sounds like an electric ham sandwich.” Vai asked, “Well, why? I mean, I’ve got the Strat, I’ve got the Marshall…’” Zappa replied, “The sound isn’t in the amps, it’s in your head.” When you think about it, of course this is true. I discovered very early in learning to play guitar that I could get a certain sound from my guitar—acoustic or electric—if I first heard it in my head. The gear that I chose only served to reinforce that sound, not necessarily to create it. When I decided that I wanted to be a better singer, the same thing applied; hear it in my head, then sing it. Without first hearing something in our heads, the default sounds from our hands and voices tend toward the generic and uninspiring. As that imaginary sound makes its way from our head to the other parts of our bodies that generate the physical sound, we hear it from our instruments and our ears tell us if we’re making the sound we’re expecting to hear. This circular experience continues until we’re creating the sound that was originally in our head. It’s weird at first but the more we do it, the better we get at achieving the desired result.

So, what’s my point? Hearing and listening are both essential skills for every musician and performer, but they serve different purposes. Hearing brings in the bulk sound while listening filters the sound into the things we can use musically. We hear our instrument, but we listen to what creates the musicality. We hear what our bandmates are playing, but we listen to what they are communicating with their playing. So, just like the music in the department store, we hear first, then choose to listen… or not. Choose wisely.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (

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