5 Ways to be More Engaged with Your Music

It’s easy to see music as a one-way road. We may at times see listening to music as a disengaged activity, passive observation. It’s a final product presented to us, the end consumer, as a finished work for us to enjoy; is there any need to mentally invest ourselves?

Here at Anime Instrumentality, though, we take our listening a bit more seriously. We believe listening to music is an active, involved activity. You get more out of music as you put more of yourself into it; using your brain is as important as using your ears. I hope you feel the same way, and I trust this is why you come to a music review sites such as ours, because you believe that music becomes more powerful and profound the more you engage with it.

To that end, I have compiled five ways (that you may currently know and use!) you can get more out of the songs you already know and love.

1) Tap Your Foot

This may seem almost rudimentary, even trivial, but tapping your foot (or keeping time in some other fashion) has more to it than you may have considered. Syncing yourself with the beat of the song is an essential step in listening to all that it has to offer. By physically moving a part of your body to the rhythm of a tune, you intrinsically make yourself a part of the experience. It forces you to think by making you pay attention to the thrust of the song. Although it’s easy to shift into autopilot and let the music fade into the background, if you actively keep time along with the music, it’s almost impossible not to actively engage with whatever you’re listening to.

More importantly, you should emphasize the first beat of each measure in some manner. By doing this, you are performing a simple analysis of the song by mentally breaking down the music into smaller constituent parts. You also begin to appreciate things like unusual time signatures, which songwriters at times utilize on purpose to baffle listeners in the know. You will also see that measures are not always consistent in the number of beats they hold. As a rather famous example of this, the final measure of vocals in “Hare Hare Yukai,” a song entirely in 4/4, has only 3 beats before entering the concluding synthesizer section.

Hare Hare Yukai

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Can you hear it? What about if you keep time with it, distinguishing the first, emphasized beats of each measure? You may already be beginning to appreciate the little details like this that songwriters inject into their work. “Short” measures such as these were used by composers (Leonard Bernstein is a good example) to give a sense of energy and sprightliness. This is just one example of the things you may uncover.

2) Listen to a Less Obvious Instrument

The human mind is lazy and is inclined to focus on what is apparent and easy to recognize. You may have seen this manifest when you listen to music; unless you’re purposely trying not to, your attention tends to get drawn to the main melody or the soloist. While the loudest and most apparent voices are certainly important parts of the song, there are always elements that are not as immediately obvious, elements that have likely been included and composed with just as much loving care and detail as the main melodic line. Harmonized vocals and bass lines are a good example of this. Next time you listen to one of your favorite songs, consider focusing your attention on instruments like the bass guitar and backup vocals. You may notice something that you hadn’t before, like a quietly mixed bass lick or subtle counter-melody in the strings. Every little thing you discover will help you to better appreciate a good song.

Example: Can you hear the harmonized vocals from “Irony” by ClariS? Try focusing on the edges of the soundstage on each channel. From what I can tell, each channel actually features a different interval of harmonization. Maybe you can discern more specifcally?

Irony

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3) Sing!

We are not all natural singers (I know I’m not), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! Singing along with a song you enjoy may be something you naturally do anyway, but consider what that means. By singing with a track, you inherently make yourself a part of the experience. You stop being an observer and start becoming an active participant. You force yourself to keep time and remain mindful of the progression of the song. As opposed to the following two points, which familiarize rationally, singing intimates the listener viscerally.

4) Identify Form, Function, and Structure

They say the mark of a good composer is proper form. As a listener, keep an ear out for how a song builds itself up and goes through its sections. Try to identify parts of the song like the verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge. If you hear things like key changes and turn-arounds, take note of them too. On a smaller scale, keep track of thematic repetitions and motifs. If you are listening to something like a musical or a soundtrack, take special care to pay attention to the opening overture; it will contain all of the themes that will reappear in some form or other later in the piece. Wary listeners will be keen to identify expansions of older material and its contrasts with newly introduced motifs. You’ll notice that the more sophisticated the music is, the less clearly defined its sections are.

5) Transcribe and Reproduce

Perhaps the most esoteric of the suggestions here, you may find the task of transcribing something daunting. WELL IT IS.  I SHOULD KNOW.  I’VE BEEN THERE. ;__;

But the next time you find yourself in front of a piano, try taking a minute or two hammering out a melody from a song you remember. It may surprise you how thrilling it is to personally recreate something you’ve only experienced passively.

So there’s my five cents as to how listeners can get more from their music. Know a better way? Let me know below!

