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Creative Listening

“Creative listening” is the art of changing a piece in real time, as you listen to it. The listener is thus elevated from a passive observer to an active co-creator, co-composer; an integral component in the music’s unfolding.

You can use creative listening to change every imaginable aspect of what you are listening to: pitch (melody, harmony, relative highness or lowness), time (rhythm, beat, groove, swing, tempo, duration), volume (level, compression, accents), timbre (sound, overtones, edge), space (stereo and surround panning), form (organisation of material into sections), expression, emotional impact, etc. The only limits to the transformational properties of creative listening are those of the listener’s imagination.

For example, a novice creative listener might be able to hear a groove then nudge it up a few beats per minute in his “mind’s ear,” compress it more tightly, sharpen the rim shots, or add a touch of reverb to the mix. All of these changes would occur in real time, during the act of listening. An intermediate creative listener might be able to take the same groove and, in addition to the above, change the drum sounds, add another layer or two to the beat, and a bit of delay to keep things moving. And an advanced creative listener might be able to try out different meters, different degrees of swing, interpolate fills, rolls, stutters and reverses – and more.

So what is creative listening good for?

As a listener, it can help you enter into an active relationship with a piece of music, to become a collaborator rather than just an observer. Is the piece too busy? Add breath to it. Is it poorly mixed? Balance the layers and add compression. Is it bass-heavy? Add a low cut and boost the treble for edge. Is it too slow? Speed it up. Too fast? Slow it down. If you don’t have the skills or time to become an accomplished producer, this is the next best thing.

As a composer, creative listening can help you hone your pieces and make them more compelling, more “right.” Try out different tempos as you’re listening to the piece. Which one works best for the material and desired emotional impact? Try out different patches and effects. Which sound best? Would a four-bar dropout sound good here? How about a short break there to liven things up? Listening creatively to a piece of music – yours or someone else’s – keeps composers on their toes, open to change, evolving.

As a performer, there are benefits too: Listen to the mix and hear yourself enter before you actually commit to a single note. Rehearse different takes before committing to one. Figure out what the piece needs from you, then go for it. Improvisers in particular can benefit from this approach. Try different solos, vamps and grooves before you launch into them. Develop the ability to hear alternatives to what you’re playing in real time, as you’re playing, and to shift back and forth among these alternatives, like a dimensional traveller jumping between parallel realities. Quantum improv – why not?

Posted on November 21, 2014 at 9:50 am by rachmiel · Permalink