Listening as Practice
We’ve all been told to “listen to the greats”, “study the masters”, etc… But when we put on records of our favorite players, it’s not always clear how we should be listening, or what we should be listening for. The act of listening is a skill in itself that can be consciously improved upon, allowing you to get more out of the music you hear, and giving you more tools to guide your own self-teaching.
The kind of listening that we want to cultivate I’ll call here: Active Listening. Active Listening answers specific questions/curiosities. It is purposefully zooming in with your ear to hear how a specific concept in the music works. You can listen for concepts such as rhythm, harmony, or melody. You can isolate a single instrument/player in a piece, or you can listen for how two or more players interact with and respond to each other. Some things we listen for are very literal, like which notes are played over which chords, while others are more ethereal, like what kind of emotional arc someone is bringing to their improvisation. We want to improve the microscope of our ear.
How can we use this in learning the harmonica?
Let’s take a harmonica-centric track as an example, and see what kinds of things we can learn from it if we apply a few different cognitive filters. Here is a video of the Paul Butterfield band playing “Driftin’ Blues”.
Let’s start by listening to the guitarist in the first two minutes. Specifically, listen for how the guitarist supports what Paul is singing. You may realize that he’s waiting for Paul to finish a phrase, and then filling in that empty space, playing in between the lines without getting in the way.
Ok, now let’s shift focus: listen to the first two minutes again, this time centered on Paul’s singing. We have a simple, slow groove, over which Paul’s rhythmic phrasing snakes and slides around — loose, but precise. Take time to absorb what it is to slip around a beat without losing track of it, always landing in exactly the right spot.
Now let’s move to the harmonica solo that starts around 1:57. Before we focus on Paul himself, first listen for how the band reacts to, and builds energy with him as he plays his solo.
There are notable peaks and valleys as the band members craft a supportive musical boat that rides with Paul’s waves of energy. When playing with other people, if you’re listening only for what notes they choose, but not what they’re trying to say, you might miss deeper opportunities to support each other’s sound. Hear how the band rises in intensity together as we move from 3:00 to 3:44 into the next verse, exploding as one.
Finally, let’s go back and focus on the harmonica for the duration of the solo, listening for how he crafts a story. You may find that his improvisation has a clear shape to it in terms of how he builds the energy, and the band’s open ears that we identified previously allow them to best service the story that Paul is trying to tell.
So here we’ve taken a single recording, and just by consciously switching up our focus, we’ve learned about accompanying singers by listening to the guitar, rhythmic phrasing by listening to the singer, telling a story in a solo by listening to the harmonica player, and reactively building energy as a group by listening to how the other people support the soloist. Not to mention all of the more concrete things we could pick apart in his playing, such as note-choice, tone, hand-techniques, and bends.
Learning to identify and apply these kinds of filters to your listening can help you sift through a wash of sonic information to find specific meaningful lessons. I hope this gives you some ideas for how to get more out of the music that you already love, and for how to stretch your ears toward a more intentional kind of auditory experience.