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  • Writer's pictureParas Singh

"Do You Even Play, Bro?" : Of Listening to Music As A 'Non-Musician'

I (a self-professed non-musician) recently took a test to find out my musical IQ (The Music Lab). Raag Sethi - founder of Compass Box Studios and musician extraordinaire, for he is a guitarist, bassist, composer AND a producer - took the same test. The results pleasantly surprised me - I scored a 108, while he scored 120 (on a scale from 0 to 135). For someone that has never sang or played any instrument for longer than two weeks (trust me - I've tried everything), this seemed like a startlingly good score. While this test is very subjective (and may have its flaws), it got me thinking: What is my perception of music? How does it differ from that of a musician, especially if our scores are that similar?

I’ve been listening to music for as long as I can remember. College and jazz, however, changed my perception of it in particular.

I was made to listen to jazz, tonnes of it, by musician friends. It was the first time I was listening to music that wasn’t pop, that wasn’t on the radio, and that didn’t have a massive fanbase. Also, it was the first time I was actively listening to instrumental music. Honestly, I didn’t know what to focus on or label. For most non-musicians, lyrics are what keeps one hooked to a song: something that has a message or meaning and a common language to it. While listening to instrumental music, I struggled to process all the elements of the song together: I could either focus on the guitar, or the drums, never the two together. And the bass? I couldn’t even identify that the bass was being played for the entirety of most songs. Jazz, for me, has always been one of the few genres that seemed like it was made by musicians, for other musicians (with so much emphasis being put on its dissection): the presence of complex harmonies and time signatures, experimenting with various tonal phenomena, and the very important identifier - improvisation. The lack of predictability makes it even tougher to understand and appreciate it, since sometimes (to be entirely honest) I found, and still find it hard to keep up. The innovative nature of this particular genre makes it so difficult for it to be bound by rules, which makes it seem unattractive to non-musician listeners like me since they have no references or parameters to judge this experimental art form by. Jazz grew on me though, for I had enough peer pressure and the right amount of exposure to live performances as well as what goes on behind creating such music. With some help from jazz critic John Corbett's A Listener's Guide To Free Improvisation and lots and lots of jazz listening sessions, I can now follow melodies and rhythms – they sound musical enough for me not completely dismiss jazz as musicians’ music, because I have found my own ways of understanding and communicating what this music feels like to me, and what I understand from it, which is sometimes technical and mostly not.

Jazz relies heavily on improvisation, which is unique to the genre.

Jacob Collier is probably one of the biggest Grammy-winning names to come out of the jazz circuit, and weirdly enough, was my introduction to jazz music. I couldn’t, and I can’t to this day, completely make sense of his genius, and his music confuses because of how “jazzy” or unconventional it sounds, yet almost every jazz musician I know deeply reveres the man. I’ve noticed that most discussions around his music involve technicalities and concepts that only somebody who has either played an instrument (or multiple, in his case) or learnt music theory could understand. I am unable to find the words to describe what his music makes me feel in a way that musicians can understand too; my reaction to his music is way more feel-based, with the usage of terms like bendy, continuous, twangy, synthy, breezy and smooth, among many others that are probably not even real words. Additionally, I may not be able to even label the multiple instruments being played and the various techniques being used: things that make it experimental and jazzy. I find it hard to put a name to what I feel when it comes to such music, which is where I can observe the gap between a musician and a non-musician as far experiencing the music is concerned (Check out Why Americans Don’t Like Jazz, Did academia kill jazz? and Why Isn’t Jazz Popular? for more opinions on this).

My description of his songs is never in terms of pitch, tones, notes, octaves, etc. Instead, I tend to listen to them in a more abstract, yet also specifically emotional manner. I can’t identify what technique it is that I can identify in the song, yet I associate a particular idea or scenario with it, which may or may not be music-related, but serves the same purpose for me as technical terms do for musicians: it makes me remember what invited me to that song and what made me stay.

