Are You Listening?

I was watching a TV programme earlier on which had various guests discussing what they thought were the best rock albums released on vinyl.  One of the guests was Jeremy Clarkson and although I don’t agree with very much of what he says generally, he made a comment about music which got me thinking.

He was discussing how he used to listen to music when he bought a new album on vinyl. It was about putting the record on the turntable, putting headphones on and really listening to the music.  Focusing on it completely and without distraction so it really and truly gets under your skin.

He made a comparison to the ‘now’ generation of downloading and making Spotify playlists which a lot of folks seem to do for the distinct purpose of having background music for something. You know, a playlist to do the washing up by or some such.  Now, I do agree that for certain activities I will have background music on where I’m not actually focusing on it that much.  Music to ignore, that kind of thing.  However, I wouldn’t do this if I wanted to really listen and take in a particular album.

I always, and I mean always, have headphones in.  As soon as I leave my house in the morning and throughout my bus journey to work I listen to my iPod.  The same thing happens on my way home.  There are also times during my job that I will put headphones in and have some background music on when I am working on a technical project that I have to focus on. Having headphones in allows me to ignore the other people in the office, but I can concentrate on my job as I’m using it solely as a block to the distractions around me. Generally I’m not really taking in what I’m actually listening to, it’s just white noise.


I think the reason I found what Clarkson said so interesting is because I totally agree with him. A new album by an artist I like, or even a new artist I’m trying to get to know needs to be embraced in the correct way.  I need to listen to it multiple times and it needs to be something focused.  Often I’ll have a quick play through to gauge what the tracks sound like, but for a full listen, it’s either headphones in or alone with no distractions around me so I can engage.  I will also read the lyrics at the same time and try to understand the connection between the music and words.  It’s a personal thing and can often make me cry.  Which is why I think how we listen to music is incredibly important.

When I was trying to get under the skin of the album of covers The Taste of Mark Morriss by Mark Morriss, I listened to it one track at a time.  After each of Mark’s tracks, I played the original song so I could compare it.  It took a while, but by doing this as part of my overall listening of this album, I came to understand the subtle differences, the tweaks and the similarities he’d made and how his interpretation of the song fitted together. It was a totally worthwhile exercise which helped me experience the album fully.

The age of downloads and immediate listening means we can experience it pretty much when and where you want if you have the devices and access.  I am not a big fan of downloading to be honest and it’s a bit of a sore point with me.  If the option to buy a CD is there, then I’ll take it.  I would rather wait a few days to get it in the post than hear a compressed version of something that I’ve eagerly been waiting for.  I’ve mentioned this before online and got told by a musician that some artists now only make music for downloading so I should get with it.  I told him that if that’s the only option then I’ll reluctantly take it, but I’ll always go for the physical option if there is one.  It’s my preference.

The production of music is a big part of the listening experience and the MP3 compression doesn’t sit well with me.  It’s one of the reasons I am an avid vinyl purchaser.  I’ll often buy an album both on CD and vinyl so I can experience it as it’s meant to be heard.  The hiss of vinyl and the way in which you can hear the background noise and fuzz is an amazing thing.  CD’s aren’t quite the same, but if you listen fully you can often hear the background noise and the little things that the artists have included as part of the recording.  It’s also why the track selection and the way an album moves through is an important part in the production of a record, but I think that’s a conversation for another time.

The whole debate about downloading and physical purchasing is a big one and I’m not going to try and convince you that I’m right.  It’s personal preference and whatever suits you as a consumer and listener.  I will say though, that I find the legacy of music very interesting and would much prefer to be able to leave my physical record collection to my family rather than an online music library which they will never actually be able to own. Good old Apple huh.

So is the way we listen to music important?  Yes, I think it’s a massive part of your experience. From the intimate solitary listen on headphones, to the union of hearing a unique live version at a gig with the crowd around you to a festival with thousands of other people.  It’s all worthwhile and brings different things with it to different people.  I am very much a listener and like to hear the production of a record and understand the thinking behind it.

Which is why, perhaps just this once, I will agree with Clarkson.  Headphones in, attention to the sound and completely lose yourself to the music and not feel it, but really feel it.  It’s a very beautiful thing when you are listening and not just hearing.

john peel


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