Let’s start with a song. Pick a song. Any song you like! Put it on, and listen to just the first minute. Can you identify what instruments are playing? Write them down. If you don’t know the name of something, just describe it the best you can, or look up the album information for the song.
Now we choose one instrument to start. It is usually a good foundation to begin with either a bass or a percussive instrument. Let’s say we picked the bass.
Play the song again and focus all of your attention on this one instrument - give it everything you have. It might even be helpful to close your eyes and imagine yourself right in the middle of the group playing.
Does the bass play through the entire song, or is it only there sometimes? What kind of rhythms are being used, and do they repeat? How loud is it compared to the other instruments? Do the notes fit in or against the beat?
While doing isolated listening, it is your job to be the question master. Try to ask as many questions you can think of about the performance, then find all the answers.
If there was something you particularly liked about the performance, write it down! Then you can try it out in your own playing later. If there was something you didn’t like about it, can you explain why?
Now pick a different instrument from the list for a fresh listen. Let’s say we are listening to the drums now. This time, give it about 80% of your attention, but occasionally listen back to the bass. You can listen for the same kinds of things with this instrument, but you’ll have some more options now that there are more than one.
Are they playing at the same time? Or going back and forth? What kind of conversation are they having - can you feel their communication with each other?
Choose a new part now. I usually save the melody for last, so a chordal instrument (like keyboard or guitar) would be good. It gets about 50% of your attention while the first instruments get the other half.
As you are growing more familiar with the song, the aim of your focus can shift from individual activities to group motion. A song’s power is in how the parts come together.
Each part has a role, and families of instruments usually take on certain roles. Percussion often leads the beat. Bass reinforces it, but also lays the foundation for harmony. Chordal instruments complement both of these.
Continue through your list of instruments until you have given each one its own focus. Now you know the song from bottom to top! Listen from the top however you like and hear how it all comes together.
This may be challenging at first, but as with anything, it gets easier as you go. This is one of the best ways to get a good feeling for an instrument’s role and train your ear for live performance. In fact, listening like this is equally as valuable as practicing your instrument. Think of it like learning a new language - the time with your instrument is learning how to speak the language while listening to fluent people speak gives you the perspective of how it actually sounds.
When playing live, you want to do a similar thing. It is so incredibly important to be listening to the other musicians at least as much as you listen to yourself. When you leave space for the other parts to come through, you are giving the music room to breathe.
Listening as a composer has a different focus, but you can use these techniques for any method of performance.
Generally speaking, when you approach music from the composer’s point of view, the scope widens. The three main components to consider are texture, volume, and harmony. For our purposes, we will focus on texture and volume.
For this example, let’s consider the symphony orchestra. The variety of instruments it has offers many variations for a composer’s texture.
We still begin by identifying the instrumentation. This time we will focus first on the large group, then the smaller subdivisions. In the symphony, the standard groups are winds, brass, strings, and percussion. For now, think of them as all being one big breathing behemoth. Every note is a word, and as words get put together we hear phrases. Is each phrase loud or soft? What kind of tones does it use? Does it speak clearly, fluidly, in bursts, or is it more of a mutter?
Still limit yourself to only a minute of music. We will focus on how the music changes over time. The ways a composer sculpts his sound is by shaping the texture and volume. Since volume is easier to notice, let’s start with that.
Changes in dynamics often serve some kind of purpose. The opening volume of a movement immediately starts painting a picture for the audience. Changing the volume throughout the piece defines the character of the movements, especially how often and how much they change. Are the crescendos long and drawn out? And as a piece comes to an end, how does it give its goodbye? Some may grow to an exploding finale, while others softly disappear, or find their own way out.
After you have listened, draw a line that summarizes the volume. It does not have to be exact. Up for loud, down for soft, and probably some smooth or jumpy curves for the in betweens.
Texture can be more complex since there can often be many happening at once. We can think of texture as the way something sounds. Every kind of articulation brings a texture: Staccato is really short, legato long; slurs make a phrase feel fluid and connected, while many rests may feel more isolated.
The register of an instrument also affects texture. The low end of a clarinet is very warm and rich, while its upper register is very bright. An oboe is known to be very piercing, while a viola can be very warm or very nasal.
Listen again to your selection and try to identify as many different articulations, instrument combinations, the position of notes, and anything else you can think of. Try to describe with words what the effect of that sound is, or how it makes you feel. Especially the ones you like!
In conclusion, picking apart music piece by piece is a very strong way to develop your ear and sense of musicality. Focusing on one person at a time is great for note to note phrasing and articulation while listening to an ensembles gives you the bigger picture. By listening to what other people have composed, you’ll be better at shaping your own ideas.