Music is one of those things that has universal appeal, yet can create controversy when it comes to taste. Like wine, many enjoy it and few are obsessed. Fanatics of either realm propose that there is a hidden kind of depth that only the experienced can grasp. A vintage wine has an exquisite quality just like a vintage album played on vinyl. But the palette has to be trained in order to fully appreciate it. Sounds like a lot of snobby junk, but there’s something to it. At least that’s what I’ve learned from teaching myself music production.
I started by playing around with all the basic effects like compression, EQ, and reverb. At first, I just threw some settings at it and cranked up the echo-y reverb and thought that was it. Safe to say that my early stuff sounded pretty bad, but the thing is, I couldn’t tell. My brain didn’t know what made a professional song sound good, so it sounded good to me at the time. Eventually I figured out it wasn’t so stellar. It was missing something. So, I set out to figure out exactly what that special sauce was.
I watched videos about music production to learn the tricks of the trade. I upgraded to better equipment and software tools. I practiced playing and singing to make better recordings. I spent more time writing and producing hoping it would come to me. Surprisingly, what really made the difference was simply listening.
I started to listen more closely to the songs saved in my core playlists. More attention was directed to deconstruct the song into its layers. How many instruments were playing? Where were they positioned? How did the pieces sound — what quality did they have? How loud were the different parts? I would bounce back and forth between listening and trying to emulate some of the things I heard in my production process. Eventually something fascinating happened. I started to hear more detail. I could hear all the different pieces and how they were used. The songs and the tools were the same, but they were different because I was different. I learned to truly listen.
Another Level of Understanding
The skill of listening is at the heart of counselling. It is a core job requirement to be able to listen to others, to decipher what is being said and what is the real meaning. This might mean uncovering hidden truths of mental health and destructive self behaviour. It could mean deciding on the right career path for a client, or the right education for a student.
But what exactly does it mean to listen in this way?
It seems strange that there is an industry of professional listeners at all when most people have family, friends, colleagues, teammates, or some kind of connections that can lend an ear. Everyone is capable of listening. We all have ears, and, in any given culture, we all speak the same language. So, why can’t we help one another the same way a counsellor could? Why can’t we figure out the hidden meaning behind our words? Isn’t language supposed to be the monumental achievement of humanity?
Language is a tool that allows thoughts and ideas to transfer between minds and across time. Yet, it is just that. A tool. To one person a computer could create a whole universe, but for another it’s a way to entertain themselves. Place someone in front of a piano and they may compose a timeless piece, or they would just create noise. Language is a tool that almost everyone can use, but very few will master. We try to convey all the complexities of what we think and how we feel, yet fall short of the sharing the truth behind our words. We chip at the tip of the iceberg while the mass beneath the surface stays hidden. Because of this, a lot of what we say requires interpretation.
A good counsellor understands how to connect what is said to what it is meant to convey. They have been trained to hear beyond the words themselves, but instead listen to the details hidden within the tone, the rhythm, the pauses. Much like learning to decipher the language of music, it’s possible to learn to decode the hidden emotions and meaning of conversation. Counsellors, in other words, learn to read minds through the art of listening.
In psychological counselling, it is generally considered a bad habit to try to mind read. It is thought to be detrimental to mental health, and psychologists use tools like cognitive-behavioural therapy to try to prevent it. When people think they know what someone else is thinking they fail to notice what is actually happening, and continue to override it with their own projections. I think that projection is harmful, but not necessarily the attempt to read minds, as long as it is done properly. Listening to someone, empathizing, sympathizing, are all essentially mind reading. We hear the words and try to understand what is said, why, when, and how, to figure out what someone is feeling. There is basically no parenting or teaching without attempting to understand their kids. Mind reading is inherently necessary for us to connect, to learn from one another, but it has to be done with the right intent and the right methods.
This deep form of listening can be thought of as an art. Musicians learn to train their ears to pick out pitch, timing, melody, rhythm, and all kinds of auditory nuances. Visual artists learn to discern between distinct hues, contrast, saturation, dynamic range, and so on. Similarly, the art of listening dials up the level of detail discernable in a given piece. Two people can hear the same song, see the same photo, listen to the same message but extract entirely different depths of understanding.
Different artforms also tend to have an array of different approaches, different techniques, and the art of listening is no exception. One approach may be to piece together a story, weaving together the past to the present, creating a pattern of thinking flowing across time. Another will focus on more outward behaviour and the habits of thought, trying to break bad habits and form better ones. There are also medically based approaches that hone in on the biological roots of thought patterns. Whatever the approach, true listening requires dedication and practice to become fluent, to hear more detail, to deconstruct the melody of the mind.
Just as music has such a broad range of genres and tastes, styles of thinking also have their own genres. Some people may be fans of country and folk, while others steep in the fine technical richness of metal and progressive rock. If we think of each conversation as a song, there is a general style to how each of us speaks. The tone, the pacing, the rhythm, the gestures. They all signal to others the level of vulnerability we share, the amount of trust, the exchange of power. The words we decide to use, convey the amount of directness or metaphorical lyricism of information. We all play to our own style of thought, and that’s what provides the richness and beauty of humanity, but, like music, it is also what divides us.
We like to think of what is good or bad music as what we like to listen to or what we don’t. In the same vein, we think people are good or bad based on the way they tend to think, if they think like us or not. We learn to listen to only the differences at the surface level, and we fail to find the underlying beauty of it all. Music is music, no matter what kind it is. We can cheer on our favourite artists and poke fun at their rivals, but there’s no need to riot and shout over stylistic differences. There is no need to demean others because they think differently, or incite conflict over differences in ideas. It is ok to think the way you do, to express yourself, and to take pride in it. We all have our own emotional genres and our own perspectives to share. We have many songs left to sing. That’s why I think it’s better to learn to appreciate the melodies in our minds, the ones we want nothing more than to share with the world. There are a lot more layers hidden behind the words. All we have to do is listen.