About the author

Aftershok A huge jazz nerd and unabashed fan of alternative rock, I joined Anime Instrumentality in December 2010. I tend to get very passionate when it comes to music and try my best to understand how it works. An enormous fan of The Pillows, among my favorite anime composers include Ko Otani and Yoko Kanno. My tastes in anime vary wildly, but I try to be as thoughtful about my viewing as I am about my listening. I play the saxophone.

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17 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Joojoobees says:

    These are great suggestions for developing a deeper experience of music. I have young nieces (by my two sisters) and I have wondered how to encourage them to have a more “hands on” appreciation of music, without overloading them (they’re still between 5 and 8 years old). It is easy, in our world, to believe that music is a finished thing that professionals create for others to consume, but I would like them to understand that music can be accessible to non-professionals, not just for passive consumption. I’ll try to use your tips the next time I’m talking with one of them about music.

  2. Kira00 says:

    Good advices that I’ve been doing almost unconcsiously! Great way to enjoy the music to its fullest!

  3. chikorita157 says:

    Considering that I have played Piano since I was young and Clarinet during the 4th grade, I tend to appreciate all the work is put into music as I have been there. On the other hand, I am a bit more vocal when it comes to horribly done music, which majority of American Pop music have already become (although Japanese Music isn’t completely innocent from this with idol pop). But yes, playing an instrument does a lot in helping music appreciation, especially if it’s done at a younger age.

  4. Taka says:

    Beyond just tapping your foot getting up and busting a move can be engaging as well. My little nephews may not understand the music I’m playing for them but they sure know how to boogie to it.

    It should also be noted repetition is important. In order to really grasp what you are listening to you have to listen to it several times or parts of it several times.

    Also listening to as much and as many different genres as you can. I believe you have to familiarize yourself with any given type of music before you can enjoy and understand it. Which means there are some barriers to just listening to a random country song if you’ve never listened to any country music before. Each genre has it’s own nuances that make it worth listening to.

    Once you are familiar with a few genres then start listening to how artists mix and play with each individual ones. Like the afro-pop accents in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQ1LI-NTa2s To add on to that don’t be turned off by vocals either if you can. A lot of bands don’t have amazing vocalists but have ones that fit their music to a tee.

    Lastly this is sort of the goal of a lot of this but try to connect to the song emotionally. If you are listening to a sad song, allow yourself to tear up a little bit.

  5. I ALWAYS sing along to whatever I’m listening to, even if I don’t know half the words and sound terrible singing with it. And half the time I tap my foot, my fingers, bob my head, or just do SOMETHING else that gets me involved with my music.

  6. chronolynx says:

    How dare you lay our secrets out in the open like that! It is against the rules! There shall be no mercy.

  7. Me being the inquisitive music student I am have already adopted the first two tricks. In addition to tapping my feet, I have this tendency to mutter OOM PAH PAH while listening to waltzes since it helps me get a better feel for that dance rhythm.

    Less-obvious instruments are a pleasure to listen to on account of getting a better feel for the musical fabric of the piece.

    As for singing… well, when I do it, it tends to be from the comfort of my own car without anyone else listening. Which means no one gets to hear me belt out Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari, but oh well. Maybe I’ll do that if/when I ever decide to do karaoke.

    Still need to study how to do the last two steps, but still, looking at this list, I can say I’m 60% of the way there!

  8. signorRossi says:

    I do #2 from time to time, since it can be quite interesting to grab a little more of a song that I really like. While casually listening you can actually miss a lot of a song, and sometimes it is really surprising to realize that that can also be true for songs that I may have listened almost a hundred times or more often. I rarely do #3, since most of the music I listen to is instrumental, but instead I whistle along quite often or give even a solo performance (annoying my mother when I mimic the dizi or the shakukachi. ;)

  9. 1) Tap Your Foot

    My elementary band teacher was always on our case with this, but we’d usually take it to the extreme and stomp our feet just to mess with him *BA DUM PSH* It’s pretty much a habit now, for better or for worse… tapping in public can be embarrassing!!

    2) Listen to a Less Obvious Instrument

    Funny you should mention ClariS and those harmonized vocals! My bro-bro’s a big fan (Meduka…) but he can’t tell the difference at all. I had to sing each part just to get it in him, and he pretty much got it now. I’M A GOOD TEACHER!!! On the instrument section of point #2: I would purposely ignore background instrumentals since it would sometimes ruin a song. Granted, it was usually a dumb pop song but I’d still feel pretty sad when a favorite song suddenly becomes crap. That was back then, though. Now I absolutely must listen to background instruments! I usually do one listen with main instrumentals/vocals, a second listen focusing solely on backgrounds, and then one more time (ONE MORE CHANCE!!!) with everything together. It’s fun!

    5) Transcribe and Reproduce… AND IMPROVISE!!!

