The most important thing in music

May 3, 2023

When I was six, my favorite way to spend the hour or so before dinner was to sit at the piano with my eyes closed, improvising a soundtrack for the scenes I'd imagine or the dancing blotches of light that swam on the dark screen of my eyelids. I'd listen and hear how if I played certain combinations of notes, the images would become clearer, other combinations would make them blurry or change their shape. I could play soldiers marching in the snow, or ancient spires hanging in mist, or soap bubbles drifting up and down and disappearing.

Ten years later, I was a jazz-obsessed saxophonist learning minutes-long solos from my favorite records and YouTube. Mostly, the only image in my mind was of myself, playing the way that I wanted to play. All my energy was focused on listening to what that person was playing, trying (and often failing) to play it. What I'd lost in the visual realm was compensated by the indescribable feelings that what I heard (and sometimes played) seemed to name. To me, the music was a perfect description of human experience sent from some other world and laid out in its language.

Ten years and one useless degree later, my music library had become a melting pot—Coltrane and company were bumping elbows with Dervish, Thom Yorke, Hildegard von Bingen, Bob Dylan, Bon Iver, Imogen Heap, Burial, Björk and Machaut. I was playing guitar, writing songs and arranging them in Ableton. Mental imagery was back, but its connection to the music and words had become convoluted and ambiguous, and visions would dissolve unexpectedly into raw feeling.

When I started writing songs, like some other young jazz musicians I knew, I had the conceit that other kinds of music were simpler, and that having figured out jazz I'd be able to learn to write songs well in a fraction of the time it had taken to master the saxophone. That turned out to be like thinking that because I'd mastered English, Chinese would be a snap.

Just like with a natural language, getting a handle on a new musical language means learning new sets of rules, expressions and aesthetics—changing the way you think. But the most important part is the sound. To speak a language (musical or natural) authentically, we have to learn to hear new sounds, or to listen for familiar sounds in new ways. 

We have to change the way we hear.

When we change the way we hear, it changes our music.

And when our music changes, life changes with it.

All my favorite and most cherished musical moments, whatever my skills or aesthetics might have been at the time, began with my ears. Outside of solving technical problems, insight and progress always came from hearing music with greater clarity or depth.

Teaching music really means teaching someone how to a hundred different things, one at a time and then all at once, but the most important thing we teach is how to hear music. We cannot learn anything about music or experience its full power without hearing it well. Our sensitivity to sounds and to the impulses they trigger in our bodies and minds is what allows us to find our way in music. Without it, we're lost.

That's all for now.