I have a habit of obsessively listening to certain pieces of music, while ignoring vast swathes of new releases—intending to get to them sometime, but I won’t. What’s up with that?
An answer is that such obsessive listening is an antidote to an excess of options as to what to listen to. Now that music streams into our lives via our phones and computers, we can have anything at anytime. There’s a playlist for every mood, a soundscape to tint your life, and at ten dollars a month, it’s a steal.
But perhaps a price we pay for infinite choice and access is diluted attention. For me, a question I keep returning to is how to get granular about what to listen to and how. Getting granular has the benefit of limiting our field of listening, paring down our options. While we might appreciate the artistry required to make music in so many styles, some artistries speak to us more than others, some gestures are enchanting while other production moves sound like clichés. Getting granular pushes us to choose a specific musical something and commit to it for a while. It’s not just a question of having enough time to listen, but rather deciding where our attention might best be employed.
One strategy I’ve used, without realizing it as such until now, is a sort of descending levels of zoom focus on the music of a single artist.
I begin with a single piece that stands out from the others. I find this by quickly spot-listening to every track on a recording in search of a gem. When I find it, I’ll listen to it over and over. Incidentally, I’m also curious if the music will wear out its interestingness if I listen to it enough. I do this with my own music too: if the track can’t withstand my repeated listening, I’ll abandon it.
I’ll focus on a single section of a single piece. Sometimes there is a catalyzing moment when the full weight of the music makes itself felt. It’s like a fulcrum or pivot point, but in time. Maybe the moment is when a part enters or exits the mix, when an unusual chord appears, or when one texture becomes another without you realizing it. That kind of thing. Magic!
I’ll also focus on a single sound within a single section of a single piece. Sometimes there is a detail in a catalyzing moment that stands out. You listen and think, That sound just sounds so perfect. How did they do that? How did they know that? Once I’ve identified such a detail, I listen to it a lot, wondering about how it works. If I took an explicitly analytical approach, maybe I could explain and theorize how the detail works. But I have enough of my own production experience to know that sometimes the most interesting sounds emerge as a by-product of your doing other things.
Getting granular guides my obsessive listening. For a moment, the process consumes my attention as I relentlessly try to understand as much as I can about an artist’s work, a piece, a single section, or a single sound. To illustrate, as I wrote this post I listened to The Humble Bee and Benoît Pioulard’s track, “Off Camera” about twelve times. As I listened I wondered:
voices—where are they from? a sample?
a progression I can’t quite grasp: just two chords?
some liquid, steel-pedal guitar-style sounds
noise—especially off on the left
layers of texture
a slow build
the sound that sounds like gong, but maybe isn’t?
how was this made?
“I’m trying to exhaust what I’ve got. I’m trying to keep things simple, and build layers, basically. And so when I make a tune, I will concentrate on 8 bars at a time. But that first 8 bar loop has to bang for me, and I have to be able to listen to that loop over and over again in different rooms around the flat…I have to see the potential of it, and it has to say something to me, it has to communicate with me.
What I actually like to do is have an overloaded 8 bar loop and then spread it out across 3 to 4 minutes or whatever, and get that arrangement done. And sometimes with my songs, all you’ll get is just melodies arranged, with no drums. Maybe hi hats, because I hate listening to the metronome…So I need something that’s going to set the tone, so a little hi hat will do a lot for me.
I’ll get the arrangement done, and then I’ll start, one by one, choosing a sound. I’ll just want to focus on one sound at a time, and make sure that that sound is worth it, basically. And it just goes from there, until I can’t fill the space anymore, until everything’s gone and it’s filled to the max. That’s my idea of production.
Little simple things just build up. That’s it.”