    FIXED!!! Taking a well-known tune and just messing it around is Absolute TAH-DAI-MAH!!! Like slurring notes or having tons of staccato (I do this a lot.) Even if you don’t know how to play an instrument, you can always rearrange things in your head. At least that’s what I do! I usually sing in my head too since, well, yeah…

    The only thing I have trouble with is TIME SIGNATURES!!! I understand what they are… but only with sheet music. That is, if I listen to a song without sheet music, I just assume it’s 4/4. I can’t tell the difference between 3/4, 4/4 or 12/8… If something doesn’t fit, I just assume it goes off to the next measure, or maybe it has more rests or something. I DON’T KNOW?!?! IT ALL SOUNDS THE SAME!!! But yeah, that’s quite the ability you have there. Maybe it’s a math thing? *BA DUM PSH*

  10. Mushyrulez says:

    Perhaps something more important than anything – using your heart. /Feel/ the song. The rhythm and form are useless if you can’t feel the music. We have to remember – music was created for a reason, and if you’re not feeling it, no matter how much you try to get ‘involved’, it just won’t do.

  11. Jen says:

    Haha like zzero, I’m stuck at step 3. I should really get more serious about my theory lessons… xD

  12. Aftershok says:

    @Joobs
    Hopefully you can teach them a thing or two about enjoying music! It should be noted, though, that taking anything too seriously with children of that age can just as easily turn them against it rather than helping them get into it.

    @Kira00
    Happy to know that there are intelligent listeners like you out there in the world.

    @chikorita157
    Though I agree with you that playing an instrument does help, but there is a lot on the production side of things that gets overlooked as well. There is tons of work put in by people that physically turn the dials and flip the switches, and it’s their efforts combined with the intentions of the original performers/composers that end up in our eardrums. Being vocal about mediocrity is fine, but keep in mind that music with wide appeal that is made specifically to be profitable is a feature of many, many markets, not just limited to the U.S. and Asia, that all have their distinct characteristics.

    @Taka
    Dancing is probably one of the most visceral ways to experience music. My only problem with it is that we tend to focus more on how we move than what is happening in the song when we dance, and that sort of disconnect may prove detrimental.

    I commend you for mentioning the breadth of the music we should listen to, and I consider this to be one of my greatest shortcomings. I think, for one reason or another, we tend to patently reject certain genres, and it’s really a shame that a lot of good music may be overlooked out of prejudice.

    Genre-mixing is one of the great things about the music world today, and is one of the reasons why songs like “Rhapsody in Blue” have been so successful.

    @Ariana
    Singing is believing.

    @chrono
    The truth must be known! Noblesse oblige.

    @zzero
    Singing in the car is the only socially acceptable time to sing embarrassing Japanese songs.

    Only 60%? Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were dedicated or something. My bad, yo.

    @signorRossi
    It’s not necessary for a song to have vocals to sing with it! Any melodic line will suffice, and will serve an identical purpose.

    @Jesus
    If you find tapping with your foot socially unacceptable, I recommend using your fingers. This is the way I find myself doing it the most often, and is partly superior because you can use one finger to emphasize the first beat of each measure while using the other fingers for the rest.

    I would have to argue that if a song you once enjoyed becomes crap after you listen to a less obvious aspect of it, you were never really meant to like that song in the first place. It’s like getting to know someone more deeply – if you don’t like the person after learning more about them, then the more informed opinion is the more valid.

    As for time signatures, it would be inadvisable to tap every song you listen to in 4/4. Every time has a distinct cadence that logically groups and emphasizes the beats.

    @Mushy
    You bring up an interesting point, but if “feeling” a song means sitting back and letting the music happen without thinking, I wouldn’t agree with that. I would argue that my points above would naturally lead to a more emotional connection.

    @Jen
    Keep try!
    http://www.homestarrunner.com/stinkogame/v7/stinkogame.html

  13. okasion says:

    Great article. I listened to Hare Hare and Irony and could hear the beats from “behind”, very cool.

    Could I ask for the source of the main image of the article?
    I want to make it my wallpaper :)

  14. Shinster says:

    Bass lines for life!

  15. Sorrow-kun says:

    Manly men whistle to their music!

  16. Aftershok says:

    @okasion
    Follow that first link near the very beginning of the article. That should take you to the artist’s pixiv account where the original is.

    And thanks!

    @Shin
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Yy0CCkQVpi8#t=86s

    @Sorrow-chan
    Wise advice: unless you’re actually really good, you are never as in key whistling as you think you are.

  17. Valence says:

    I like choice no.1. I often just tap my fingers along, or if I know some of the chords or drum beats, ‘play’ along with my fingers and whatever I happen to be holding. Makes songs more epic than they already are.

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