Types of Listening: Three Approaches for Bass Players

Headphones photo by Juan Croatto

Photo by Juan Croatto

Q: How do you hear music, as in a critical method of hearing? How can your playing or musicality get better just by hearing a certain genre or style? Do you perhaps hear a piano comping and try to do the same if you are digging it?

A: The answer to this question could fill a book, for sure. It can also be approached from any number of angles or perspective.

Personally, I’m familiar with three types of listening.

1. Passive Listening

Passive listening means the music can just washes over you without it demanding your attention. This is the music you can think, write, sleep, talk and function in any other way without having to devote brain power to active listening.

Most of the time, this is music that has more of a mood and is often instrumental, or in another language.

2. Active Listening

Active listening demands your attention and can is often technical instrumental or vocal-driven music. This is music that will consume enough of your brain that you’ll likely find it difficult to do anything else while listening, outside of passive activities.

3. Active and Developmental Listening

This is music that both demands your attention and has something specific to show yourself. Don’t take that last statement the wrong way… aLL music has something to show you, but I’m referring to music that has something which you may be only superficially familiar with. Music outside of your realm.

I’m talking music that has more than just licks you’d like to learn or a cool progression. Instead, this music has something from a less familiar musical culture, or something you can’t feel immediately… something that you don’t have internalized. This is most often music from other cultures.

For me, I decided to force categories onto these types of listening (which is also something I had not done in that way before writing this column). That’s because I listen to music differently depending on what it is that I am listening to.

When you asked, “do you perhaps hear a piano comping and try to do the same if you are digging it?”, it occurred to me that this is indeed one way in which I listen to music. This would be “active” listening: music I can hear and feel well, and simply want to try and grab a rhythm or melodic pattern from. This is music that is most helpful when trying to develop ones musical vocabulary.

It’s crucial to a player’s development to copy licks, patterns, phrases and approaches to playing music. This develops vocabulary, and once you have a large enough bag of tricks (from others and your own), you will naturally begin to mold it all into a part of your original voice on the instrument.

When it comes to “active and developmental”, this is about internalizing less familiar feels, rhythms or tonalities. Examples may be Venezuelan 5/8 Merengue, many styles of African music, Afro-Cuban tumbaos, Reggae, any number of Latin music styles, traditional jazz, atonal, microtonal, free jazz, and so on. This is music that one must be able to feel properly before one has any real chance of playing it well.

Active and developmental listening is the kind of listening that is most crucial to any musician wanting to play different styles of music. Notice that I listed jazz! This is because I have come across countless students who have expressed an interest in studying and playing jazz, but even as we begin to work through the nuts and bolts of jazz harmony, they never actually listen to the style of music that they are trying to play. The result is that they never swing quite right, they don’t phrase things in a stylistically appropriate way, and it just feels wrong. Usually when someone asks why they can’t seem to make a style of music feel right, I’ll ask who they are listening to. Too often, the answer has nothing to do with that particular style of music.

Odd meters are much the same way. You have to first be able to hear and feel different rhythmic groupings before you will be able to play them. We don’t tend to think of our ears as much as our minds and hands when we think of development and musical evolution but I think that they are just as important.

If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it. That’s the truth. If you want to swing, you’ll have to listen to swing. If you want to play Salsa, you’ll have to listen to Salsa. While we may be able to fake it to a certain degree, it’ll never be quite right no matter how many books we’ve read on a certain style. It must be felt first to be truly understood.

For musicians in general, I encourage all three types of listening. I include passive listening because I also think it’s important to enjoy music from a purely aesthetic place and not always an intellectual place. Music is meant to be enjoyed, not just analyzed and dissected.

For developing players, I emphasize ‘active’ and ‘active and developmental’ listening. We need to expand our musical perspectives (both rhythmic and harmonic) as well as cop licks, grooves, rhythms and melodic ideas from other players to help with our overall vocabulary.

Lately, I’ve been trying to do more passive listening because I realized it’s been too long since I just let an album wash over me without focusing on the bassist or drummer. I think that’s a real shame so I’ve been trying to let myself zone out and just let the full sound of the band swim around in my head and it’s wonderful. I may not walk away with any new licks or ideas but I’ll be inspired and energized by music and that’s what it’s really about anyway, right?

How about you? How do you approach different types of listening? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. very excellent article.This word is a must read to all.So many important principles in this to apply to ones self development.Thank You Damian

  2. A very good article! one of the main reasons I started playing bass at the tender age of 48, was because all of the sudden was able to hear the bass line. A good example is listening to “Bye Bye Love” by The Cars. Many times I just rocked to the song, then all the sudden I heard Benjamin Orr’s bass line, then I was able to figure out if he was using fingers or a pick. Then, I focused on the timing, and on and on.

  3. Great response!, thanks Damian!!

  4. Thank you for answering!! I had forgoten that I asked :p! really learned a lot from reading this column. I tend to do pasive hearing even with music I dont quite enjoy and understand so that my ear gets comfortable with the sound and rhythms I’m hearing. it then tend to sip out a bit.

  5. You are the only guy on the internet who writes articles about bass playing I actually like. Objective, truthful, inspiring and most of all written with humility. Keep up the good work Damian.

  6. Another kind of listening that is invaluable is participatory listening. In other words, go where the music lives whether it’s a cafe, a club, a concert, a disco, a festival, a basement, whatever. Seeing and hearing and being in the audience or dancing with other people who love the music and for whom it may be an integral part of their culture is illuminating. I once played a wedding where by request we played mostly Motown where the bride was from an Irish family from New Hampshire and the groom was from Puerto Rico. Everyone had a great time dancing to the classic Motown hits, but after the “official” reception was over, one of the teenagers broke out an enormous boom box (it was the 80’s) and pumped out some deep latin grooves for the rest of the night. The best part for me (a 20 something from Connecticut) was seeing that from the youngest kid to the oldest grandmother they were all seriously getting down to the same wonderful music—all night! That just didn’t happen where I grew up. I would never have known that if I hadn’t been there to see it happen.

  7. I learned this trick to passive listening several years ago: Remember what it was like to be a fan, before you started playing. Try to approach the music with that sense of “naive” wonder and excitement you had before it became all about scales and licks.