It’s like this: I can understand and speak a language, but I can't read it. Logically, reading isn't necessary for communication but it is most definitely preferred, in order to understand the language in its entirety with its various elements, which in this case, are musical techniques, sight-reading and harmonic and rhythmic phenomena that only musicians can notice. Personally, while I am able to identify when a song is out of tune or not in rhythm, I can’t point out where exactly and why it feels so: it just feels like something is wrong, and I must admit, to this day, I don’t know if it is accidental or on purpose, especially when it comes to jazz (wink wink). However, I can make sense of music in my own way, slowly and steadily, so while I can’t explain what the technical term to you, I can only hope that I communicate and you understand the terms that I have defined for myself to explain what is happening in that particular piece of music.

Music is a language, but do you need to be a musician to understand it?

Additionally, so much of the music we listen to today is lyrical and visual; there are so many aspects of the music that have nothing to do with what is being played, but instead, what is being shown and said, and we have gotten so used to it, so much so that we can’t process music that lacks those elements. Movie scores are a perfect illustration of this ‘emotional vs. technical’ phenomenon: take Hans Zimmer’s music for example, and one will realise that it makes perfect sense emotionally, with the visuals. Listen to the soundtrack by itself, however, and understanding the technicalities of it and appreciating it seems difficult for a non-musician, honestly making it seem out of place sometimes (due to its lack of contextualisation and connection with other forms of media).

I think the difference between musicians and non-musicians is most apparent at concerts and live performances, two of which I attended in 2019, of the jazz and blues genres. The first was a John Mayer concert, with his diverse audience, musicians and non-musicians alike. The second concert - a Snarky Puppy one - was more recent, with a more musically experienced audience as well. Musicians (guitarists) accompanied me on both concerts. For the John Mayer concert, all I could focus on was the lyrics, and my expectation was to see how similar to the recorded version his songs sounded - as is expected of most semi-pop or pop artists in live concerts. My guitarist friend, on the other hand, was equally, if not more interested in the live band set-up behind John: he could identify when Pino Palladino's bassline sounded fire, how a bridge could make or break a song, when John modulated and improvised on his solo, and Isaiah Sharkey and John's trading. These were things I did not notice or could make sense of on the spot (in real-time, that too).

For my friend, the gig was much more than just John Mayer - it was John Mayer AND his band, that created magic on stage, which is something we non-musicians seem to miss in the grand scheme of things (or gigs).

The Snarky Puppy concert, on the other hand, knew it had a musical audience to please, and thus, experimented with all sorts of improvisation and experimentation on stage. My moment of truth/realisation came when they asked the audience to clap to polyrhythms. Half the audience was supposed to clap in 3s and the other half, in 4s - but in the same time duration.

Clapping to polyrhythms out of context and not hearing them in a song, made me realise how I may not even have ended up identifying polyrhythms in the song if it wasn’t for this particular exercise in time signatures.

Interestingly enough, Raag tells me that Snarky Puppy never play the same solos for a song, instead, they have different solos for each new recording. This was something he could notice live; it was something he was definitely looking forward to and expecting from one of their live gigs. He tells me he enjoyed them syncopating and adding tuplets to their songs - things I had to Google to understand. He was in awe of their ability to play super tight and stick to the recording but then improvise with such ease when the song needs it.

While I did enjoy the performance immensely, I felt like I lacked the ability of musicians to identify and critically analyse a song in real-time, as I could see Raag do, which to me, honestly, still seems unreal. They definitely have the advantage of switching this critical side on and off, to analyse music when they want to, and to enjoy it when they don’t.

While musicians will obviously have an enhanced appreciation of the various techniques and skills present in pieces of music through the application of their knowledge and practice, it absolutely does not discount the experience of a non-musician listening to the same pieces. In my opinion, the chasm between musicians and non-musicians is mainly a result of communication gaps, and not their ability to play music or the lack thereof.

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