The Art of Listening (Part 1: Instrumentation)

I deliberately used the word “instrumentation” instead of “orchestration” because I thought the latter might be too limiting. One immediately thinks of Beethoven, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and a whole lot of other European guys (let’s face it; they’re mostly guys). Even “instrumentation” might be a bit limiting, because not all sounds that make up music are necessarily instruments in their own right, but let’s go with “instrumentation” in the sense of “a combination of sounds.”

I had a good friend, an accomplished musician, with whom I used to sit and listen to classical music while reading scores. One day he arrived at my house, a Wu-Tang Clan CD in hand, and excitedly said “you’ve got to hear this!” He popped the CD into the player, and my cat, still somewhat shaken by a recent high volume listening of King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues in Aspic,” sensed danger and quickly left the room. Gun shots! Shouting! Sirens! My friend hit pause and said “what do you hear?” ” I hear gun shots and sirens,” I answered. “And what else?” He paused for dramatic effect and then said joyously “Sleigh bells… Gun shots, sirens, and sleigh bells. The instrumentation is pure genius.”

I could write many pages about instrumentation, and I can’t imagine how many pages it would take to say what I don’t know yet about it. We could look at recording different instruments, balancing between them, placing them in a stereo or surround image, how these change over time, what sorts of EQ and reverb settings are used, and so on. We could look at the bigger question of what the instruments are actually playing, but this of course quickly gets into theories about harmony and counterpoint, which would take up even more pages.

But let’s just focus on one thing: listening to music intentionally, trying to know what sounds are happening at any given moment in a piece of music. Try to be able to answer the question “what were you just hearing?” if someone were to press the pause button. You can do this with pretty much any piece of music, whether it be Beethoven, Beatles, Beastie Boys, Bajoras, or The Band Whose Hit Song You Are Mixing Right Now.

One technique that I’ve found useful is to pretend to be a bandpass filter, ignoring fequencies outside of a range, then gradually adjust that range until there’s something that you’re not ignoring. Try listening to just the bass. Then listen to just the high frequencies. Lastly, try the middle frequencies. For most kinds of music the middle is likekly to be most difficult, because it will have the most instruments wandering in and out or living entirely within that range.

You can also separate sounds by listening to the stereo domain: Hear only the sounds in your left ear; then hear only the sounds in your right ear, etc.

Then do the same thing in the amplitude domain: Hear only the loudest sounds, then hear only the softest sounds.

This sort of “selective hearing” takes practice. Start with simple instrumentation. Listen to a piano and violin piece and hear only the violin. Then listen again and hear only the piano. Once you can do this, try a piece of music that has three instruments, maybe piano, bass, and drums. Move on to various kinds of quartets. It can help to ignore the melodic and harmonic content of the music, e.g. don’t start humming along with the melody; listen to it as sound, not music.

Over time you’ll be able to mentally “de-orchestrate” increasingly complex music.

You can also learn to ignore groups of related instruments. For example, listen to a song and ignore all the vocals. Then listen to it and ignore all the instruments.

If you have a digital audio workstation, try loading a piece of music into it, select a part of the music, then set that part to play in a loop. As it loops, write down all the instruments that you are hearing. Even if you don’t know the name of the instrument, write down a brief description of it: oboe, female lead vocal, guitar, gun shots, sirens, sleigh bells, or just “weird shimmery thing.”

These are exercises, not to be confused with actually enjoying music. The theory though is that if you do these exercises, you’ll increase your ability to distinguish between different instruments, and you’ll be able to hear subtle nuances that you couldn’t hear before. And the better you can listen, the more you can enjoy.

You’ll also be able to understand how to make kinds of sounds, and you can construct a pallette from which you can paint your own collections of sounds. You might even keep a notebook or a folder of audio samples illustrating techniques. This can become a life-long obsession. Some people collect stamps; other people collect comic books. Why not collect sounds?

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