Berkeley Connect Music students talk about what it means to truly listen to music

Music is part of our daily lives, but what does it truly mean to listen? Berkeley Connect Music students explored the concept of listening at a recent small-group discussion. I joined graduate mentor Rachana Vajjhala and her students as they discussed everything from music theory to Daft Punk.

As the hour began, Rachana encouraged students to reach out to her as they considered what courses to take next semester. Then they dived into the week’s discussion topic. In preparation for the upcoming “How I Listen” panel, she talked to students about the way that we listen in our daily lives. “I’m always surprised about what different people latch onto when they listen to the same piece,” Rachana noted. She asked her class, “How and when and where do you listen?”

“Well, there is a difference between hearing and listening,” one student said. “Hearing is when you’re not really paying attention to it and not doing justice to it.” He added that he believes it’s especially important to listen to music he dislikes, in order to pinpoint why. “I wouldn’t want to be negative without a good reason.”

Another student brought up the importance of listening while he is performing. “I have to be paying attention to the pianist’s part and the violinist’s part and know my own, as well.” Other students agreed. “In jazz, it’s so obvious when you are not listening to the others,” another student chimed in. Rachana noted that that was an important point. “So often, we think of listening as something passive.”

Rachana then passed out an article on listening for what’s there. In this piece, the author argues that the true answer to the age-old question, “What should I listen for?” is simply to listen for what is there. According to him, we listen instinctively “for what we want to hear…and project ourselves onto the piece,” instead of appreciating the composer’s intent.

One student disagreed. “I’m not sure how important understanding the composer is. I’m also an art major, and a lot of people have told me that once you put your art out there, it’s no longer yours.”

Another student, however, related the article to an experience he had with another Berkeley Connect participant. While fooling around with a marimba, he hit a set of particular notes he liked.  His friend immediately identified the notes as chords, although he was playing without chords in mind. He concluded, “I think sometimes we get caught up in theory and forget to notice the emotions behind it.”

At that point, the student’s friend interjected, saying  “I have to tell my side of the story now!”

“You can take the stand,” Rachana said jokingly. The friend then pointed out, “If I can discern the chords, I can recreate it and recreate the feeling if I like what I hear. I think both are important.”

The first student nodded in agreement, concluding, “We’ve reconciled.” A fruitful discussion!

Rachana then asked the students to actively listen to an unlikely song for a music discussion – Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” a smash dance pop hit of 2013. To begin, Rachana passed out the lyrics to the song and gave the students a minute to write what they remembered about the song. “Feel free to write down any of its sonic impressions on you,” she encouraged.

The students then listened to the song. “Write down what you are hearing, what is touching your ear most strongly,” said Rachana.

Students, however, said it was difficult to listen to it actively. “It’s just not a song meant to be intellectually analyzed,” one student said. “It’s what I would call occasional music, not intellectual.”

But Rachana challenged her. “Can we really divide occasional music and whatever is the opposite?” Students thought so! “There are pieces that straddle the line, though,” one student conceded. “But there is definitely a distinction.”

Another student admitted he had begun to listen to Daft Punk differently after encountering a fellow hiker who blasted Daft Punk’s latest album. “He told me it had deep philosophical meanings and that every Daft Punk album is essentially about how humans and robots are becoming more synonymous.” To him, “Get Lucky” was about the robot becoming ready to love. Rachana and the other students agreed that this interpretation was quite interesting.

The students then read another brief article – this time a review of the album that asked, “Does good music have to be good?”

Students were divided. For some, pop music is “a way to store memories” and thus, doesn’t have to be good to be meaningful. Others questioned what “good” meant. One student wondered whether it was good composition if a composer could make “bad music” to which you wanted to listen, as the review argued. Another student thought the review was right, adding that good composition takes into account external factors, like pop music’s role in popular dance and its use as a pocket for memories.

The meeting ended with a discussion about whether there is such a thing as “bad” and “good” music, and although the students left undecided, everyone was respectful and open-minded, even staying after the hour to finish their thoughts.

As Rachana and the students discussed, music is indeed a part of our everyday life, but even as we listen (or perhaps just hear!), we often don’t stop to think or talk about what it means to us – so it was refreshing to spend an hour doing just that.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant